Jacob Banks’ Talents Shine On ‘The Boy Who Cried Freedom’

Photo courtesy of VEVO/WMA.

Get to know the singer and listen to the new EP here

Every so often, a musician comes along with a voice that stops listeners in their tracks. If the two million views of Jacob Banks’ 2015 cover of “Say Something” by A Great Big World are any indication, the British soul singer is one such talent. His earth-shattering vocals—which should probably come with a warning for their potential to evoke tears—also characterize his original works: The Monologue EP, The Paradox EP, and now The Boy Who Cried Freedom, which dropped today. 

The new EP gives equal shine to Banks’ voice and songwriting skills, highlighting his mastery of metaphors and imagery akin to that of a verified, contemporary poet. Not just anyone can open a song about ex-lovers becoming strangers by comparing their former relationship to the Chicago Bulls in 1993, but Banks does exactly that with “Empty Photograph.” It’s one of two simple, scaled-back tracks on the project, with the other being “Part-Time Love.” The previously released “Chainsmoking” and "Unholy War," as well as “Mercy,” amp things up on the other end of the spectrum, showing the range of sounds within Banks’ arsenal. 

At just five songs, however, The Boy Who Cried Freedom is a bit of a tease—right when you’re hooked, the EP is over. Banks acknowledges this when we chat over the phone (on a particularly pivotal day for him: He’s just bought a Husky-Rottweiler mix that he named Eli), but he notes that his debut album is slated to be out this fall, so fans need not despair at the brevity of the work. If listening to the EP on repeat isn’t enough to satisfy your Jacob Banks craving, though, get to know the singer below, as we chat with him about his natural talents, knack for putting together IKEA furniture, and potential foray into directing. 

How did you first get interested in music?
I bought a guitar because I liked how it looked, and then I started to play just out of pure boredom. I’d just sing along to the riffs I could play. My friend asked me to come play open mics, so I would, and I started to write songs. My friends would ask if they could have the songs on a CD, so I’d go to my friend’s house the next day, and then we'd record the songs just so they could have them on a CD. That was a little over four and a half years ago. It all kind of just spiraled out of control since then.

Did you have formal training at all?
No, I learned everything off YouTube.

You make it sound so casual; there are people who have had formal training who don't have a voice like yours, so that is really impressive.
You usually get lucky, because I don't think you can choose your tone. When you try to sing, whatever voice comes out is the voice you are given. Actually, of all the things that I do, the act of singing is the least favorite of them all. I don't pride myself in how I can sing—if that makes sense—I just like to express myself. That could be through singing, that could be through writing a piece of poetry. It just so happens that nine times out of 10, my choice of expression is singing. But I don't sing outside of the stage, studio, and rehearsals. It’s not something I do on a daily basis. When I am not on stage or rehearsing, I'm not singing. It's weird.

It's interesting you say that, though, because people may gravitate toward you because your voice evokes a lot of emotion, but your lyrics themselves do, too. How have you developed your songwriting skills?
I love writing poems. I listen to a lot of poets speak. And then, I just tell the truth. I think my job is to help people get through the day a little easier. If I tell my truth, then more people can relate to it.

Are there any poets in particular who you admire?
There's a poet called Anis Mojgani; he has a poem “For Those Who Can Still Ride An Airplane For The First Time.” There is another guy called Miles Hodges of [spoken word collective] Strivers Row—they're incredible people. I'm trying to get them to do something on the album. I adore their poems so much, and how they can tell the truth and be so fearless because it's hard to tell the truth. They put themselves out there for people to pick apart, and they do it every time. I have always idolized their ability to do it.

What are some of the songs or artists and albums that you listened to growing up that you think really had an impact on your sound?
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West really influenced my sound a lot in the sense that he really challenged the norm of what hip-hop is supposed to sound like. Really, anything Kanye West [does]; he pushes the boundaries of what it is, and that was a really big one for me. Continuum by John Mayer—that album’s incredible. Voodoo by D'Angelo is one of the most influential albums for me.

You can definitely see the influence of those albums on your work—Dark Twisted Fantasy, in particular, because it works as a visual as well, and you’ve started to show your talent for visuals by directing your own videos, like the one for “Holy War.” Have you always had an interest in filmmaking?
I haven't always, to be fair. It happened because someone told me I couldn't do it, and I got pissed off. I didn't really get much love from the team I had around me at the time. I remember they said, “Your sound's alright, mediocre at best, and you just won’t be able to pull off [directing a video].” My chest was warm, and I was enraged. I was like, “Fuck you, I am going to do it”—that is always my message to everybody [who doubts me]. I had lots of friends who were into cinematography and photography, so I just worked with them on it. We just tried, just like challenges. I like for stuff to be difficult, and I enjoy the process of figuring things out. I’m a very hands-on person. If you ever need anything put together from IKEA, call me. I will fix anything.

Do you think you'd ever take things a step further from creating music videos and direct films? 
I hope so. I'm a very visual person, so I love cinematography, I love film, and I love seeing how people put stuff together. I've thought about doing short films, outside of music, to just find a cool way to do something that I could share with people. I hope I get a chance to explore outside of Jacob Banks the musician, but I want to be able to do it with no pressure and just learn on my own.

Even though you started creating music relatively recently, did you always see yourself being in a creative field? What did you imagine yourself being when you were younger?
I hoped to be a pilot for a while, and I wanted to be a civil engineer. I actually graduated from university as a civil engineer, but I never really liked it. I was just doing that because I thought it would make everyone happy, which it did, but it just made me sad and depressed. I used to want to be a dancer for a while, too. I've always been more of a hands-on person. That much I knew about myself when I was kind of lost and trying to please everyone around me and just not let anybody down. I never got near creative fields, apart from the dancing. That world never struck me until music. I make music really because it makes me happy. It gives me so much joy to be able to express myself and talk my shit. 

A lot of people of Nigerian descent are pressured to pursue law and medicine, and their parents would be disappointed if they were interested in a more creative career. Did you experience that?
Yes. But my parents come from a place where education guarantees success. They come from a land where, if you have a degree in something, you're guaranteed everything. In my world, education doesn't actually guarantee that much. It's hard for my parents to wrap their head around that. For a long time, I didn't get it, but then after a while, I just said, "I want to do what I want to do, and you need to have faith. I'm gonna go do it, and, hopefully, you get to see it turn out." That's just kind of the idea, and now they're able to, and it was never really too difficult. I understand that place. Of course, it’s your job as a parent to worry about your child, and being a musician is not a secure place to be. So I get their fears, but happiness prevails. It's way more important than being successful. I think happiness should be a measure of success.

You’ve described your sound as being “digital soul.” What do you mean by that? 
Soul is a genre that, in the sense of black culture, doesn't really take many forms. Now being in the digital age, what I do is try to introduce sounds that aren't really synonymous with soul. I'm not trying to be Marvin Gaye or Al Green or anything. I'm trying to be Jacob Banks, and Jacob Banks likes Al Green just as much as he likes Frank Ocean or Kanye West. 

How far along are you in the production of your album? 
We're about at 80 percent. But it's quite different than the EP. I try to never make the same project twice. I'm always trying to find my sound and try a new technique because I get bored, and I feel like if I'm bored, the listeners will be bored. The album's called Village, and it’s named after the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It just talks about everything that I've welcomed into my life that's made me who I am today. 

Do you have any collaborations on it that you're excited about? 
We're working with Ryan Tedder, which is dope. But it's mainly just the homies. It’s such a blessing to be able to make an album with your friends. It feels like back when we used to make music in someone's basement or bedroom. To have the same people making an album together, it's an incredible feeling. Sometimes I feel like I’m dreaming.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
I hope I’m inspiring people, more than anything. What I'm trying to do is contribute to the music, push the meter, ask people to try things that they would never try, so I hope to inspire the people who are brave enough to try something different.

Photo by Lloyd Pursall.

"I don't regret it at all. I mean I'm a man, and as a man, you do real things."

In 2017, Atlanta-based artist iLoveMakonnen (or just Makonnen) had already experienced exhilarating career highs and disappointing lows. Drake had hopped on a remix of his viral hit "Tuesday," and then signed him to his OVO Sound label in 2014. Hits like "I Don't Sell Molly No More" and "Look at Wrist" on his first album, I Love Makonnen, put him on track to be the next best thing in rap. Makonnen was part of a class of rappers and producers who were expanding the trap genre to broader audiences. But problems with OVO led to a delay in a follow-up album, and so he parted ways with the label and, later, announced a short-lived retirement from music. Then in January 2017, Makonnen tweeted that he was gay.

While fans and followers voiced their support for him, there was a loud hush from the hip-hop artists he'd been so connected to in the previous years. It was as if none of them wanted to be associated with a gay artist. That is, nobody except Lil Peep, who was one of the first people to reach out to Makonnen, offering his support and asking if Makonnen wanted to meet up. What followed was an intimate friendship between the two, that helped Makonnen heal from some of the rough patches—and there have been many—in his life. But less than a year later, Peep would be dead.

Below, I talk with Makonnen about his friendship with Lil Peep, as well as that fateful tweet; Martha, the beauty school mannequin head that has become synonymous with his brand; and how he really feels about the people he feels turned their backs on him.

Can you tell me about Martha and why she's so important in your imagery and your branding and stuff?
Martha was from when I was in beauty school, and I had to, you know, make my doll one-of-a-kind, and make it into my doll for the class and stuff. And then, so I was doing that, and I was getting creative with my doll and then with my music, at the same time, I was working on that, and I was like, Oh, I don't have a model for my artwork. And at the same time, [the school was] like, "You need to take pictures of your doll to show the hairstyles." And so I just started doing these high fashion pictures with the doll outside and in water and leaves and all types of stuff. And I was like, Oh! Martha is like… she's a celeb! She's a top model! And then I started putting her on the cover of my work, and I was just like, Oh yeah, this represents me. This is me. And the face is kind of… people say it's scary, but the whole overall thing is, don't judge on the outside. Take some time to get to know somebody on the inside.

How did you end up at beauty school?
My mom was always in the beauty industry and cosmetology. She was a nail instructor for almost all my life, so I've always been around it. And then I got into my legal situation where I was on probation. I had to do something productive with my time, so my mom gave me the idea of coming to beauty school and learning a skill and a trade and how to build confidence in others and have fun in socializing.

You have a flashy sense of style. Did your mom or your experiences in the beauty industry influence that?
Yeah, definitely. My mom was always showing me artists from the '70s and the '80s and a lot of costumes, and just the theatrics of arts and stuff. Then in beauty school, you also have to have some sort of creativity and flair in there and bring flamboyance and all these types of things to capture the eye.

I want to talk about when you came out in 2017. Why did you feel the need to send that tweet out?
I just wanted to be, I guess, more open. And then, I felt like the times that we're in… people need to be braver. People need to be more open and have a sense of bravery, because I feel like a lot of people are scared. [I think it's important] especially for the younger generations coming up. They don't really have many real leaders, you know?

They just all follow one after another. And so it's like, they're following things that they may not fully be themselves, and so they're confused. I just felt like I've seen a lot of fans, I've seen myself, people before me, everybody sort of dealing with this. I was in a position in the industry to make a larger impact for more than myself. So I just wanted to take it into my own hands and share it with my fans on Twitter, rather than trying to take it to some publication or some TV show and be like..."Oh yeah, I'm out I'm gay. Everybody celebrate this."

I just wanted to be able to be an Aries and, you know, break through that, and help get some inspiration to a lot of the younger people that are dealing with some of the same issues.

How was the response from fans? Also, what was the response like from your peers?
A few people reached out, but most people just kind of ignored it. Most people in the industry just turned the other way to it. I guess they were kind of like, "I can't be around it," because that would end up making them look different. So a lot of people have to withdraw from being around me as closely as they were. The fans, I think, embraced me more, especially younger fans. They were very happy and excited and accepting about it. But I feel like the biggest issue may have came from people around my age group or people a little older than me.

Tell me more about your relationship with Lil Peep. How did you guys meet?
I actually met Lil Peep in person right after I came out as gay. He was one of the artists who reached out to me and was like, "I love you. I'm a big fan always." [He] was like that: supportive. And I was like, "Oh snap! I'm in L.A., let's meet up. I've been seeing you do your thing." So we met up. We have a mutual friend, and we went by his house. We all hung out and talked and vibed and just got to meet each other. Then in July, my manager was in London, and Peep was being managed by someone who my manager had a friendship with. They ended up meeting, and Peep was like, "Tell my manager Makonnen's my favorite artist. I was about to work with him." We got on the phone, FaceTimed, and I was like, "Oh! When we link back up in L.A., let's get up and make some music. Let's try to do some stuff."

Then we met up in L.A. around July, and we started making music and formulating this album. Then we went to London, we finished working on the album. It was a friendship, like a relationship: "You have a broken heart. I have a broken heart. Let's try to help mend each other's broken hearts." We were not boyfriend and boyfriend or anything, but we care about each other. So we were just doing that for each other, just helping each other out. Building each other's confidence back up and, you know, just two friends coming together to uplift each other

Why did you have a broken heart at that time?
Oh, I always had a broken heart since I was a child.

That's real!
[Laughs] It just keeps going on and on. At the time, I was sort of seeing somebody that I guess wasn't seeing me the same way I was seeing them. So there was a little confusion, and then I was a little down. Then I had a really close friend of mine who was with me from Atlanta to New York to L.A. We were working together at a restaurant at the InterContinental in Buckhead. Then [I made] "Tuesday," and he got to come with me and assist me. He ended up passing away in May of 2017, and then I got back at it with Peep in July of 2017. So that was very heavy on my heart at the time as well. And I told Peep about that stuff, so we were becoming friends and going through the motions.

I can't even imagine what that was like for you to have to face Peep's death so soon after that. Have you found other artists to collaborate with on that level today? Is there anyone who are you really vibing with?
I've kind of just been on some solo stuff. I haven't really been in the studio with many artists from Atlanta. Right now I'm just focusing on my stuff and trying to get my stuff together. I've worked with producers, and that's where my vibe's been at in the studio, but as far as with other artists right now... I don't know. I haven't really found another artist that I can connect with… I've felt like I've stepped into a new world of art, especially since coming out as gay. Expressing myself in these ways, a lot of the artists that I used to work with aren't trying to go in that direction as far as, you know, expressing themselves and art like that. I feel like we've had our time. If they want to come around and do something again, I'm always open. But, you know, I'm going in my own direction right now.

Do you ever regret coming out?
Nah, I don't regret it at all. I mean I'm a man, and as a man, you do real things. If [people] can't understand that, then that's on them. I have to be Makonnen, and one day when y'all reach a maturity level the same as mine, we can have conversations. But I am very hurt over the treatment and the resentment or whatever. Y'all can't fuck with me no more, especially after I was in Atlanta and came to fuck with all of y'all when none of y'all were getting fucked with at all. I was really a spearhead over there, coming to this studio to that studio, linking artists with producers. Now all these people got successes together, and they've all reached new heights, but nobody can call me to even say: "Thank you... We fuck with you... How you doing?... I hope all is well." Nothing. It's just like, damn. That's how we kicking it? I guess that's how we gonna be kicking it.

Illustration by Vivie Behrens

Liberation can come from completion, but then, we are always becoming something new

They say the full moon is about completion. About looking back at the intentions you crowned the new moon with and seeing where those intentions led you. The new moon in Gemini was the pebble that began this cycle, and the full moon in Sagittarius is her echo, the ring getting larger in the water. The new moon in Gemini asked us what we wanted to change about our habits, what we wanted to do with our hands, and our hunger for newness. The new moon in Gemini was interested in the way shifting ideas can give us the freedom to think differently and, in thinking differently, become new people. The full moon in Sagittarius reminds us that we are never not becoming new.

Both Gemini and Sagittarius are mutable signs, they exist in relation to the other and they know how to speak each other's language. But, while Gemini relishes the endless capacity of air (of thought), Sagittarius uses the energy of fire to transform thought into action. Everything Sagittarius touches can't help but change. How can this be completion? The wheel is always spinning, reader. Sagittarius marks the completion of the fire trine. Here, fire is generous and social. It means to gather and teach, to illuminate. Sagittarius lives in the sector of the zodiac chart related to education, philosophy, and the awareness of others—their beliefs and their right to freedom. Because of this, our June Sagittarius full moon is both a completion moon and a moon that reminds us that all endings create space for beginning. The more you leave behind, the more you find. There is no dead end in the universe.

If you are a seeker like me (perhaps you have lots of planets in Sagittarius in your natal chart), you have already come across Jessica Dore's Twitter account. Every day, Dore posts a tarot card and her interpretation of it. It is a gift to many of her readers. Yesterday, she shared The World with us, reminding her readers: "the moments of beauty, belonging & elation that you've experienced up to this point in your life… would still only amount to the tiniest sliver of what this world has to offer in terms of sweetness & pleasure."

I thought about this card and her words all day. The World is, numerically, the last card in the Major Arcana journey—the last card if you don't think about the Fool, who is numbered at 0 and so is the beginning and the end. The World is, therefore, a completion card too, a big echo of a full moon.

This morning, holding the sweet and expansive nature of The World, thinking on Sagittarius people and their love of travel, of reckoning with the edge of an atlas and questioning the map-makers, I pulled the nine of swords from my own Tarot deck. The other side of knowledge is to overwhelm and shut down. Gemini, ruled by Mercury, holds information in her hands. She understands duality in all things. Sagittarius, ruled by Jupiter, yearns for the expansion of mind and the illumination of power. The philosopher and the moralist, a Sagittarius at her best can teach anyone to break open a prison. A Sagittarius at her worst can justify any cage. Don't forget that Jupiter was the king of the gods. His lightning bolt was a weapon. Sometimes, we are too exposed to each other. We imagine we know others through the stories we create about one another. We imagine we know the future because we refuse to be humble about how vulnerable we are to the universe's ever-shifting outcomes. We refuse abundance by convincing ourselves that the cage of identity we build for ourselves is our only possibility.

For the next two days, as the Sun lingers in Gemini and we feel the effects of the moon's fullness in Sagittarius, reflect on the ways you have used knowledge. When has your knowledge been a tool of empowerment for yourself and others? When have you shared the beauty of the world and the joy of radical ideas/ways of living? When have you used knowledge to understand and relieve your own suffering and the suffering of others? And, too, when have you used knowledge as permission for self-delusion? When you have expanded so far into your idea of the world and your own work in it that you forgot how to be accountable to your daily life, your body, your friends, and the people you love? You know when Janis Joplin sings "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose"? That's only one kind of freedom, and it's the kind that Sagittarius thinks it knows very well. Freedom can be about nothing, if nothing is what you want. Then welcome to the monastery, friend. Freedom can also be another word for everything you revel in not knowing. Freedom can be about having everything because you are part of everything, even if you can't see the relation, even if you can't imagine yet how what you want also wants you.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Geena Davis joins the cast for the new season

Netflix dropped the trailer for Season 3 of GLOW, and it looks like the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling are thriving in Las Vegas.

The new season picks up where Season 2 left and finds the wrestlers taking their talents to the fictional Fan-Tan Hotel and Casino. While things seem off to a great start—two weeks of sold-out shows and some Blackjack wins during their downtime—Debbie (Betty Gilpin) and Ruth (Alison Brie) are struggling. Debbie misses her son, and Ruth, despite having a new boyfriend and a job, feels "lost" and seems to be conflicted about her feelings for GLOW's director Sam. We also get a look at Geena Davis, who joins Season 3 as the Fan-Tan entertainment director Sandy, who wants to extend GLOW's contract to mixed reactions.

Season 3 of GLOW is slated to release on August 9. Until then, watch the trailer, below.

GLOW | Official Season 3 Trailer | Netflix

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Photo courtesy of HBO.

Kat is making me relive my fat-teen trauma

When people say that HBO's new Zendaya-led teen drama, Euphoria, is triggering, believe them. In the pilot alone we're introduced to Rue (Zendaya) and her drug addiction issues via a graphic depiction of the overdose that sent her to rehab. Then, there's the disturbing rough sex scene featuring Jules (Hunter Schafer), a teenage trans girl who has just moved into town, and a middle-aged man she met on Grindr. Oh, and don't forget the unchecked, toxic masculinity of uber-jock Nate (Jacob Elordi); or the body obsession of his sometimes-girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie). For me though, the ultimate trigger came via Barbie Ferreira's character Kat's experience, as she dealt with and internalized a vicious form of fatphobia.

Kat—almost alone amongst her friends—seems self-assured and dismissive of the idea that any high school drama should be taken too seriously. "You just need to catch a dick and forget about your troubles," Kat tells Maddy, following the latter's recent breakup with Nate. But internally, Kate craves male attention, and resents the fact that she's the only virgin she knows; she hints at this when she tells Maddy that she'd "settle for, like, four Corona Lights and some non-rapey affection," from a guy—any guy.

Kat's bravado leads her into a compromising situation at a high school party; she winds up in a room alone with three boys, where she talks a big game about how she's a "savage" who watches porn and has slept with more people than any of them can count. None of this is true, but Kat is determined to become "a woman of questionable morals."

The scene shows the fine line between being an empowered young woman deciding what to do with her body, on her terms, and being a teenager who thinks she's in control but doesn't fully understand the power dynamics at play. Because, yes, Kat is trying to make an intentional decision about her sexuality and how to use it, but she's doing so with a group of boys who don't value or respect her. This reality is made clear when one of them says to her, "You know what they say, right? Fat girls give the best head."

At those familiar words, I melted into my couch and said a silent prayer of gratitude that I wasn't watching Euphoria in the company of anyone else. Onscreen, Kat, too, shrinks ever so slightly into herself, all while trying to keep a poker face about the whole thing. We don't see exactly what happens in the room, but, later, she seems happy when she shares the news with her friends that she's lost her virginity; even though she then lays down, awake, scrolling through the guy's Instagram, seeming altogether less than happy.

Kat's isn't the most violent or necessarily the saddest story line in the episode. But it showed the ways that issues like consent, toxic masculinity, substance abuse, and body image—all of which are difficult to deal with no matter what your size—are further magnified when experienced through the additional trauma of fatphobia. This is something with which I've personally dealt, and so I felt my past experiences rise up inside me when I watched how Kat couldn't build her own sexual identity without being constantly aware of the ways her body exists outside the parameters of acceptable desirability.

My childhood and adolescence are defined by my experiences as a fat girl; it was a time that often felt like a hazy battlefield, when I could hardly navigate which feelings and thoughts were my own, and which ones were the result of outside forces. My body hardly ever felt like mine, and it took years to develop the autonomy that Kat is grasping at as a teenager. Kat, like so many other fat women, has a total lack of support from her peers when it comes to body image and acceptance, and there's a devastating absence of affirmation about her own worth and the importance of her pleasure. Because of fatphobia, Kat is going to be swimming against a strong, but invisible current as she navigates the already fraught social politics of high school. It's one thing to grasp this truth on an intellectual level, but letting those principles guide your decision-making is truly difficult—even for an adult, let alone for a teenager.

Euphoria airs Sunday nights at 10pm, on HBO.

Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Serving us two of summer's biggest trends at the MTV Movie And TV Awards

On top of providing us with consistent bops and exuding endless body positivity, Lizzo has become quite the fashion icon. The singer-rapper-flutistand now actress—has been recently capturing our attention both on, and off, the red carpet. The latest example? Her look at the MTV Movie and TV Awards this Saturday.

Stepping out in a head-turning custom Christopher John Rogers dress, Lizzo rocked a shade of Nickelodeon slime green not for the faint of heart—complete with '90s-inspired ruching and an entirely feathered neckline. In this particular getup, Lizzo nailed not one, but two of the summer's biggest trends: neon green, which has been going strong since winter, and feathers, which have become a red carpet favorite of the stars this season.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Lizzo accented her look with an equally '90s-inspired messy updo, along with matching lime green-and-sunshine yellow eye look. While she paired her getup with a pair of embellished Gucci sneakers, her actual accessory of choice? Matching honeydew.

Photo via @lizzobeeating Instagram

We are not worthy.