On an aggressively hot August day in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, 26-year-old Jacob Banks emerges cool as a fan. Taking up residency at Hotel Rivington, the singer-songwriter dons a burgundy button-down that appears to have been thrifted, along with sweatpants and pair of black and white Nikes. Per usual, Banks offers up his trademark introduction: “Hi, I’m Jacob Banks and I sing songs.”
When he’s feeling a little wild, he’ll throw an adverb into the mix.
“I’m Jacob Banks and I predominantly sing songs,” he says with a mischievous smile, showing off his one gold tooth.
It’s not that Banks is short on vocabulary, it’s just that the Nigerian-born, Birmingham, UK-raised artist would much rather keep things simple, a practice he’s brought to his lyrics for all three of his EPs The Monologue, The Paradox and, most recently, The Boy Who Cried Freedom. Banks learned this lesson giggin’ around London at open mics. Quickly Banks, the oldest of four, realized open mics were open season for anyone wanting to make fun of you, and an artist only has the first few bars of a song to capture someone’s attention.
“People can’t wait to find out that you’re s**t. They can’t wait for it. They’re nudging their friends like, ‘Look at this guy.’ So you just learn how to earn people’s attention,” Banks reminisces. “What’s simple and what’s the truth, they just know. It’s not the phonetics or the acrobatics of your voice that people care about. I think people are looking for a little bit of them in you every time. I found the simpler it was it just worked, even if your voice was shaky or whatever.”
Stage fright wasn’t something Banks had to overcome, nor is shaky an accurate word to describe the harmonious, yet soothing growl of his voice. Standing at 6’4, Banks sings with the ferocity of a man tired of being tired; like you owe him money and he’s done asking kindly. Banks’ voice is the church pew and the choir robe. It’s the pastor’s thunderous reading of John 3:16. If Otis Redding wore Converses and a skully, he’d be Mr. Jacob Banks.
It took Banks taking the scenic route to jumpstart his career, and by scenic route, he means earning a degree in civil engineering. As Banks recalls, he did so to please his agriculture father and nurse mother, but music was always hovering nearby. One day, Banks says he randomly bought a red guitar named Mrs. Robinson, simply because it looked good. About two weeks later, the flat he shared with friends had been robbed and the one possession the thieves didn’t take was his red guitar. With nothing else to do in a house that had just been ransacked, Banks decided to put Mrs. Robinson to good use.
“It was like, ‘Well this guitar’s here, we have Internet, we should learn to play,” he says nonchalantly.
Banks wrote poetry in his downtime and after taking guitar lessons via YouTube, it only made sense he venture into songwriting.
“I think the natural progression for me was to try and express myself and at that point, I had heard a John Mayer record from the album Continuum and I wanted to have the same avenue to express myself in that way. So, I started writing and I wrote a song called, ‘Let Me Love You’.”
As a devout fan of the Irish boy band Westlife, Banks says he “stole” some chords from one of their songs and began humming a melody that came to him to create the guitar ballad.
“For me, it was purely for expression. Going through what I was going through at the time, studying what I didn’t want to study to impress family, I think I lacked self-love. Looking back at it, I guess these things in the moment you miss what your mind is trying to tell you, when you look at it again it’s so obvious what the song was about. The song was about self-love.”
Banks recorded “Let Me Love You” on his friend’s iPhone 4, who then entered it into the ADIDAS Mobo Unsung Regional competition. About six months passed without any word from officials and then in the summer of 2013, Banks got the call. He’s all cool and collected about it now, but says when he learned he won a nationwide competition for the very first song he wrote he was beside himself, to say the least.
“I sounded like such a wimp,” Banks says smiling. “I was screaming on the phone like, ‘No! No!’ You have to understand we entered the competition and in that time in between, I’d fallen head-over-heels for music. I was so besotted with it to be able to express myself like that. I had never experienced anything quite like it. So hearing the first thing I ever did, actually the first song I ever wrote, won that competition was a lot.”
As his prize, Banks worked with a UK artist and became the first unsigned singer to appear on BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. Banks, 22 at the time, also later made his informal musical debut with the release of The Monologue.
Banks knew music was his path but it was a matter of getting his mom and dad to agree that was the challenge. With traditional Nigerian parents, Banks understood why the idea of civil engineering seemed like a more secure option than singing, so like most 20-somethings unsure of how to get their parents on board with their dreams, Banks bent the truth a bit.
“If my mom ever reads this she’s going to f**king kill me. I told my mom I was moving to London for a placement in a civil engineering company. But, I wasn’t,” he laughs.
VIBE: So you lied to your mom?
“I didn’t say that.”
After graduating college in 2014, Banks moved to London to perform around the city and, as he puts it, “to make a name for myself and to see if I belonged here.” On stage, Banks would either do a rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” or Floetry’s “Say Yes” and a few self-described “mediocre” songs he wrote. To survive, he either worked retail or pocketed a pound or two from the shows he booked. Banks gave himself a year and claimed if nothing came from his musical efforts he’d simply find a new occupation. At the end of 2014, Banks’ hard work paid off when he signed with Atlantic Records, but things didn’t go as smoothly as he hoped.
“They just saw me as a 6-foot-4 black pop star and I said, ‘Good luck with that.’ That’s just not going to work,” he says matter-of-factly.
VIBE: And you’re a 6-foot-4 black, what?
Atlantic Records saw Banks in one light, yet despite his talent Banks is still a black man who admittedly has endured more racism stateside than he has touring the world. While in California, Banks recalls having been called the n-word from the most unlikely of places.
“It was intriguing to me. I see this homeless dude on a bench, I stay in Santa Monica, and I see him on the same bench every day. Even as low as life is to you, you still see yourself higher than a black person. That’s mad weird to me,” Banks says. “So this is what happened. I was walking and he was arguing with this white homeless lady. I was walking past them and in that moment he looked at me and pointed at me and said, ‘Not even that n****r over there can help you.’ I was like ‘What the?’ ”
According to Banks, a confrontation ensued and a plethora of insults were slung. The homeless man eventually apologized, but for Banks, defending himself as well as his music is second nature.
After a few meetings with Atlantic Records, it was clear the partnership wasn’t going to work and Banks asked if he could be let out of his contract. Feeling as if he had something to prove, Banks (who also parted ways with his management at the time) moved to a small village outside of London to create his follow-up EP The Paradox, which spawned his single “Monster.”
“That was what ‘Monster’ was for me. It was like you forced me out my chair. I didn’t want to have to have these conversations. This is you. I was cool on my side of the fence. You pissed me off,” Banks describes of what inspired the tribal-infused song. “Like, you’ve awakened a beast. I’d rather be sleeping. I’d rather be chillin,’ eating jerk chicken, living life lavishly and look what you’ve done. That was what ‘Monster’ was about, just me and that relationship. Asking for the basic of things became a challenge.”
Success would belong to Mr. Banks when “Monster” was used as the promotion for Season Four of the Starz scripted drama Power, as well as “Unknown” at the end of Season Three. The heartbreaking piano ballad depicts a lover giving his partner one final chance to say the things they never said out of love, fear of simply keeping the peace.
If you listen to Banks’ music you’ll get the feeling of – as the elderly say – “he’s been here before.” Musically his soul is old, but Banks is still 26—or a British 26, if that makes sense. He uses words like “exquisite” to describe his alleged globally renowned parallel parking skills and “lavish” to denote how fancy he is now that he’s purchased a Dyson Hoover vacuum for his birthday. As a Nigerian, he must say his Jollof rice is a notch above the rest, but the verdict is still out on that according to Banks himself. In his photos, Banks looks serious and philosophical, as if he responds to the most basic questions in Haiku. But in person, Banks is thoughtful, clever, welcoming and funny.
He’s a big Disney and Cartoon Network fan and loves watching Steve Carell and his awkward gang on The Office. He doesn’t drink or smoke and calls himself a grandpa for not desiring the club. When he’s not talking to his siblings or in the studio, he’s coolin’ with his two cats, Prince Lord Zuko, first of his name and Mustafa Biscuits, a love that’s apparently stronger than the very real allergies he has to them.
“Like really, what’s an allergy?” Banks says with a laugh.
After the release of The Paradox it didn’t take long for Banks to find a new label home at Interscope Records, where he created his latest EP The Boy Who Cried Freedom, led by the politically-charged video he directed for “Chainsmoking.”
Looking back on it, it took Banks about four years from winning the competition to now gearing up for his debut album, The Village. Being released in three chapters beginning in October, Banks isn’t interested in playing the traditional album release game, which he deems unfair to new artists. He wants his fans – whom he refers to as friends or “My Gs” – to hear it in their own timeframe.
“These songs mean a lot to me and I want people to be able to ingest them at their own time and their own pace because I believe as a new artist, if you’re asking someone to give you an hour and a half of their day, you’re asking a lot.” Banks explains. “I just want to change the way the system is. It doesn’t work for artists of our generation because we always fall short of whatever standards somebody else has set. So yeah, I just want to run my own race.”
The first chapter of his full-length record will have six tracks and be reflective of his African roots. The second will encompass British culture, which will have a heavy Caribbean dosage, and the third will be a mix of the two. “Unknown,” the first single from the album, which originally appeared on The Paradox, received a facelift of sorts when Banks re-recorded it at the top of the year. He says he’s a better artist now then when he initially made the song, but maintains it didn’t receive the marketing effort it deserved.
“When ‘Unknown’ came out, I knew it was an amazing song and it connected with a lot of people but there was no real push. It didn’t really get a chance to show itself, but it really connected with the people who heard it. When it went on Power it charted in the U.S., it charted in the U.K. and that’s off a TV show. There was never any real push. I just wanted people to have a chance to hear it and I’m a better artist now than I was then and I’d feel uncomfortable putting it out again as it was.”
His publicist gives us the cue it’s time to wrap up. We chat for a bit about his tattoos (he has three) and the extents to which he’ll travel for jerk chicken. But when it’s all said and done, like his lyrics, Banks is just a simple man.
“I’m somebody’s son, somebody’s brother and somebody who’s trying to figure it out,” he says.
Same, Mr. Banks. Same.