When Jacob Banks sings, stars align. Doves take off in unison. Listening to his voice is like easing yourself into perfectly temperate bath water, like biting into a ripe, fleshy peach. It's like wrapping yourself in the fluffy towel of a $2000-a-night hotel, or getting a text back from a crush who is definitively out of your league. This all may sound facetious, but let me put it to you like this: Jacob Banks sings, you listen.
To know the Nigerian born, Birmingham-based singer is to recognize an original — an artist that shouldn't, and hopefully won't ever be, formulaically molded into another commercially-viable cookie-cutter designed for instant radio appeal. With the rich, soulful voice reminiscent of Motown's finest, quasi-symphonic melodies and lyrics can slice you to the quick in a matter of moments, each track is an utterly spiritual experience. Signed to Atlantic after running the open mic circuit, the 26 year-old eventually ended up at Interscope, who, he says, were "signing up" for him as he was. Now, embarking on a North American tour off the back of his acclaimed EP The Boy Who Cried Freedom (stay tuned for a full-length project at the top of 2018), many are beginning to see Jacob Banks the way he deserves — a trend which will hopefully continue. Even with his glinting gold tooth, trademark wool beanie and strong stature, Jacob Banks is not a brand. He is better than that. Jacob Banks needs to be Jacob Banks, whatever that means.
Your music seems almost informed by gospel, are you religious? Did that play into the development your sound at all?
I believe there's somebody, somewhere looking out for me. It's the only thing that makes sense.
But don't identify as any one faith?
I grew up in a Christian home but I think we can identify with other things. I'm Christian but I think Islam is the same thing, Hindu is the same thing. These are just entities to do good and be kind to people. Some of us need to be reminded every Sunday and every Friday how to be, how to conduct ourselves. Religion is something for people to believe in. It's people going in for servicing, like when you take your car in for servicing. People need to know and be reminded.
It's fascinating that you've put yourself forth in as a soul singer in 2017, when it's a sound that, for the most part, is largely considered outdated. What was your approach in keeping your sound modern and keeping it fresh?
For one I don't give a shit.
About mainstream appeal?
Yes. Secondly, it's just a reflection of the times. That's my goal, I don't want to compete with an Al Green or Sam Cook. Plus, they reflected their time. We look at them as old school, but at some point them motherfuckers was current. They reflected their time, and I feel like I should do the same. I shouldn't try to replicate what someone has done for their time. I can take some ideas and innovate it, but I shouldn't replicate them.
It's kind of like the old adage 'money is a bi-product of doing what you love' — your fans follow you because you're passionate, but also because you refuse to pander to them. You don't need to be watered down to be palatable.
I think we constantly underestimate the listener. We dumb it down. The artists that we love that stand the test of time are all unique. There were no artists that have lived more than two years by copying someone else. Lil Yachty is the first of his kind. Even he is not a gimmick. You might not like what he does, but he's stars because he's unique. Even The Chainsmokers are unique. They come up with a different approach.
People need to understand that what becomes the norm at some point wasn't the norm. At some point, some shit was the freshest shit ever heard. Regardless of what happens, you have to tip your hat to those people because they came up with a different approach. All the big people have to come up with a different look, they can't repeat what the others are doing.
Even Drake, even Kanye.
Even when we look at them now we think, "Oh that fucking guy," at some point they were the freshest shit on the planet.
Was that ever an inner battle for you? Thinking, "Is this going to take off?" Because it is your livelihood. Your success and you continuing to do what you love is based on whether people will pick up on your sound.
I've never come into music to make money. I always find a way to make money outside of music, so I'm scoring a film right now for ESPN. I make my money from that. I feed my family from that. It's just purely to push the needle.
But now you are becoming the rock star and you are becoming the face. How's that been?
It's harder to stick to your guns — but they're all I got. Everyday I'm battling with somebody, shit is dumb. I have to stand my ground. For me I always have to create songs that I haven't heard before. If I make something that I heard before I just don't want to do it.
There's also something seductive about 'yes men.' Having people say, "You're a fucking dream." How do you keep your head straight, how do you stay humble as you grow?
It's a personal battle for me because I'm a pleaser. Sometimes I have to step away but when I get home I'm like, "Man fuck that guy." Then I'll call back like actually I'm taking that back. So now I don't make any decisions when people are around because I feel like they genuinely believe this is a good song. It's not coming from a place of malice.
How do you know that they're genuine?
You won't get far into my life without being genuine. For you to get this close that would mean you're a great human being. In a sense that I trust the people around me. Good people attract good people. The people I work with are great human beings.
I'm curious about your transition from being independent and releasing EP's on your own, on the open mic circuit, to signing to a label and dealing with these different opinions. What's changed? How have you changed? How has the music changed?
For me it's like I want to look forward, I want to look forward, don't look back. People are always saying, "You should rework this song from the 60's," and I'm just like forward, forward.
Has there been a moment you've come to where you're like, "Fuck I think I need to move into a different direction? I need to diversify?"
No. I need this.
This is just my expression, this is my therapy. Every time when I write a song when I talk about something, once I get it out on a record. I'm done with that problem. That's genuinely how I release. Once I put out a record it's no longer mine, it belongs to the people.
Are you ever intimidated by one of your songs when it comes to performing it live? Do you ever fear the emotion it might dredge up for you?
That's interesting. I have this song off my first EP called "Dear Simone." A lot of people love that song. I wrote that song about a friend of mine who passed, I was mad depressed at the time and I caught all these feelings. I put all of these emotions together when I thought of Simone. Everyone thinks it's about a chick, but it's not. I performed the song at the start but now I just never do it. Music is a beautiful thing but it's also a constant reminder. Every time you perform these songs straight back it's still a reminder. It's a constant open wound.
It's exactly what you said, it's almost like the crowd owns you and in that sense, it must be hard to contain your sense of self. Do you find yourself holding back often? In this setting or in your music. Do you find yourself censoring yourself or saying that's too much?
I don't think I have the capacity to do that. For me it's the music, generally when I sing this I'm speaking my mind heavy. I spent years of being in a situation where I couldn't say how I wanted to feel. Now I can say this is how I feel. As a musician my job is to be honest and I need this and I think we're in the job of keeping people company and the company you keep should be honest. When people listen to my songs I want them to feel like they have a friend in me. I didn't start making music to impress my friends. My logic is that If you listen to my music there's a good chance we can be friends outside of this. I want to speak to my friends because you are my friend.
So with village in particular, how is all of this manifested on that record? How did that all come to be? How did you formulate that plan?
I think I just looked around. I want people to understand that we worked hard for this. Everybody worked hard for this. I need to know that we tried our best to get the charts. They all celebrate two sides of me. The fact that I'm Nigerian and grew up in the UK. Just all the lessons I've learned across different chapters. A lot of new artists we fall as slaves to the album system. You can be as sick as you want, but you drop an album and it doesn't do as well as someone else's who is more established it just means you're not shit. The thing is we're not all getting the same love. I'm not getting the same amount of press as those artists, so why would you judge or compare me to them. I'm knocking on ten doors for people to buy my CD and eight of them will probably buy it. I don't need validation like that. What we do is wonderful but we're not going to cure cancer. At the end of the day my cats love me and my mom loves me. I don't need validation like that. This is a hobby.
In some sense then you must kind of feel like you really can't fail. That must be liberating.
Yeah because this doesn't define me. I only fail if I did something I didn't want to do and it bombed.
If you were pushed into something.
Yeah. That's when I'd fail.
I'm curious about you're Kanye fandom. What is it about him to you?
With Kanye West you can't relate to him as an average person. I relate to him from a creative standpoint. Imagine being the sickest producer but people are telling you that you can't rap? Then you rap and become the sickest rapper. Then they tell you that you can't direct your music videos. You direct your own music videos. Then he's says he wants to do fashion but they tell him he can't do fashion. So he does fashion and he bodies it. I think for me why I relate to Kanye is because he celebrates every side of music. People constantly tell him what he can or cannot do and I relate to that.
When I told people at first that I wanted to do music everyone was looking at me like umm, ok. Some of my people from school still hit me up and ask me "How's your little music thing going," and I'm like music thing? So that's why I can relate to him even though sometimes his subject matter might not be the best, he's still a creator. He's the first non-gangster rapper to make it. He was a professional young rapper with a pink polo. He uses different elements of music and that's similar to what I'm trying to do.
That reminds me of Lil Uzi Vert's Hot 97 freestyle. Ebro puts on this classic 90's beat…
And he dissed it right?
Yeah he refused to do it. So Ebro asked him what his favorite song was and Lil Uzi said "Robocop." And then Ebro's like he's going to put on the Robocop beat. The whole time Uzi is just sitting there like that's not what I do. Is that something that you have come up against as well? Like, what you're trying to do is just not how things are done?
That's a hard one for me because I just had a meeting. Every meeting that I do people want me to literally sit behind a guitar and sing for them but I'm not doing that. The reason why I'm not doing that is because you're asking me to put myself in a box to please other people. If you want to see a show buy a fucking stage, put it in your office, get some speakers, and I'll give you a whole show. But because you have a voice and you can sing, they want you to sing like your around a campfire. It's the same thing with Lil Uzi Vert.
How do you look at those people and say no?
I just say no.
But we're people pleasers, how do they react to that? How did you even learn to say no?
It's still there. I explain myself and I tell them why. I don't just say no. I tell them the reasons why because at the end of the day they try to fit you into a certain brand. I want them to experience the whole spectrum. Not just the one side that fits your argument. Because then I would be doing that for everybody. I would be trying to fit that brand for them and I need to only fit me.
Being in this world and meeting your heroes or idols, you realize how much manipulation has gone into this person, this human who is in front of you, to become their persona.
I just always have to stand alone. There's been a lot of times where I had to stand alone. Sometimes everyone constantly tells me, "You should do this, you should do that," and sometimes I go with it but only if I can see sense in it. You're not going to see the side of me that benefits your brand.
Did you find that when you were picked up to begin with? Were they already trying to brand you before they signed you?
At first I was signed to Atlantic about two years ago. They only wanted to focus on one side of me which was the voice. What always happens is that you can fall in love with a voice but they won't see anything else. They don't see the artist. The voice can sound good as far as the record is concerned, but it doesn't translate into what that artist is trying to present to people. Signing with Interscope, most of the songs already existed, most of the songs were there. They came on board and they were signing up for an artist. They took me as I am so I didn't have to sell myself or prove myself this time around. It's still a bunch of great ideas but it all comes from a wonderful place.
Has there been a moment where you've said "I'm kind of really making it right now," or is there a point where you feel that if you move into this lane and succeeded it, you know that's you?
I had that moment a year ago. I was able to pay my mom's mortgage. I remember this story because this is always how I've defined success in my head, I use to go to the store with my mom and I wanted frosties, you know the frosted corn flakes with Tony the Tiger? I wanted those ones but my mom would always say no let's get the value sized ones because the Tony the Tiger Frosties were too expensive. She would tell me that the value ones were the same as the ones that I wanted, the only difference was that they didn't have Tony the Tiger on them. But now I can afford Tony the Tiger and my house is exclusively Tony the Tiger. I don't fuck with nothing but Tony. I also can help my family. But as it stands right now I've been able to do what I want and that's such a privilege.
I've read a lot about other interviews you've done and you're always asked about your social commentary and an advocating for social justice.
If you listen to my music there's no bigotry, racism, or sexism. If that's what you believe in then delete all my shit. Walk in silence and do you but don't associate yourself with me because I don't associate myself with you. The reason I do it is because it's import to denounce people that speak on behalf of us. You go into these places as a white supremacist and say that this is the way all white people think. If I was white I say, "What the fuck, no we don't." So you have to denounce these people. People who act out of hatred and say they're doing it out of love. The lovers should be like no motherfucker, that's you. It's so important to do that because it's for the other people. I have a platform where you can see me more than you can see the average person. I want you to know that there is no hatred for you. We have your back. I'm speaking on behalf of my people. We are here for you.
In London did you grow up with any kind of that stigma?
London is utopia, London is not real. London's welcoming and It's so inclusive. It's a wonderful place.
Do you like doing interviews since you're getting to address this kind of stuff?
It all just comes out. I'm just a very passionate person. I'm indifferent to them, but then again I'm talking to you right now and I'm not thinking that this is an interview. That's what it is for me. I just feel like I'm having a conversation with you. But sometimes you have to be careful because it's genuine for me. I don't want to try to please people. It doesn't really go in your favor if you were me. When it's all said and done I don't care about all the superficial stuff. If times were simpler I wouldn't be pushing the narrative.
Have you had any type of backlash? Has anyone been like, "Fuck you Jacob Banks?"
I'm not sure but on YouTube it's probably really popping. It's not fantasy and I'm not making this shit up. I'm telling you what's happening. Artists from the times when music was made was meant to tell stories from towns to towns. It's always been a juxtaposition. Just tell the story. If times were cool and we were all sitting back drinking milk and honey, then I would be singing about milk and honey. But we ain't.
But you also could just talk about lost love, doing drugs, and partying. There's always milk and honey.
I've never tasted alcohol in my life, never tried drugs.
It just never happened. I've just chosen not to do certain things. I talk about lost love and other things. The two most prominent things in my life is love and oppression. I'm either being loved or I'm being oppressed. I don't have anything else. This is my reality. Something happened to me the other day I was working with a transgender producer in the studio, sweetheart, and in that session Trump passed that military law. I've never felt so hopeless in my entire existence. She's close to me and I can't do shit to make her feel comfortable. She left the session. For some reason I feel directly responsible because I was there when that news hit her. This is why I'm going to speak about this because these are affecting real people. That is the closest I'd ever been to someone who's transgender and to see how it affected somebody else you have to denounce his laws.
There's a food chain almost. There's the lowest and there's the highest. If you asked a white woman today, "If you can take on all the problems and difficulties of being black would you?" Some people are oppressed more than others but I don't think the answer is in segregating the problems. I think the answer is in helping other people.
What do you say to that culture being popularized? For example, white women enhancing their lips, adopting elements of Black culture because it's perceived beautiful, while remaining removed the same culture's oppression.
What it is with that is it's not just the taking of. It's more like black person with normal dreads who is trying to get a job might be told no, but a white person with dreads ain't getting a job. That's what the problem is. The difference is when we do it, it's scrutiny. When someone else does it, it's the new thing. I read in a publication someone saying that dew rags were the new thing and I couldn't believe it. I was like please don't do this. I was looking through it and there was a white girl wearing a dew rag. I was saying, "Please, don't do this." It's not the people as much, it's the system that's vindicating them. If Black people, Spanish people, or any other race of people get the same treatment then it would be fine. Back to the lips topic, it's a problem when you're praising other girls but the originators aren't being credited. If you just recognized the one then everybody could get it, but they're only praising one and denouncing the other.
Since you don't drink or smoke, do you have other vices?
I play video games to destress, it's nothing more than something for me to do when I'm by myself. I love cartoons. I love cereal and I love spending time with my loved ones. That's kind of me.
You never experienced peer pressure?
I'm the kind of person where if everybody wants to do it, I would say no just to piss people off.
You never wanted to be cool?
No. I never wanted to be the cool kid. Fuck the cool kids. When everybody was trying to be cool in school, I was like fuck you guys. Just to prove my point, it doesn't matter what it is — as long as it's different.
Photo by Edward Cooke.