The brave new world according to Jacob Banks
Translation by:Nadège Vallet
26-year-old Jacob Banks has already lived a full life. From depression to the top of the British charts, from Nigeria to Birmingham, from Brexit to Trump, the young artist spoke to us about the trials and tribulations he faced as an immigrant and the ins and outs of his beautiful album The Boy Who Cried Freedom. Here's our interview with a powerful voice:
Cafébabel: You described yourself on Twitter as a "young connoisseur of jerk chicken". Care to explain?
Jacob Banks: I'm just a huge fan of jerk chicken. I really love it, that's all. Especially when I'm travelling, I always try to find the coolest places to eat it and I post comments and reviews about these places on my Instagram account. But only a few places know how to make it, because it's associated with a very specific culture. When I was on tour, I think I only found five places that served it and prepared it well.
Cafébabel: Your father is a farmer and your mother is a nurse. They decided to leave Nigeria when you were younger to move to Birmingham. What was your arrival in Europe like?
Jacob Banks: Not bad, but I didn't really have a say in it. I was 13 when my mother got this job offer. She couldn't really say no to it, so it was only logical that we move to Birmingham. She never really asked for my opinion, she just said we were moving. I didn't really mind. But it's hard to adapt to a new culture when you're 13. Teenagers were all living their own lives, and we didn't really have much in common. It was especially hard at first, but I quickly found my place.
Cafébabel: How did all of this influence your music?
Jacob Banks: I think it had an influence on what I choose to say in my lyrics. But I always try to make something that my mother would like and would listen to. So I try to cut down on the bullshit. The culture I grew up in always pressures you into making your family proud.
Cafébabel: What is your most personal song?
Jacob Banks: There is a song about a hippie paradox. I wrote it after watching the movie The perks of being a Wallflower. I saw so much of myself in the main character: a tormented teen who struggles to adapt to a new environment. In fact, I think I saw a part of myself. It was the first time in my life that I really knew I was heading into depression. I made music, I wanted to change styles, because I had been on the same project for two years, nothing was happening, and I knew I had to seize the opportunity. So I wrote... Today I listen to that song as if I wasn't the one who wrote it. The song saved me. And here I am.
Cafébabel: And here you are, at the top of the UK charts and starring in a new Adidas campaign. What does success feel like?
Jacob Banks: The truth is...
Cafébabel: You couldn't care less...
Jacob Banks: Exactly [laughs]. Seriously, let me tell you what amazes me. What amazes me is that, no matter how many times I played, how many songs etc., I'm always afraid that people won't come to my concerts. I mean, Spotify is great because you know how many people are listening to you, but you don't know if they really like your songs. So when people choose to dedicate their whole evening, their precious time for one of my concerts, it means something. It's your time, you won't get it back, you can get money back, but not time. That's what blows me away, that people are giving me their time.
Cafébabel: As an artist, what are the values that guide you?
Jacob Banks: People just need something they can feel connected to. My role is to create this connection. Life can be really hard sometimes, some people have to work two jobs just to live decently, and they need music to escape. I feel I have a special position – I can help them escape their daily routine. If I can make a song that will make them smile, if only for three minutes or even 40 seconds, it's already something. That's why people buy music. They need it everywhere, it follows them everywhere: on the train, in the car, when they're sad, when they're happy, when they feel like dancing, when they go to a club... Everywhere. And all I want is to be a part of this.
"In Europe, on TV and in the movies, the white man prevails. So when you see someone that looks like you, doing what you've always dreamed of doing, you consider doing it seriously."
Cafébabel: You were 13 when you left Nigeria. Do you sometimes think about what would your teen years would have been like in your home country instead of England?
Jacob Banks: It's complicated. I think I might have started making music earlier had I stayed there. In England, I started making music when I was 20 or 21. But I think African countries incite people more to get into things like that. Even though you come from Nigeria, you want to do what others do. But in one way or another, when you choose a path and you see that many people like you have succeed, you start thinking it's possible. You keep the idea in mind without really trying, and one day you say to yourself: "I'm just like him, I could be in his shoes, and he did it". In Europe, on TV and in the movies, the white man prevails. So when you see someone that looks like you, doing what you've always dreamed of doing, you consider doing it seriously. You wonder: "Why shouldn't I become an actor or a doctor?" People of colour are often present in sports or music, but in Europe, I rarely see a doctor who looks like me. So you instinctively go into the paths where you are more represented.
Cafébabel: You studied engineering, though. Why did you end up choosing an artistic career?
Jacob Banks: My parents didn't decide for me, but I think I chose this path because I wanted to make them proud, as everyone else. And I must have thought that if I became an engineer, I would have their blessing. I spent most of my life doing what I thought people were expecting of me rather than doing what I really wanted to do. But in the end, I understood that no one was expecting anything from me, that I was just putting pressure on myself.
I think that I chose civil engineering because I liked the idea of building things, of being uncompromising and frank, of not having to tiptoe around people. I based my career on the image I had of this job, but it was really not something I was made for. I completed the degree but it didn't resonate with me; it wasn't me.
Cafébabel: As a 26-year-old British citizen, you are part of the so-called "sacrificed" generation, that felt the full force of the crisis. Does the current situation make you angry?
Jacob Banks: There are so many things that make me angry… In fact, everything makes me angry. Because everything could be better, we could put in so much more effort. I try to think positively though, I think we should let things come naturally. Because to me, what defines us as human beings and what is really beautiful, is that we know that in the course of our lives, we will feel every possible emotion: love, pain, anger, hunger... And I think we should allow ourselves to feel all that. In times like Brexit or Donald Trump, we must keep in mind that this is not permanent, those situations don't define us. It's only a rough patch, but it's not that bad. We can't expect to be happy 24/7, or to be sad 24/7.
Cafébabel: Is having two cultures - European and African – an opportunity to see the world differently from other people?
Jacob Banks: It's all really relative. No matter where you come from, there is always someone that would give everything to trade places with you. I think where I got lucky is that I can see both sides of things and identify with both of my origins.
My problem with Trump, for instance, is that if he wants to act like a jerk, so be it, it's his problem. But when people bring up their children to be respectful and kind to others, and the president of one of the world's most powerful countries does exactly the opposite, it doesn't help. Everyone is free to do as they please, but you have to at least have the decency to behave correctly. There have been really bad presidents, George W. Bush was a really bad president, but no one ever called him a supremacist. You can be a bad president, but it's no reason to behave like a jerk. That's the difference. Just have the decency to be a nice person, because everyone deserves to be respected.
"Everything that happened made us realise the way things were. I would never have thought I would be so interested in politics. I have noticed the same things among my friends group, everyone is up to date. Everyone is involved."
Cafébabel: How did you experience Brexit?
Jacob Banks: My problem with Brexit is the way it was done: propaganda according to which immigrants were taking people's jobs, etc. We could have had real debates with economic arguments proving we should leave Europe, but to give false information to people, it's insulting, it's an insult to their intelligence. The United Kingdom accepts 300,000 migrants every year on its territory, and it's only 0.3% of the total population. Meanwhile, every year, they let thousands of people embark on the journey to Spain or to Italy alone. In fact, their hope is that people won't learn anything more on the issue than what they want them to believe. And I find it insulting. Those are tiny details that bother me, just like when people are not nice. If you want to talk about Brexit, that's ok, but do it honestly. Discuss the economy, or other major issues, but don't use fear against those who don't know as much as you do.
And that's exactly what Trump did, he used people who knew less, people who live in deep American countryside and never had the opportunity to see big cities like New York or Los Angeles. They never had the occasion to meet multiple cultures. They only know what they see on the news and they believe it, like everyone else. Who wouldn't? We do more or less the same thing, but we are lucky enough to have a broader range of information and to choose who we want to believe. But they are not in this position: newspapers and television tell them "Here's what happened", that's what they're told and they believe it. Trump insults their intelligence because they know less than he does. That's what bothers me. But having another origin than English or European gives me the ability to see what's really important: be nice to people. You can always debate, but do it in a constructive way. It doesn't have to end with insults or punches.
Cafébabel: Who gives you hope? Who are the opposites of Donald Trump, Boris Jonhson or Nigel Farage?
Jacob Banks: People like you and me, that you pass on the street every day. My friends, my family, mothers... We are truly amazing. We are better than what they think of us. We achieve beautiful things, and people are kind to one another. The only positive things in Trump's election is the movement it created. Look how it brought people together! Whether you are black, Latino, a woman, Muslim… We must set our differences aside because this guy hates all of us. And it's the first time we see so many people take each other by the hand and say "Fuck him". That's what inspires me. All these people getting together. I remember when Brexit was voted in, Trump's election, I answered a question during an interview, where the journalist asked whether the far-right party was going to win the presidential elections in France. My answer was: "We cannot let this happen once again. We learned from this mistake. Love will conquer." But sometimes love has to lose for people to realise its true value. That's what inspires me.
Cafébabel: Maybe our generation relies too much on politicians?
Jacob Banks: It's true, but everything that happened made us realise the way things were. I would never have thought I would be so interested in politics. I have noticed the same things among my friends, everyone is up to date. Everyone is involved. Everyone wants to contribute in some way, to speak for themselves.
Cafébabel: What's your definition of youth?
Jacob Banks: I was at a friend of mine's a few days ago in Singapore. She's much older than me, she's more than 50, but you would never tell. Because she's young. That's what youth is. Youth is not defined by age, time or speech, it's an energy. And I think it is closely related to beauty. Beauty through a child's eyes... it's an escape from all the bad stories. I think that's what youth is, it's the energy we need to protect ourselves and keep smiling.
Cafébabel: Well, it's the World Cup. You support England but on the Internet, you seem to only have eyes for one football player: Cristiano Ronaldo. Why?
Jacob Banks: Maaaaan. He's a killer! He's one of the world's best players, period. It amazes me how it's always a discussion topic. In today's football scene, there are two players that face each other from a distance like in an anime: Messi and Ronaldo. Everyone choses Messi because he's the nice guy; an incredibly talented player who can do anything. That's talent. I choose Ronaldo because he's a specimen; he's hard working, the living proof that: no pain, no gain. Maybe it says something about me too...
Listen to: The Boy Who Cried Freedom (Universal Music Division Polydor/2017)
Cover photo: © Boby
Translated from Le nouveau monde selon Jacob Banks