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Jharrel Jerome isn’t hiding behind self-doubt anymore. It might be hard to believe the 26-year-old – the youngest to ever win an Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a limited series or movie – is anything less than confident, given the praise he’s earned for his buzzy onscreen performances, which include the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” and critically acclaimed “When They See Us” miniseries. But the Bronx native has been admittedly hesitant to introduce his other talent: rapping. But now, he tells POPSUGAR, “I’m ready to move with confidence.”

“I think it was definitely me telling myself as loud as I can that I really do enjoy this and that I want this at a young, young age.”

Up until 2020, Jerome largely kept his rap ambitions under wraps, though he’s been quietly sharing music on SoundCloud since 2016. The “I’m a Virgo” star built his Hollywood reputation with compelling TV and movie roles, but his music was always there waiting in the wings. “It really came naturally,” the actor-rapper shares of falling in love with rap. “I grew up with young parents who were very into ’80s, ’90s hip-hop; 4, 5 years old, that’s pretty much when I would hear my mom cleaning in the living room, bumping Big Pun and Lauryn Hill.”

An introduction to legendary hip-hop storyteller Slick Rick, in particular, had Jerome utterly infatuated with rap. Then came his love for poetry, rhyming, and freestyling. By the time he was around 16 years old, Jerome was penning his own songs about everything from family and his hometown to whatever could impress a girl. The then-teenager even wrote a Lil Wayne diss track because “I thought it was cool.” Jerome jokes, “I probably shouldn’t even say this, but I’m prepared to face the consequences.” Don’t worry, Wayne, he’s still a “huge fan.”

After establishing his pen game, Jerome worked up enough nerve to make a mixtape and sell it to his classmates at LaGuardia High School in New York City. “I had my mom and my sister for eight hours printing CDs and packaging them,” he recalls. “SoundCloud existed, but I refused to put my music on [there at first]. I wanted to do it the old-school way . . . Honestly, sometimes I think back on it, and I’m like, ‘I must’ve been so damn confident.'”

“It was a grind,” he adds. “I think it was definitely me telling myself as loud as I can that I really do enjoy this and that I want this at a young, young age.”

Jerome’s hustle mentality catapulted him to acting fame as a young teen, but still, he never lost sight of his music – not even when he got the call for his first big movie, “Moonlight.” Of juggling the two talents, he says, “I’ve always been able to make sure nothing takes precedence over the other. To whoever knows me as a supporter, they have no idea I do music, so it’s assumed that I have only been on sets and working project to project. But every single set I’ve been on, regardless of what city it’s had me live in – Miami, South Carolina, Atlanta, Arizona, Boston – I made music throughout.”

“I’m OK with how much time it took, because I really feel like I’m at a point with my music where I have a solid foundation.”

It wasn’t until recently, though, that Jerome buckled down with his music. It started with his first single, “For Real,” released in late 2020, one year after his Emmy win. He put it out under his real name after toying with the idea of a stage moniker. “I’ve had different stage names growing up that I liked,” Jerome says. “I’m very inspired by Donald Glover, by what he’s done as Gambino, as Glover, and as an artist as a whole. But for me, I love the idea of making sure that both worlds are so seamless and blended together.”

Which is what Jerome has attempted to do with every music release in the past three years. He had more plans for 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic “put a wrench in that plan.” Still, he says, “I’m OK with how much time it took, because I really feel like I’m at a point with my music where I have a solid foundation.”

Jerome didn’t always feel that way, however. He admits, “I doubted myself for so long,” but “being in panic mode” pushed him to take a risk. He explains, “When you’re in panic mode, you have two choices: you can either cave in and stop what you’re doing or try your hardest to figure out what you can do to get yourself out of [that]. For me, I was in panic mode when I was working on a project last year and I realized that I had maybe 45 songs on my phone that I really like . . . I was so overwhelmed, because I was like, ‘I just want to put out everything already. I want to just let it all out.'”

He continues, “For a long time, I kept it so close to me . . . I was always a bit doubtful about letting the music out, but I had this moment where I was like, ‘I’m done with that . . . I’m ready to not feel like I have any limits to what I do.'”

The brave move set the stage for Jerome’s 2023 debut project, “Someone I’m Not” – a 16-track offering he narrowed down with help from his friends, breaking them down into four EPs: “Rap Pack,” “Trip Pack,” “Love Pack,” and “Trap Pack,” the latter still on the way. The budding rapper says the project’s title describes how he’s been feeling the past few years. “It’s a play on what I do as an actor,” he explains. “I turn into someone I’m not and I transform, but [the title] mirrors what I feel in my real life ever since [it] changed. I’m dealing with newfound insecurities – ‘Who can I trust and who’s really there for me? Who sees me for who I am? Or does everybody see me for someone I’m not?'”

“I want it to become a bit of a balancing act . . .”

Jerome’s EPs sort a lot of these feelings, though he shares none were written or recorded this year: “These are all songs I wrote [between] 2019 and 2022.” Within the last three years, the rapper says, there’s been “different energy and spaces and mindsets,” which prompted the four core themes he chose. Jerome explains, “‘Rap Pack’ is me barring up over instrumentals and looking for the respect, like, I clearly can do it and I can rap. Then ‘Trip Pack,’ that’s more . . . out the box. It sounds cool, but it’s different. ‘Love Pack’ is more romantic and leans into the lover-boy, hopeless-romantic Libra side of me. And then ‘Trap Pack’ is just me taking myself less serious and having fun over beats that knock a little harder.”

Altogether, the EPs show Jerome has “a lot of range” and “can do different things on the mic.” More importantly, he says, “It shows that I’m here to stay.”

With his first project out of the way, Jerome is eager to share the new music he’s been working on this year. But more than that, he’s ready to make rapping a second career alongside acting. No, that doesn’t mean he’ll eventually abandon one for the other. No matter what role or project he pursues in the future, the actor-rapper hopes his dual talents keep him on his toes. “I want it to start to get tricky,” he says. “I want it to become a bit of a balancing act and see how much I can handle that pressure of constantly shooting and then constantly making music that the world can receive.”

“I’m trying to blaze every trail, every path, every route.”

With his name already solidified in Hollywood, Jerome is going all in with his music. “I want to be the next voice in hip-hop,” he declares. “I want to be someone that keeps the torch going and keeps the flame hot. There’s a few artists out right now who I really respect and love who are constantly putting out music that ensures the torch is hot and stays moving, so I want to help them out with that and grab that.”

He continues: “This is bigger than me. It’s not me trying to put out some records, get hot, be on the billboards, and be the next this or that. For me, it’s actually having a voice in a craft and an art form that taught me . . . So I just want to be here to stay, and I want to put out music that feels raw, authentic, and I hope that people can lean on me to do that. People who are like me, from where I’m from, can get in the studio and start to really think about what it means to keep hip-hop alive.”

Jerome is just as enthusiastic about his acting future, too. When asked what kind of trail he wants to blaze, he says, “Every trail. I’m trying to blaze every trail, every path, every route.” He adds, “Really having no limits and showing that you can be from a close-knit family, a strict household in the middle of a dangerous neighborhood in the Bronx, or wherever you’re from, and still close your eyes, think about the passion you have, follow it so intensely, and see what it gives you back. Just believing in yourself and believing that you can do more than one thing. I mean, everything, all of that.”