As one of UK hip-hop’s most important voices and with co-signs from Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, Ms Banks is the rising rap star that’s breaking the mould on what it means to be a British female emcee.
When Ms. Banks first moved into her flat in Bermondsey, a neighbour emptied a bag of garbage onto her doorstep. She later found out the person responsible was a racist neighbour intimidated by her presence in the building. Experiences like this are alarmingly common if you’re young, black and successful in the United Kingdom—with Stormzy’s Chelsea residence raided back in 2017 by armed police after a fidgety white neighbour feared he was up to no good in the property. “It’s crazy,” Ms Banks says in a resigned tone, sighing between long sips of hot chocolate. “They really don’t like it when a young black person is doing well for themselves! Some people just hate you.”
Even if 24-year-old Ms Banks—real name Thyra, with a silent ‘h’ (the connection with the supermodel is a complete coincidence)—has experienced kickback since emerging as one of the UK rap scene’s most potent new voices, she gives the impression that she’s immune to the pressure. Banks wears her heart on her sleeve like it’s the new fashion, warmly answering questions and requesting we meet in a unassuming, humble local café (“the paninis here are fucking amazing!” she tells me), which has a leaky roof and offers a fry up for a fiver. She isn’t flanked by a team of militant publicists, just her own shadow, rocking a casual hoodie and t-shirt combination that give a down-to earth impression.
This relaxed attitude is all the more admirable given that it comes at time where Ms Banks’ name is starting to go stratospheric. Just a few days ago, she shared a stage with girl group Little Mix at the Brit Awards for their empowering duet “Woman Like Me”, while she’s recently toured with Cardi B and even had her idol Nicki Minaj quote her bars—”Yuh nuh affi ask when ya see me. See di house and cyar dat ah fimi”— on Twitter.
“I think these artists respect me because they recognise that my message doesn’t change,” says an assured Banks. “I want women to be empowered and to feel like a boss. Growing up listening to Lauryn Hill, Nicki Minaj and Ms Dynamite, I would put them on if I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Playing their music inspired me to get up, and that’s what I am going to do to people too!”
Banks’ music takes the aesthetic of growing up with no money and combines it with the idea that this shouldn’t hold somebody back from succeeding. It’s about wearing being black and working class as a badge of honour and not letting it stop you from sitting at the top table. Take lethal new single “Hood Bitch”, where Banks, who is still an independent artist, claps back at eager labels who won’t pay her what she deserves: “Labels on me like designers tryna sign me a deal / How you want a housewife when you ain’t paying the bills?” Her flow is direct, cutting through the beat, her voice booming like her dad’s hero KRS-One.
On the surface, her music takes on a familiar trap sound, yet she routinely manages to flip these expectations upside down, letting listeners know she doesn’t fit neatly inside a box. This is made most clear by the head-nodding “Bangs”, when she bravely pushes back against the drug-obsessed world of the dominant Soundcloud rap scene: “I bet you feeling like the man / Cause you popping percs and taking them Xans / I don’t fuck with that / we should get it banned!”
Ms. Banks tells me having a conscience is important and that she never wants to glorify drug culture: “I can’t even handle weed brownies,” she jokes, “I took an edible in LA the other day and I was staring at the wall for hours in complete hell. It wasn’t fun at all!” However, her references to male peers on tracks such as “Bangs” are also a sign of frustration, particularly at how she has to work so much harder than emerging male rappers. “If you’re a woman you have to work so much harder and not in a fun way! I am saying so much more than so many of the guys in the UK scene; I know I have bars. Yet there are guys not saying anything and you’re literally only rating their lyrics because they’re coming out of a man’s mouth!”
It must be frustrating when you keep on grinding but you then see the line-up for a rap festival like Wireless and there’s no women on there?
“It’s depressing. There’s too many men making the big calls. A lot of the booking agents sign up acts based on statistics. They see male artists with a million views so sign them up over a woman with a hundred thousand, even if she’s better. It is bullshit. We need to look deeper than that or you’re just silencing so many voices. Women have to work their arses off, but men just have to show up!”
On the intro to your the The Coldest Winter Ever mixtape, you say “long gone are the days where there can only be one”—despite the sexism you’ve experienced, do you think we are moving to a place where female artists have more freedom and aren’t being pitted against one another?
“As a woman, they want you to think that you have to solidify your spot at the cost of helping another woman succeed. It’s why over in the US, we always see female rappers pitted against one another. But I know that I can solidify my spot even if someone else is popping or another girl is blowing up. That’s what that bar was about. We must all stick together, times are changing and we have a responsibility as female rappers to set an example for the next girl and make it easier for their come up.
“What frustrates me is how it’s always black women who are pitted against one another. When Iggy Azalea got a number one single, she was allowed to exist in her own lane, separate to everyone else. But if two black women like Nicki and Cardi are doing their thing then they are pitted together as rivals.”
Is there a way to change this kind of sexism? Can you forge a new path?
“I really don’t know. There’s always more pressure on women. Men can come from the trap, they don’t have to shape up or spray their armpits and can still shut things down on stage. I need to get my hair done, have a banging outfit and be in good shape or people tell me I am too fat.
“If you are not the standard of slim the record industry expects, and you are a little bit thicker, then you have to find a way to cover up! When are men ever called fat!? A normal sized man isn’t called out on his weight, but a normal sized woman is! I guess that’s the kind of bullshit I want to try to stop from happening. The UK ladies need to stick together and let them know we’re not standing for it. Being a feminist isn’t about not liking men but equality. Men say dumb shit like: ‘If you want equality then pay for the bill’. I can! I can afford it, trust me! All we are asking for is equality and you don’t like it!”
Banks grew up on Camberwell’s Walworth Road, an area where knife crime is worryingly common. Her mum worked multiple jobs to pay the bills and things were tough, but music was something that kept the family, which is of both Nigerian and Ugandan heritage, “smiling through the bullshit. My dad had thousands of rap records stacked up in his living room and would blast KRS-One, whose voice was so epic! He loved Quincy Jones so much that he changed his first name to Quincy!”
Banks started rapping properly aged 12. She remembers writing her first bars on a school note pad. “They were so shit,” she recalls. “I was spelling my name like—‘T to the Y to the R to the A, when I’m on the mic, I rap, I don’t play, if you don’t like me that’s okay, I’m gonna beat you anyway!’” From there she started honing her craft on London’s open mic hip-hop scene before dropping her debut mixtape, Once Upon A Grind, in 2014. Her uncle—the pioneering UK rapper Remedy from grime group Essentials—was also a notable influence during these formative years, proving to Banks she could go from a south east London estate to the big stages. This early period of exposure to new music was most influential due to its variety. Banks explains: “My mum listened to African music, my auntie listened to grime, my dad listened to US rap, my uncle would play drum and bass. It made me realise I needed to be versatile.”
This versatility is evident on beautifully chilled tracks such as “Over (Your Shit)” where Banks trades in the ferocious bars for a tender falsetto that ridicules toxic masculinity and sonically has more in common with slow-jams from Brandy than 1990s boom bap. She hates the idea that rappers must sound one way: “People want rappers to conform to one sound, but pop stars do what they want so why can’t we? When you hear Rihanna you hear dance, rock and pop, Beyonce sings over country tracks. Why can’t I rap over different beats? If you just recycle the same sound, you don’t show growth as an artist and probably won’t last long. I want to create a real melting pot of sounds.”
This experimental mentality has been reinforced by conversations with Cardi B on tour, who taught Banks how to be unapologetically individual. “Cardi is exactly the person you see on Instagram,” she says. “She taught me that you shouldn’t listen to other people’s expectations and you must do what you feel, always.” Yet even though she appears well grounded, there’s a fear that with Ms Banks now teetering on the edge of mainstream success, her sound could become compromised to fit into the pop world—especially given how she’s become mates with Little Mix and was recently in the studio with will.i.am. Banks says these kind of collaborations are necessary if it means she’s able to help inspire more young black women.
“To be fair, yeah, from the outside, I thought Little Mix was soft and for the kids, but them girls are fierce!” she answers. “They are really fierce. I saw a different level of professionalism and form of dedication and understanding of unity with your fans. For the Brits, we did rehearsals in an army federal reserve, it gave me Spice Girls vibes. Working with Little Mix is important because if Nicki tours the UK and asks me to be her opener, I won’t be daunted!”
“Of course it’s a fear that I could go too pop, but that’s why I’ve taken so much time building my reputation and haven’t signed to anybody yet. I got offered loads of deals last year, I could have signed, but I want to get to know myself more as a person and artist before taking that plunge. When I step in those boardrooms, I want to step in there with confidence so they deal with someone who truly knows their worth. When you know what your power is then you don’t get taken for granted.”
While these words can sometimes sound empty coming out of other artists’ mouths, it’s hard not to believe Ms Banks, who tells me she relaxes by drinking green tea while reading financial literacy books, such as Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki, in order to avoid being stuck in a record deal that limits her earning potential. Banks displays all the signs of an artist ready to elevate to the next level, with an awareness of her image that stretches beyond being told what to say or what to wear.
“I have two stylists but I tell them what I am wearing on the red carpet, whether that’s a gown or a hoodie. It is important to me that I stay in control.” Today Banks is wearing a striking t-shirt that has an illustration of a beautiful naked women being dragged down into the bowels of the earth by the hands of the undead. It’s a t-shirt from her friend’s fashion label 187mob, and she half-jokes: “It’s probably subconscious as there’s this sexy woman being dragged down to hell. I feel like that too with all the misogynists who don’t want to see women like me win.”
Looking ahead to the immediate future, Ms Banks is preparing a new mixtape before releasing an album. However, she says her main concern is creating an environment where other young women can succeed. She wants to turn the rubbish that people, quite literally, throw at her into a gold that endures. “I could have been a statistic, growing up in south London, growing up in a council state with a my mum working two jobs and not having very much,” Banks says. “Teachers didn’t think I would be anything but I just kept the faith in my dreams!”
“I want to inspire the next black girl to change their family’s life too. I want to build a legacy so other kids can thrive. I don’t want my kids to come into poverty, but I want them to have options. I want them to look at me and know that you can be a boss without a man throwing you off.”
- Bodysuit Y-Project