Photos by Phil Sharp.
“It’s not that deep – I’m actually a doughnut.”
Rising South London rapper Ms Banks is chowing down on a panini and laughing about how her freestyles can misleadingly make her seem “very serious” (her words). The 23-year-old shot into the public consciousness almost two years ago with her remarkable turn on Fire in the Booth, a slot that saw her spitting formidably about politics and London life over Kanye’s ’30 Hours’ beat while Charlie Sloth looked on in awe.
“That was deffo a peak moment for me,” she says now of that breakthrough which, she recalls, saw her trending on Twitter for the first time.
But it’s fair to say that the peaks keep coming for Banks, as she gathers all number of fans in the wake of her deft blend of braggadocio bangers, lithe UK afrobeats tunes and those more potently introspective, political moments. She got that infamous Fire in the Booth slot following a feature on a track with Stormzy, Tinie Tempah and JME. The MC received a co-sign from none other than Nicki Minaj last November, when the superstar rapper tweeted out some of Banks’ lyrics leading to a beautiful exchange (“Had all my ppl reciting the verse over n over last night. Last 2 bars is a mood,” said Minaj). She also toured with hottest-rapper-going Cardi B last year. The day of the interview, too, Banks has retweeted a fan’s painting of her – this kind of artwork, she says, has become increasingly common (“I haven’t quite got my head around it yet, it’s still very overwhelming).
We are at a point when British rap has never been better, and South London especially is having a moment – and Ms Banks is very much at the forefront of that.
So while Banks might be insistent that she’s actually “a goofball” who “talk[s] a lot of shit”, and self-deprecatingly comparing herself to dessert items, it’d be remiss to ignore just how seriously she’s being taken – and just how good she is. Her forthcoming tape The Coldest Winter Ever is her strongest body of work to date, and looks set to seal her place in the rap world with her stunning flow confronting how fucked-up love can be, considering the situation in Libya and Syria – but also going out and getting drunk with her mates.
“This whole ‘bragging about money’-type rap, it’s just a phase – it doesn’t have to be what it’s all about,” she says animatedly, “There were groups like Public Enemy that spoke about things that were going on in society, more real things. I really wanted to be more open and show how I feel on this project. To not just talk about the good times, but talk about the bad times – but at the same time, I’m not going to start making it too preachy or too heartbreaking. You’ve got to find the balance – that’s what I’m about.”
“…am I going to let the environment I grew-up in stop me? No, I’m going to make it push me to get where I need to be.”
The tape gets its title from the 1999 book of the same name by black American author and activist Sister Souljah. Banks credits her strict Auntie Barbara for misguidedly giving her the book while she was staying in Leeds, not realising “it was juicier than anything that was on TV”. The story follows drug-dealer’s daughter Winter Santiaga as she grows-up in the projects in Brooklyn, New York, ignoring the advice of guardian angel-type figure Sister Souljah: “Winter’s life went downhill,” says Banks, “But in my situation I’m not stupid like Winter, so I listen to that voice in my head who is like my Sister Souljah.”
Indeed, this feels a crucial part of Banks’ narrative: in the face of obstacles, not taking the easy route and backing down, but instead persevering – “My whole story is coming from nothing to something,” she says at one point.
The odd juxtaposition of being raised on a council estate in one of the most expensive cities in the world is not lost on her – she speaks of how standard it is for us to see a poor man on the street outside of somewhere like Selfridges, and how wealth is always in your face in London. “A council estate here is as low as it gets, that’s the bottom of the bottom. You’ve got people with all different types of issues on all different types of benefits and it makes you see all this weird stuff. Growing-up there makes you feel like that’s where you’re going to end, and so you decide to just sleep on yourself and be a bum.”
Another obstacle is the matter of being a dark-skinned, black female MC, though she is hesitant to entirely consider it one. Banks agrees that things are much better now than when the 90s and 00s music press saw all female MCs pitted against each other as if there could only be one – but the rap world is still undeniably a harsh one for women, and the music world is a tough place for women of colour in general. She is characteristically considered but confident on the subject: “Things that have been cons have also been pros, because it’s helped me to stand out. There’s so many males in the industry, whereas as a girl… well, sometimes people don’t really want to give you your credit… but when people do pay attention, they’re really ripped for you.”
As for the matter of race, she’s aware that she’ll have to fight her corner more than others might have to, “I try not to focus on it too much, but I know it’s there. All I pray is that people will see my star as much as they would see it if I was lighter-skinned or a white person – sometimes because of the whole historical background of race, people subconsciously have this mindset. I know it’s there and I know that I’m as good as a lot of other people who are successful, so all I can do is work – even if I have to work 10 times harder, I’m going to do it.”
Contrary to popular belief, Banks’ surname is not, in fact, Banks, but rather Oji – Banks was a nickname acquired because her first name is Thyra, pronounced like the supermodel “Tyra”. She decided to add the “Ms.” to make her sound like a divorcée – strong, independent, confident, but also with the implication that she’s come out the other side of a struggle, ready to get turnt up. It’s a name that suits her.
For all she might laugh off the idea of being labelled as a serious artist, The Coldest Winter Ever finds an MC who is confronting her internal demons, battling societal obstacles, and coming out stronger for it. As she says when the interview wraps up: “Nothing can stop you, only you can stop you – so keep going no matter your environment or what people are saying. Just keep going.”
Live: Omeara on March 28th