Spend just an hour in the presence of Ms. Banks and you’ll leave convinced she’s destined for stardom. Not only is she intelligent, engaging and – as promised on recent banger “Come Thru” – perpetually on fleek, she speaks with steely determination and a keen awareness of the world around her. Just 23 years old, Banks already has a few years of experience in the music industry; the ferociously talented rapper has been steadily releasing a slew of viral freestyles, singles and features, one of which – the irresistibly catchy, patois-laced “Yu Zimme” remix – just landed her a cosign from her idol, Nicki Minaj.
“It’s crazy! I remember listening to her when I was younger. I would look in the mirror, sing along to her music and it would make me feel confident. Now, to have her shouting me out – it’s amazing,” she enthuses. “She’s given me a lot of fuel to think, ‘you know what? If she thinks I can do this, then I can do this.’”
The timing couldn’t be more perfect. Banks – first name Thyra, dropped for obvious reasons – is currently gearing up to release The Coldest Winter Ever, a brand new EP inspired by Sister Souljah’s novel of the same name. “It’s about a girl who had a hard time growing up in New York and made a lot of the wrong decisions,” she explains. She reminded me a lot of myself – my experiences weren’t as bad, but that whole element of trying to become something from nothing and finding the right ways to go about it spoke to me. But my own conscious is very loud – I took my own advice in the end, and it’s going really well so far!”
Trusting her own instincts has undeniably paid off. Musically, she follows her heart and riffs on her own tastes: “I listen to pop, R&B, bashment, afrobeats, house… I listen to everything. I’m a lover of all sounds and I wanted to show people that I can express myself on different beats, different tempos – and it’s always going to be fire!” This eclecticism permeates the new mixtape, on which Banks swerves effortlessly between beats and genres, rhymes and melodies. Production comes from heavy-hitters like the Fanatix (“Mula,” “Come Thru”) and Toddla T, who provides the bass-heavy backdrop to Banks’ rapid-fire brags on “Chat To Mi Gyal.”
There are some more introspective moments, too. “I Know You Know” is a laid-back cut which sees the star wax lyrical on musicians using her name to come up (perhaps a reference to the music industry’s notorious “girl vs. girl” mentality) and the global violence in countries like Libya and Syria, which so often goes ignored. “It happened naturally because I do have that side to me,” Banks explains. “I’m very aware of what’s going on in society, but I don’t want to bore people with my message or sound too preachy. That song is a vibe and it could work in the club, but I’m always thinking about what’s going on in the world. My mind takes me to a lot of places.”
Banks also flexes her vocals on a few occasions, most notably on the earworm chorus of “Day Ones,” a dedication to the friends who have stayed by her side. “I actually started singing before I started rapping,” she recalls, explaining she was always a strong singer but stopped practicing in her early teens – “I was always being naughty, smoking and all this stuff – that probably didn’t help!” Unsurprisingly, Banks was born into a musical family (her parents and uncles all made music) in South London and fondly remembers performing for relatives when she was a toddler, enlisting aunties as back-up singers and dancers. “I would have a long-sleeve T-shirt on my head pretending it was a long weave,” she recalls, bursting into infectious laughter. “My family laugh at it now – they’re like ‘Thyra, you were just a baby but you had us in the background!’”
This dedication to music never waned; Banks spent her teenage years polishing her skills, working various jobs to pay for sessions and performing whenever she got a chance. “I would have spent my last for studio time back in the day! Thank God I get loads of help now, but it didn’t come on a plate. Still, I just feel like you should never go into something if you’re not ready to take it all the way.” Again taking her own advice, Banks went all the way and dropped an expansive debut mixtape – Once Upon A Grind – in 2014 and garnered huge support, soon locking down features with the likes of JME, Stormzy, Tinie Tempah and Stefflon Don.
Her profile blew up again with a 2016 freestyle over Kanye West’s “30 Hours,” aired as part of 1Xtra’s Fire In The Booth. “I put in a lot of effort to make sure that was a good freestyle,” Banks says of the overwhelming reaction. “I love any chance to just be free with it because I feel like I mastered the freestyle side of things before I did songs, they’re a bit of a different structure. Any chance I get to just go hot, that’s me!”
It’s clear her fans agree, retweeting her contribution to the #Pengame2challenge in their thousands. In this sense, social media has refreshed the previously male-dominated rap industry, allowing women to breakthrough without a male cosign: “I think females are really showing what we’re made of without needing the men to say, ‘Oh she’s good, let me get you on this song.’ I’m like, ‘No – I’m here, I’m as good as the rest of you guys and I know it!’”
That’s not to say Banks doesn’t still have to fight her corner, or fight off men sliding into her DMs promising collaboration but nurturing an ulterior motive. “Let people know you’re about your business! You don’t have to sleep with a man to get what you want – just get what you want. I would tell women to walk with their eyes open, be vigilant, aware and don’t ever feel pressured to do something because someone offered you something for it. You’ll get there if you need to get there – without opening your legs.”
This thread of female empowerment ties together Banks’ strong back catalogue, which includes several collaborations with the likes of Paigey Cakey, Lisa Mercedez and Shauna Shadae. Banks cites IAMDBB as an artist she’d love to link up with and also repeatedly praises Stefflon Don, whom she counts as both a friend and an inspiration – “I understand her vibe and she understands mine.” Banks also aims to uplift other women, pay homage to her heroes and be sexy on her own terms. The lingerie scene in “Come Thru” is exemplary, inspired by Keisha, the leading lady of Hype Williams film Belly: “She’s so beautiful and she’s got a bob – she’s just so lit!”
She admits she does face some pushback for embracing her sexuality, but says that things aren’t as bad as they once were due to sex-positive trailblazers in the rap industry. “I actually used to be very covered up until I went on holiday, and I was on the beach in a bikini. I was like – “‘This is dead!’ Why am I killing myself to be always covered-up? My body’s nice, so I’ll flaunt it!” Banks also casts beautiful women in her videos, flipping the tired trope of the “video vixen” on its head: “I’m all for women embracing their sexuality on their own terms. I won’t let a man tell me to be sexy so he can use me for views – I’m going to use my own sexuality for views!” At this point she breaks into a hilarious impression of her mother showing friends how sexy her daughter is, again reinforcing her strong presence as a role model in Banks’ life.
Ultimately, it’s refreshing to see a talented musician with a strong sense of who she is as an artist – increasingly rare in an industry which snaps up young stars and signs them to development deals often laced with label interference. Banks may be self-made and unsigned, but she’s managed to gain impressive traction on her own terms – and, she hints, a series of DMs exchanged between Banks and Nicki could yield life-changing results. But The Coldest Winter Ever is more proof that her current team is already enough to lead her to success; in other words, she’s in no rush to sign a deal.“Don’t let them come and decide who you’re going to be,” Banks says sagely. “They might have an understanding of the machine, but they can’t tell who you’re going to be as an artist unless you don’t know yourself. If you don’t know, you shouldn’t be going to get an advance from anyone!”
For more of our interviews, check out our exclusive Q&A and editorial with Bishop Nehru on the release of his new album right here.
- Photography: c/o Ms. Banks