Jacob Banks is the Honest Artist We've Been Waiting For

And he's ready to tackle the hard topics.
Reading time 8 minutes

Jacob Banks is a bubbling new artist that you can see a huge future for with just one click of a music video. He is handsome, stylish in that punky preppy way that only British talent ever is, a unique and emotional songwriter, and, most of all, he can sing. Really, really sing: He bellows deeply and croons sweetly. The 26-year-old British musician has recently signed to Interscope Records on the strength of a few promising singles, on which he has shown a talent for mining 1960s flourishes and making them sound completely fresh. He evokes that recent tradition of U.K. singers who harken back to Dusty Springfield and Sam Cooke: Amy Winehouse, Duffy, and early Adele. He is unafraid to tackle difficult topics in song, too. The track “Unknown (To You)” is a vivid recounting of an emotionally strained coupling, and in the video for the track, Banks makes allusions to a toxic relationship between a father and son. It has recently been remixed by one of his heroes, Timbaland. As he told us one day on a phone call from a tour bus somewhere in America (he is on his first solo headlining run in the States), he is a young man with a lot to say in his music. If things work out the way they look like they are going to, he’s going to have plenty of chances to say it.

You take on the weighty subject of difficult father-son relationships in “Unknown (To You).” Why?

I’ve had that song for about three years. It’s taken numerous meaning to me every couple of months really. When I wrote it, it was about a relationship I was in. We both had to leave but didn’t know how to tell each other. But when I put it out, it started to mean more of a father-son relationship. I felt like growing up in an immigrant background, as men, we are told to put our feelings in the back of our mind and not address them. Most men that I know don’t get to speak their mind. We don’t get to address how we communicate with our partners, and I think it all stems from how we communicate with our fathers. I think hypermasculinity is a massive issue. It’s not okay to show your feelings. It’s a universal thing—not just where I grew up. Most men will tell you it’s hard to communicate because we’ve been taught not to for so long. We are used to pretending stuff just isn’t there. It’s not about my father really—it’s any relationship between men.


Especially now with all that’s going on in the news with sexual assault, addressing hypermasculinity seems like a good place to start to change.

I tell my friends that if we can address hypermasculinity, we will sort 80% of our troubles. We will treat women better, we will learn how to be more compassionate about same-sex marriage. So many things will be sorted naturally if we address it. It’s just how we’ve been raised. We’ve been taught to shut so many things out. It’s going to take time, but it can start with how we raise our sons, how we raise our brothers, how we talk to other men.

I’ve spent most of my life by myself and I’ve always struggled, in rooms of people, to ask for help. I don’t know how to communicate. Even in relationships, I don’t know how to allow myself to be there. And so the music is all I have. All my energy goes into that. I want the album to keep people company, and to do that, I have to be honest.

Timbaland remixed the song. What did that mean to you?

I grew up listening to all the stuff Timbaland did—Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, Aaliyah. It was a massive part of my childhood. It’s a wonderful feeling to have someone you’ve been listening to before you even considered picking up a guitar somehow join you on the journey. He reached out about the song and just wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t believe it. We’re going to work together in the new year.


You spent the first part of your childhood in Nigeria. What do you remember of growing up there?

I remember it being fun. I remember having a good time. Growing up in that part of the world, the good thing about it is, it’s not built on comparison. Everyone gets the same stroke. In the West, people are divided so viciously by class. In Nigeria, you’re allowed to grow up not feeling like you are an outsider, because you are treated as harsh as everyone else or as loved as everyone else. I could get disciplined by my mom, my aunt, some lady in the shop—there was no special treatment. I think that’s my most firm memory of the place. When you move to the West, you start comparing things, and it fucks with your happiness a little bit.

Your sound has a feeling of nostalgia. Where does that come from?

It’s the truth really. A song that’s going to live with you for a long time should play like a projector in the back of your mind, a memory or a feeling or a scent. That’s how I write songs. When I hear the chords, it triggers a memory, I feel it, a time and a place. My music is reflective, it’s how I get my thoughts on paper. We look back at oldies like Al Green or Sam Cooke, but in their time, they were the forward thinkers.


Some of your videos have political overtones, including “Chainsmoking,” in which you confront a police officer with your fist in the air.  

My job is to respond to the time. If the time changes, maybe I can make music less political. But right now, people are denying other people in the most basic sense. I don’t know how to convince people to care about other people. We all just happen to be here. I woke up one day, I was black. Why make anyone pay for that?

Your voice is incredibly emotive—how do you approach vocals?

When I listen to an artist, my question is, Can I trust this person? Many people can sing well, but can you convey your emotions in a real way? That’s what I try to do. I grew up in church, but I didn’t start singing until I was 20, 21. I spent a long time trying to find my place and trying to be able to convey my emotions.


You’re on the edge of a huge career—when you look at your future, what do you see?

I don’t really look. My benchmark was always just playing music with people I love. I’m on the tour bus with people I genuinely love. I’ve learned so much about myself by being an artist. How to love, how to be loved. I speak better to people. Even if the album sucks, I would become a better person because of the process. I think music is wonderful, but sometimes we give ourselves too much credit. We aren’t curing cancer. I express myself for a living and that’s a privilege. I’m already where I’m supposed to be. Anything past this point, it’s fine, I’ll take it. But I’m already where I want to be.

What are you hoping to accomplish with your debut album?

I’m trying to not be complacent. It’s easier said than done. Once you see something work, you think you have to do it again. But that’s always the wrong move. The whole point is that it’s unique, and if you do it again, it becomes a cliche. It was hard to find the first pot of gold, but you have to go and find another one. I can’t do the same thing twice.

This album takes from all genres in U.K. culture: drum ‘n bass, jungle, reggae. There are so many cultures in England. All my friends can speak patois. I can say hello in Urdu. It’s such a microcosm of people—all walks of life. I really want to show how I grew up, the massive multicultural places that raised me.

In your Twitter bio, you label yourself a jerk chicken connoisseur. Where’s the best spot?

If anyone tells you that there’s one particular place that makes the best jerk chicken, they’re wrong. It depends on how you like it. Some people like it more spicy. Some people like it more char-grilled. I love this place with spicy jerk called C Breeze—I love all the hole-in-the-wall spots. I just love jerk chicken, man.

All Photos by Grace Rivera.


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