The Mask You Live In: Read the full cover feature with Yxng Bane from Notion 82.
From eBay searching for supervillain masks to hitting the top ten, Yxng Bane’s rise has been warp-speed. Meet the man behind the mask as he tries to keep his feet on family turf in the face of rising public stature.
A few days ago, Yxng Bane went home. Parked up by Custom House, his old Canning Town estate in east London, he watched the world go by. From the passenger seat of his Mercedes (he has to ride shotgun in his own car, as he still doesn’t have a license), old friends and older acquaintances strolled by—the boys he used to play football with after school; Bob, the shopkeeper who’d always give him a free can of Coke. The contrast between the Yxng Bane of today, and the Larry Kiala of those years, was hauled sharply into focus. He and his friend pulled out, and drove off.
Today, he’s less pensive. Surrounded by a seemingly ever-growing posse of friends, all laughing, joking and picking at Nando’s, he’s all smiles and laughs, ribbing on his mates one minute, and bearing the brunt of the jokes the next. There’s little hierarchy here—that’s how it’s always been, Bane says.
“My estate was a community place,” he says, bringing it all back home once more. “It’s very, very diverse, and there’s a brotherhood in the area, y’know what I’m saying? Even, like, with the shopkeepers—everybody knows everyone.” He smiles. “You can go to the shop and get a free drink,” Bane adds with a laugh, “It’s that kind of place.”
Canning Town is essential to Yxng Bane’s make-up. Even now, with features on top ten singles alongside the likes of Ed Sheeran and ticket sales in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands under his belt, the diversity of that Custom House estate is his chief inspiration. There was a sense of freedom on the estate, he explains—one that he shared with fellow Canning Town resident (and long-time friend and collaborator) Kojo Funds.
“My mum and my dad would always say to me when I was a kid, like, ‘Anything good or bad you do, make sure you tell us first before you tell anyone’,” Bane recalls. “Like, I don’t smoke cigarettes, but my first time smoking a cigarette, I went home and told my mum straight away. I did get in trouble, obviously, because it’s not a good thing to do, but it was just the fact that she’s always made me comfortable enough to be able to tell her anything.”
Aside from the less productive, tobacco-based pastimes of a London estate kid, there were more creative endeavours to follow too. Making music was the logical progression of that ‘anything goes’, youthful freedom. When they weren’t scolding him for smoking, his parents were playing records by Boyz II Men on repeat, or blasting out gospel music, “and obviously African native music.” From there, Bane’s dad bought him a piano; soon after, he discovered 50 Cent via Get Rich or Die Tryin’. “Then I bought, like, the game with it, the Bulletproof PS2 game, and I went and bought the G-Unit trainers,” he recalls with a grin. “Me and my cousins used to think we were G-Unit—I used to think I was Lloyd Banks and my cousin would be 50 Cent.”
It was a musical melting pot that reflected the culture clash on the streets outside. While his parents were indulging in the music and culture of their native Congo and Angola, his neighbours were sharing their own backgrounds with a young Bane. “All my friends were, like I said, very diverse. Not just African—Caribbean, Asian, English, all kinds,” he explains. It bled into both his upbringing and his output. “Even now, sometimes when I talk, I sound cockney, or sometimes I’ll say a Jamaican word, or I might say something Somalian, just as we’re speaking between ourselves.” He and his friends treat that fusion of language like second nature. “That’s because we’ve grown up around it, and we all soak it in,” he explains. “And I guess it comes out in the music, as well.”
When a teenage Yxng Bane decided to start producing music, there was little intent behind it. He’d seen Kojo Funds’ early moves, and thought it seemed like fun. “I just naturally always had an interest in it, but I never thought to myself, ‘I want to be a musician’ or, ‘I want to do music’,” he explains. That changed, quickly. Early SoundCloud uploads, buoyed by word-of-mouth and a favourable algorithm, saw his debut single “Lone Wolf” gather tens of thousands of plays in a matter of days. While Bane was off playing football, or watching his beloved Arsenal on TV, the stats began racking up quietly in the background. “Within, like, six months,” he recalls, “I had a million plays.”
From that point on, there was a realisation that, just maybe, music could be a career path. He pressed pause on his plans to go to university and become an investment banker—those ever-encouraging parents were happy to see it happen. “They were supportive of me,” says Bane. “They just wanted to see results, you know what I’m saying? Luckily, I was able to show them results and carry on doing what I was doing. It was just a conversation. It’s always been a matter of conversation, they’re just… They’re pretty cool.”
The next step was somewhat unconventional. With plans to film a music video fast approaching, the then-Larry Kiala was worried about going public. “I didn’t like showing my face,” he explains—a statement that seems entirely at odds with his jawline and immaculate skin. The solution? A mask.
Yxng Bane, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a name inspired by the Batman villain, Bane. With 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises papering billboards and newspaper stands everywhere Kiala went, he found himself drawn to the menacing, wraparound mask worn by Tom Hardy’s character. To this day, he admits, he’s still never seen the film. “I’ll tell you the truth,” he smiles, “I Googled it.” Inspired by Bane’s near-iconic lines about being born in darkness (“I read his Wikipedia and thought ‘Oh, his story’s alright’”), he hopped on a friend’s eBay account and bought a Bane mask of his own. From then on out, Larry Kiala was a figment of a past life. Yxng Bane was born—not from darkness, but from the eclecticism of Canning Town.
Productions began racking up thick and fast. Without much in the way of a game-plan, and buoyed by that kaleidoscopic upbringing, Yxng Bane eschewed genres entirely. “Fine Wine”, a perky, Kojo-featuring hit, followed the darker, more drill and grime influenced early days. From there, things got even weirder. A chance phone-call to a newfound manager resulted in one of the most unexpected—and stratospheric—remixes of 2017, as Bane took on Ed Sheeran’s dancehall smasher “Shape Of You”. Released via SBTV, it became the underground soundtrack of London youth almost overnight. To date, it sits at almost 18 million YouTube views and rising.
Was the ‘Shape of You’ remix the moment where you went, ‘This is a career now’?
Yeah, yeah. That’s the point where I thought I could take it seriously, you know what I’m saying? That was the moment, for sure.
How did that come about?
I was in the studio and my manager called me. “Shape of You” was playing on the radio whilst he was on the phone to me. And he loved it! He went, ‘Ahhh, I can hear you on this beat’. He held out the phone and I just done it. Then we did a video, and put it out.
Lucky it was that song on the radio.
Yeah! [laughs] That’s just how it happened.
And the interest around that blew up.
Yeah, it was crazy, that reaction was crazy. I feel grateful because that reaction made me want to chase it even more—made me realise what I can do. It made me see things; it made me dream. So, thank you to everyone, because that actually made me dream. That’s the perfect way to describe it.
From then on out, Yxng Bane barely left the studio. “I was in the studio, like, every day—double sessions in a day—morning and evening, with no sleep bro,” he remembers, not exhaustedly, but with a still-palpable excitement. Firing out singles at rocket-speed, he quickly established himself as a black-British polymath—someone who could just as easily deal in Afro-swing bops (“Rihanna”), as punishing, drill-influenced takedowns (“Froze”), or lovelorn R&B (“Answerphone”). He pinned himself as “genreless” in early interviews; it’s a statement he’s stuck to ever since.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” he says, “it’s just letting the music do it for you, you know? These are just different feelings and different ways of expressing yourself. You know—sometimes we cry, sometimes we shout. It’s the same way with music—sometimes I rap, sometimes I sing. I just let the instrumental remind me of a place, or however I’m feeling that day, or that situation, or whatever phone call I had in the morning—whether it’s pissed me off or whether it’s made me happy. I’m going to go into the studio and then I’m going to find a beat that’s going to reflect on how I’m feeling then.”
The one thing that links all these seemingly disparate musical threads? Authenticity. “It needs to be fully, one-hundred-percent authentic,” Bane stresses. “That’s where it becomes special, because the people listening can relate to it—because everybody goes through the same problems because we’re all human. Not just the same problems, but we experience the same things that make us happy as well. Seeing family happy makes us all happy, et cetera. We all share the same little happinesses.”
It’s an approach that’s not only helped gather together—and bring happiness to—a huge, genre-spanning fanbase (one that looks set to sell out London’s cavernous Brixton Academy in early 2019), but also one that’s given Yxng Bane an insight into the operations of the countless different genres that make up young, black, British music in 2018.
With “Froze”, Yxng Bane flirted with drill, a genre that’s become the go-to whipping target of politicians more concerned with blaming culture for street violence, than actually enacting positive social change. It’s a trend that infuriates him, he admits. “They’re not angry all the time,” he says of his friends in the drill scene. “They’re in a studio, like, you know what I’m saying? They’re in a studio. Would you rather they be outside? They’re in a studio and they’re doing something positive.”
How did it feel to watch that movement get hit with such bad press?
It’s like I say about it being authentic—if that’s their reality, that’s someone’s reality. I grew up in the same circles as these drill rappers —that’s our reality. So therefore, if one’s expressing their reality, you can’t be mad. What you do is you do something about the situation, you don’t press it. You can’t hide from reality, or point a finger at reality. It’s the truth, so what you do is accept it and do something about it. Because they’re doing something about it—they’re going to the studio.
So you’ve got politicians saying the music is encouraging violence on the streets, but the music is reflecting what’s already happening?
It’s not encouraging nothing. It’s not encouraging nothing. That’s like saying me making “Rihanna”’s encouraging girls to break boys’ hearts. Nobody says that. Or, I don’t know, “Vroom” encourages girls to shake their bodies like a motor, you know what I’m saying? [laughs] Nobody says that. It’s the same thing.
It’s a misunderstanding of young, black, British culture that spreads far beyond the House Of Commons, though. Just days before our chat, Wireless Festival hits headlines, with the annual celebration of black music forced to limit seemingly unlimitable things, such as on-stage swearing, and ‘revealing outfits’. It’s a Draconian measure that would be almost laughable, were it not for the racial undertones of the move. In a year that’s seen afro-swing and black British pop dominate the charts, while decimating streaming records, it’s a clear downside to mainstream attention—one that Bane’s inevitable breakthrough could go some way to combatting.
He’s even-handed when he considers the gulf between a black British reality and the way it’s presented in the press. “They can’t understand, but you have to be—sometimes you just have to be understanding,” he concedes. “Sometimes things ain’t right, but you just have to be understanding. So, from their point of view there’s kids who go Wireless, for example,” he says with a shrug, leaving the conclusion to that devil’s advocate statement hanging in the air. “The only reason why the person’s swearing is because they’re expressing themselves,” he adds, looping back to that focus on authenticity.
“Everybody is part of it,” he says of both his own success, and the wider success of his peers in 2018. Inclusivity is key, he stresses. “That’s why everybody’s doing so well. That’s why everybody’s pushing the scene. The scene’s growing very fast—it’s going very well. It’s a good time. Even artists that I’ve made songs with, like, we have a relationship outside of music. Like yesterday I was with K-Trap, just chilling. Or Headie One would just come and check me, or Young Adz. Yeah, it’s at a good place. The togetherness and the chemistry’s great.”
In recent months, Yxng Bane has become an almost iconic figure. That aforementioned Brixton Academy show is a huge step towards mainstream exposure; judging by today’s balance of bravado and bashfulness, the Canning Town boy is ready to go global, without losing sight of his rather more suburban upbringing.
A few days after we meet, Bane surprise drops HBK, his first official mixtape, and a hint at just what, given space to breathe, that genreless approach can achieve. “I do pay attention to the feedback,” he admits, “and a lot of the feedback was, ‘He’s done a lot of features’. The fans wanted to hear more of me by myself. And then it became that they wanted my own project. You can’t really not give them what they want.”
With just three guest vocalists over 14 tracks, HBK is the first hint at just what Yxng Bane can do on his own two feet. He promises a 2019 that’s “only bigger and better” than what’s come before, with HBK acting as the perfect launchpad. “I don’t really talk much,” he admits. “I don’t really go on no Instagram and do a selfie video saying this and that—I don’t really do all that stuff. So I’d just rather just let the music speak and be honest in the music. And then you know the truth; the truth always shows. And then you understand the person.”
He’ll be popping home again later this week, he admits, once all the madness of the HBK surprise drop has died down. He’ll get his friend to drive past Bob’s—he’ll probably pay for his can of Coke this time, mind.
“I have to,” he says of those weekly returns to where it all began. “It’s like a breath of fresh air every day. Even now, like, when I’m done with my day, I’ll probably just go by and just chill. Sometimes I just go out and just watch the water,” he says, his mind drifting and his calendar filling up fast. “I’ll just chill. Relax a bit.”