Banks had long been a fan of American hip-hop royalty Nicki Minaj but the last thing she expected to see, on a decidedly unglamourous train journey back from Leeds, was a tweet from the star saluting her bars.
The lyrics were from Banks’ and Lisa Mercedez’s remix of Stylo G’s dancehall rumpus Yu Zimme, released last September, and Minaj told Banks that “her people” had been reciting the verse “over and over”. Minaj knows talent when she sees it. Banks, who was on her way home to south London when she copped the ensuing social media storm, was thrilled to receive the ultimate co-sign. It felt “amazing. A-may-zing! Like I was dreaming,” she says. “I listened to lot of male performers growing up, but to have another woman who I really admired say that was the best thing that could have happened.”
Minaj’s support was further proof, if any was needed, that Ms Banks is 2018’s artist-to-watch – and one who’s got serious hip-hop chops. The rapper has come up alongside the cream of the grime crop, from collaborating with Stormzy, JME and Tinie Tempah to performing at Boy Better Know’s huge O2 takeover last summer. She has been steadily building a reputation as a canny lyricist and technically skilled rapper since she started songwriting, aged 15. But if 2017 was the year Banks nudged overground – with a trio of banging tracks, OMG, Get Loose and Day Ones, and a tour support slot for US #1 Cardi B – this year she is leading the charge for the new wave of British talent. Already she has graced both the cover of NME for their 100 for 2018 issue and been featured heavily in the Guardian’s Top 40 Newcomers Of 2018 list, who called her vocals “magnificent”.
Banks, 24, who shares her first name with the US supermodel and TV presenter Tyra, was introduced to grime as a young girl growing up on Camberwell’s Brandon estate. Her uncle was in south London grime crew Essentials, part of genre’s first wave in the early 2000s alongside Wiley and Kano, and she would spend afternoons watching “[legendary grime battle video series] Risky Roadz when I was 10 years old, at my grandma’s house.” At the same time she was listening to a mix of UK and US hip-hop heavyweights and R&B singers, from Estelle, Ms Dynamite and Jamelia to Lil Kim and Foxy Brown, which informed her own balance of feathery-sweet melody and nails-hard rapping, as well her fearless representation of female sexuality. Banks started rapping “at the block, or with the boys outside the shop. I was always the one girl that could rap”, which instilled in her a competitive spirit when it came to going up against the guys. She says later of working on Been The Man, the 2015 track with Tinie, Stormzy and JME, “I had to prove myself, being the only woman on the song among those heavy-hitters. I thought, you better show them what you’re made of, girl.” She doesn’t care much for labels but, just like her peers Little Simz, Lady Leshurr or Stefflon Don, she won’t let being pigeonholed by her gender hold her back. “You're always gonna be categorised, yes I am a rapper, yes I am female, ta-da!” she says, adding that the success of Cardi B and Nicki Minaj in the US shows there is room for everyone at the top. “We can have two black female artists coinciding, it can work,” she says. “There’s enough for all of us.” There’s a tender fierceness to Banks, of someone who has broken through against the odds and who is “always trying to prove myself to myself”. At first she harboured silver screen dreams and studied performing arts at college – but she “got kicked out in the first three months”. At this point, she was also living on her own, aged 17, having moved out of her mum’s place. She says those formative years played a crucial part in her independent streak. “I've had responsibility for forever,” she says, like an old soul on young shoulders. “I've been living by myself for about six years.”
Striking out on her own was “the way it had to go for me to realise what I needed to do”. She went back to repeat her first year at college but eventually became disillusioned with being an actress. “I was going through so much and I felt like I was reading scripts every day, acting out other people’s lives, but I wasn’t dealing with mine.” Rapping gave her the medium she needed to explore her struggles – but at one point she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to pursue music professionally. “I lost my job, I was really depressed and I didn't know what I was gonna do next,” she says. “I didn't know how to start, and I hit rock bottom.” When she turned 18, a friend booked her some studio time, and Banks uploaded the three covers she had laid down to Soundcloud. Another friend sent the links to the Hip Hop Nation open mic nights and they invited Banks to perform. “When I got offstage, I thought, I can do this,” she says. “It was the first time I’ve ever
done something and felt so present. I didn’t care about the past, wasn’t thinking about the future, I was just in the moment. And I had 200 followers by the time I left that night.” Banks hasn’t looked back since. Her first music video, for the track NAME???, was made by her friend JStar in 2013, cost £40 (that’s half the price of Skepta’s famously budget video for That’s Not Me). “I bought
one bottle of Ciroq and we filmed the journey down the road to one of my shows and that was it,” she laughs. She continued to hone her skills on the open-mic circuit, while last year’s string of releases established her as an MC with realness and real versatility on her side. OMG was accompanied by a video in which Banks dressed up like an F1 grid girl and delivered hard-hitting bravado about her standalone rap style (“I go hard / it just gets stiff dick”). Murky banger Get Loose employed her freestyle from her legendary Fire In The Booth session in 2016 – the moment she felt she could say, “Mum, I’ve made it!”. And in Day Ones, which critics praised for its softer-focus Afrobeats and contrasted with her heavier,
shadowier bangers, she put her sexual prowess front and centre, goading: “You wanna go all night / breed me up, I give you more life”.
Female empowerment, Banks says, is her “continuous message from beginning to end. I feel like a lot of women are just put in a box, your whole life is based on being prim and proper, and preparing yourself for a husband, and that's some bullshit. Men are allowed to express themselves at every given chance they
have, and no one can tell them anything. But as a woman you have to do all these things for a guy. My life is not based around a man. We have the men, you don't have us.” It’s why, in her videos, she wears what she wants, and raps with just as much bravado and self-assurance as her male counterparts. She certainly
isn’t about to let music industry bosses dictate what she should do, or dress like. “What people need to understand, especially men, is that women are allowed to be powerful, and we’re allowed to be free,” she continues. “We like to have fun, wear what we want, we like to be sexy. You can't tell me how to control
my feminine energy.” It’s an energy she continues to explore with her new music, on forthcoming mixtape The Coldest Winter Ever. Lead single Come Thru – which was added to the 1Xtra playlist in February and is produced by Fanatix (Chip, Popcaan) – she is at her Foxiest, delivering some slick bombast about being untouchable on top of an ear-worming 2000s-hip-hop style breaks, as well as slaying the competition with her witty rhymes (“You rap like tortillas / sticky like quesadillas”). The remaining 10 tracks span grime, drill, Afrobeats, R&B, trap, supercharging those UK and US influences with what she calls some signature south London “cockiness”. Chat To Mi Gyal, produced by Radio 1’s Toddla T, pairs a dancehall rhythm with a vocal performance that recalls Busta Rhymes. Banks is a fan of “his diction, how hard-hitting it is, the fast flows, the playfulness of it – he's not too serious but it's serious enough.” Elsewhere, Back It Up pays
homage to her African heritage (“I defo wanna express myself and show my culture more”) and, by contrast, Clap, produced by Greatness Jones (Giggs, Avelino), is her toughest track yet. But the Coldest Winter Ever shows a more vulnerable side to Ms Banks, too, one that weighs up heartbreak and hardship. It’s about “strength, love, and finding the power to overcome adversity,” she
says, of “being knocked down, being told you can't be shit, being put in shitty environments, being heartbroken, and the power of coming back.” The past few years have proved something important, and that’s how she’s found the strength within herself to make it. “I've had all the odds against me, no one believed in me, and I'm winning,” she says. “I had a shit education, grew up in a council estate, had a bad group of friends, smoked weed and moved out early – this is stuff that are not in the path of someone that's supposed to be successful. I've come from nothing to something. I beat all the odds, that's it.” She says seeing Stormzy’s “going ham” was inspiring, his meteoric rise proving that it’s possible to go from the streets to star without compromising your sound or yourself. Major labels are, of course, snapping at her ankles and but Banks would rather keep things the way they are for now. “There are a few more goals I can achieve by myself,” she says. “When I’m ready, I’ll sign.” With determination like
hers, the world had better be ready. After all, says Banks, with some of that signature unabashed bravado: “My career’s definitely gonna leave a mark. It's gonna be legendary.”