Celine Teo-Blockey

British singer Jacob Banks had a stunning year in 2019 after the release of his much-anticipated 2018 debut Village. Despite touring relentlessly and appearing at festivals all over the globe, he remains level-headed and is nothing but grateful for every opportunity. Banks shows no sign of slowing down, kicking off 2020 with a tour of Ukraine and Russia and more new music is expected.

We caught up with Banks backstage at last year’s Ohana Festival, to talk about the platform he now has as a result of his success. And how he negotiates its pitfalls by looking to artists like Rihanna who’ve got it right and Kanye West who on many occasions has put his foot in it. He also discusses how he navigates between his Nigerian roots and Western culture to find a middle ground that informs his songwriting, how he strives to lead his life and the role he wants to play for others like him. 

Ohana Fest is Eddie Vedder’s festival and given his left-leaning political beliefs this bill is filled with artists that have a certain political bent, how do you feel to be here representing?

I am probably a level below everyone. I feel deserving, my friends and I, to be at the table, that pat on the back by people you look up to. So that’s the level that I’m at—I’m just happy to be here, I’m happy for the free food. And I get to do what I love with my best friends and that’s pretty cool

The audience when you were onstage earlier seemed to really react to “Chainsmoking,” one of the hit singles of your debut Village – which plays with the idea that it takes a village to raise a child or in your case a talent like yourself. Is it always the same songs that pop when you play live?  

I think people gravitate to so many different things. All the songs are based around the idea of village and each takes a different journey so it resonates with most people differently. I won’t say there’s a common song. I’d say everywhere I play different people yell out different songs which makes me feel happy, like everyone’s found a home in the album somewhere. I don’t think there’s just one song that jumps out. I feel privileged to tell all these different stories most nights.

“Kumbaya” seemed to also strike a chord today, you sing it with Bibi Bourelly in the album version. There’s that longing to be somewhere else—that you capture so well in the song.

I think in life, in general, we’re always torn for the most part. It’s everywhere, where all your eggs line up, we’re always choosing – what if? Or maybe? There’s always a flip side to everything. There’s a constant struggle to choose what feels right at any one time. Hindsight is 20/20. You might choose something today and look back another day and think, ‘ah, I should have chosen the other option.’ That’s just life ain’t it? It’s just push and pull and we’re trying to figure out what’s right every day.

What was the biggest culture clash you had when you moved from Nigeria to Birmingham at 13?

Oh the weather. (smiles) It was a lot colder than I anticipated. But also I felt at home because I had moved with a whole unit, my whole family, my godmother and her family. So there were two families that migrated at the same time so it didn’t feel hard. I wasn’t by myself. I think it was interesting to see the difference in the problems, what we considered to be a problem in the West and what we consider problems where we’re from. To draw a line and understand that there are different ways, different languages—there’s a different love language and people relate to things differently here. I had the privilege to pick the best out of both: the best of the West and Nigeria, and use it as my foundation of how to be a decent human being.

Could you give us an example?

In Nigeria, people are very family oriented. You have a duty to your family: I believe that I’m on this earth to look after my family and all my loved ones don’t lack for anything—and I take that with me everywhere. But at the same time in the West it teaches you to aim for the stars. When you’re so dutiful to your family. You make safer bets because you don’t want to compromise anything: Like this is safe, this job is secure.  This will do what it needs to do. What I learnt from the West is to be that for my family, to serve my family well, I have to serve myself well because I want to represent the best version of myself to my family. So it’s been good to take both those lessons and be able to maneuver between the two worlds.

Is that why you went to University to be a civil engineer?

Yes, I was trying to tick a couple of boxes. (smiles) Keep mom happy you know.

To have that fall back career?

Which never really works.

No? When you started pursuing music did she have her reservations?

There’s always reservations. My mom is old school. She grew up in a town where education guarantees success. As we know, that’s not the case: Everyone has a degree now and it doesn’t have the same value it once held. She’s only speaking from her reality and it took me a while to understand. There’s so many ways to be wholesome and be part of your family. But it took a shift because my reality is very different to hers.

You have a different take on Donald Trump, you see him as sort of a necessary evil.

Yes, I think he’s the worst part in all of us. He’s the embodiment of it all, he’s an embodiment of our fear… and it’s good to see what not to be. As well as it makes you appreciate all those who came before him. So many things have now come to light; we would never have had the women’s march, we would never have been so in touch with issues like climate change because of him, and the issues happening in the borders with families being detained. He’s brought all this attention to these issues. Because I feel for the most part, so many people think racism doesn’t exist, or, “What do you mean climate change?” It was never our reality but he has forced everyone to look in the mirror and talk about these issues. So I am grateful for him. It’s a shame that this is what it took, I wished we had just got there on our own but sometimes you just need that little punch in the back to get to where you need to be.

You have spoken out on social media about your misgivings with Kanye West and comments he has made, do you think someone like him could be back in your good graces?

I think he could start by apologizing because he let a lot of people down. But simultaneously he doesn’t need to: He’s just a human being. He’s a father. He doesn’t have to be put on the mantle for every human being. I’d always wish him well. It’s his opinion. But I don’t appreciate him speaking on behalf of a whole group of people. The thing about being so successful and I experience it on a smaller level, is that you fall out of touch with what it means to be a regular version of yourself. Kanye West has probably never had to introduce himself in the last 10 years, he probably has never had to be stopped by police because they probably be like ‘You’re Kanye West, I know you.’ People are disarmed by the fact that he is familiar. So he is not the average person. And so he can’t speak on behalf of them. Neither can I to some extent. I go to rooms that I’ve been invited to. I’m not walking through life as just an average black man anymore. I have a duty to try and stay in touch with that as much as I can. I think an apology would suffice. But he’s also said that he suffers from mental health issues so you know—I hope he’s happy. I hope he gets all the help that he needs, to be who he wants to be, not who I want him to be. He doesn’t owe anyone anything, he has his opinions and he should be left to it.

In this day and age if you are black and successful—or Asian or any minority and successful, there is a responsibility to represent. To be a role model for everyone which can also be a bit of a burden.

It’s not fair that we do that to people. Those people also have to make their mistakes in public where you make yours in private. And they’re scrutinized for everything. I don’t think that’s fair. And I think we have to recognize that every movement has it weird people in it. The people who are pioneers in the LGBTQ community have also got a couple of weird ones. Same like Black Lives Matter. For the most part everyone is incredible but there’s some weird ones in there. They can say weird stuff every now and then. Just because a movement is impeccable and doing good, doesn’t mean everyone has the same opinions about every issue. You have to leave them to it.

Do you ever feel that burden?

No.

You are sometimes quite outspoken on social media.

I am outspoken but I’m also careful. I think the more you speak, the more people start to look out for faults in you: like what makes you so smart? And of course, you’re going to find something.

Well, you’re human.

Yeah, I will disappoint you at some point. I don’t speak on stuff as much as I used to because it’s not safe anymore. We’re going through like a weird Oppression Olympics: If I speak about the Amazon, it’s like ‘where were you when this happened in Morocco?’ That’s a valid question but the fight that I’m fighting right now is also very justified. Let me deal with this one and why don’t you deal with that fight? And I’ll see you at work.  But I think everyone is going through so much. And oppression breeds oppression. I think it gets to a point where people fight for equality in a weird way – they want you to be treated as badly as they’ve been treated. You can’t blame them? If you’ve been in a group that’s always being punched and if you see a guy in a group that’s never been punched — you’re not going to be oh, next time don’t punch us; you’ll be like punch him as well! You’re wishing the same evil that’s been put on you on everybody else and I don’t think that’s productive. However, I understand the thinking; because at least it’s equal. But I don’t think that’s the kind of equality we should strive for. We should strive for peace for all, not equal harm for everyone.

What have been some milestones in your career so far?

I don’t think I have any. The fact that I’ve been able to do this and still look after my family, everything else, all this (gestures at everything around him) is a bonus for me. My master plan was to be able to play rooms that could hold 500 people. All I really wanted was to have a touring career. All this is just a bonus. This gig is for all my boys and my girls, and just living my best life.

You were recently at Rihanna’s Diamond Ball, now she seems to be someone who’s really using her platform to engage others and do good?

She wears it well. It’s admirable. I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know if I could. But she’s doing it incredibly well and with grace and poise. She’s on Roc Nation as well and we have the same management company, it’s good to have that template of what I could be. I’ve always been interested in what charity I could be involved with. I really liked what I saw at the Ball, and would like to lend a hand when I can, if I’m ever called up. It’s good to have a benchmark, especially for young black women, or just women in general, to have someone they can look up to that’s powerful. She’s been whatever version of women that people want. She’s been successful, a recluse, a singer, actress…and shown that she can still be there for many different groups of people and care. She’s provided a bunch of examples for women all over the world for what you can do and be.

When you wanted to be a singer and have this career who were you looking up to?

Nobody. I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. But I think that was a driving force for me. I saw lots of athletes but I didn’t see anyone who looked like me that wanted to do music like me; fusing genres and time. I think it took me losing my best friend, he was always trying to get me to pursue my music...

What do you mean losing your best friend?

My best friend died when he was 21. It took me losing him to realize … he was always trying to get me to do music but I was always like ‘no’ and it was out of fear. I just didn’t know how my sound would be accepted because it was so random, mixing a bunch of different things. And I don’t feel like I look like what I sound like—it’s just a bunch of reasons to not do what I’m doing today. He was always pushing me to do it. Eventually, I thought I want to just present options for as many people as possible; for disenfranchised groups. For me, and most young black people, we only have four cards and if you don’t fit in any of those, you’re questioning everything: Like why am I here? And where do I belong? It’s so important for me that before I leave this planet we try to equip everyone with as many cards so they can choose better. There’s so many jobs out there that I come across, that the homies don’t even know exist. A lot of people walk through life not knowing who they are or their version of themselves exists. I’m trying to be who I was looking for, you know?

So what are these four things? Athlete?

Yeah Athlete! Musician—

But a certain kind of musician?

Yeah, amongst musicians, you don’t often see rock and roll black artists. It’s R&B or hip hop. Those are the spaces black people are allowed to exist in. But it’s not like we don’t do rock n’roll. But black rock n’roll artist were taken over to blues. It’s not that we couldn’t do it, it’s like when you think of rock n’roll you’re not allowed to think of a black person.

Or these days, music by black artist will often fall under the ‘urban’ or ‘soul’ categories.

Yes! For that reason I exploit it as an artist. I have many different genres on my album, even reggae, but I know you’ll call it soul. Because that’s what you see when you see me, it doesn’t matter what I do.

“Chainsmoking” has a real rock element to it.

But it will be called ‘soul.’ That’s how we’ve all been brainwashed to experience music: If it’s white we know what it is. If it’s black it’s ‘urban.’ Technically speaking that’s far from the truth but for that reason I’m going to run wild and make all kinds of different music I’ve always wanted to make. And you’ll call it ‘soul’ and I’ll be happy.

What are the other two things?

Let’s say engineer. And medicine. People are always trying to fit into those four things. Musicians are not even on the list for the average Nigerian even though our Afro-beat artists are killing it all over the world.