Devil That I Know: The Spirit Of Jacob Banks

Devil That I Know: The Spirit Of Jacob Banks

A frank conversation with the potent songwriter...

Jacob Banks is quietly poised, with a wisdom and gracious savoir-faire of someone far beyond 29 years. Adhering to the guidelines of the time, Banks enters the establishment covering his face with his beanie, an item the artist is rarely seen without, joking how he is unrecognisable in its absence.

As he settles on the velvet sofa, smiling politely and letting out a gentle sigh, it is hard not to notice the slight cumbersome aura that is delicately wrapped around him. Courteous and demure in his demeanour, he composes himself as he divulges, “2020 has been a year of endings. A lot of things have ended for me and I have survived all of them, so I have to imagine that everyone else can as well. I lost my grandmother and I wrote a song called ‘Found’ just after she passed. Over the past five years, we’ve had this relationship where she calls me every Saturday without fail and it’s weird knowing that that won’t happen again. But I still loved her and she still loved me, and that still happened.”

“As soon as she hit 90, I was scared. I was grateful I had another four years with her but I had been preparing myself for the day. I just hold on to the good times – all I have are good times with her.”

- - -

- - -

Banks meditates on the concept of love and loss that runs through his songwriting. He forewarns of the cost of love, remarking how love is expensive and that it all comes to an end regardless of how you feel or what you want. Love is blind and it is finite, in the sense that it holds you in ruthless disregard, only to come to an abrupt and largely unexpected end. While this may seem a grim truth to confront for most, for Banks it is a learning and an opportunity for growth, as well as a profound appreciation for our fleeting time on this earth.

“Unfortunately, everything ends and that’s ok. I think it’s important for people to come to terms with that in love and in life. It can still be wonderful, things don’t have to stop being wonderful because they ended. You have to find magic in the journey, be present and not expect too much from anything. Love ultimately ends in pain - whichever way you spin it, it is a tragic story and a little morbid. Even if you live a perfect life with the love of your life, at some point one of you will leave earth before the other, which of course will be painful for the other person.”

- - -

- - -

Further expanding on the concept of endings, particularly in relation to marginalised groups and conversations around oppression, Banks highlights that even though everything ends, something will always take its place. As many bury their heads in the sand amid the pandemic or run around pontificating on the dysfunction and division of society, a flicker of hope seeps through the cracks for Banks, both in his music and outlook on life. “I think we have gotten a lot closer [together] than we have ever been. I wish it was not at the cost of all these lives. I wish there wasn’t a pain associated with any of these things. When the oppressed talk about the relationship with the police for example, I think it is hard for other people who do not have to deal with it, so it is hard for people to wrap their heads around it.”

A zealous and revolutionary tone penetrates his tone as he unfurls his posture and leans in, continuing, “The system only works as long as you don’t challenge the powers that be. The average white person has never had to challenge the powers that be, but now that they are, they see that the powers that be do not give a fuck about them as well. With Covid, everyone is at home and has nowhere else to be, so we have to really watch, painfully, and see what is actually happening.”

“It is a lot to unlearn and I have always said that scared white people can’t help. If you’re a white person and this all makes you feel stained or ashamed or something, then you are not strong enough to be on the front line with me. Knowing that your colour is just who you are, that you woke up white and I woke up black - it just is what it is and you still have to take pride in the colour of your skin regardless of what it looks like and do what’s right.”

- - -

- - -

“We’re in this weird place where it’s all being made about colour, and it’s like fuck that, this is about what’s right and what’s not, regardless of what you look like. I have friends of all colours and creeds. If anyone was to come after my Jewish friends, I’d be on the front line just as much because it is the right thing to do. I think when you start to rationalise and say things like “Oh, you’re not that dark or you don’t even sound like this or that,” then you are missing the point, because you’re saying that if you aren’t dark enough then it’s ok, but it’s not. Whether you are dark enough or anything else, it is wrong and we need to go against that regardless of what it looks like.”

Racism and the oppression of marginalised groups is a fire that has been stoked for centuries with the ashes being continuously swept under the rug for fear of disturbing the status quo. Following the killing of George Floyd in May, many scrambled to show support on social media. People from all walks of life offered their allyship to marginalised groups, magazines diversified their covers and models, bigoted bosses and brands were publicly outed and people actively promoted music and art by marginalised people.

People showed a willingness to listen to what marginalised groups had to say and demonstrated a readiness to learn about the history and reality of racism and oppression. However, despite some of this surface progress, we have a very long way to go and people are still not getting it right, as Banks explains:

“We need more equity and to put people of colour in positions of power, don’t just give us a fucking street name, I don’t care about that shit. Put black, brown, LGBTQ+, any marginalised people in positions of power – that is real shit, that is how real change is going to happen. What’s the use of just taking films off Netflix that have been around for over 20 years? Give people real equity, real stay, something that can power their communities. Because what’s been happening is that there is just power in the one group of people and they keep hiring people that look like them and money keeps going to those people and that is where the power remains.”

- - -

- - -

“The average white person’s reality is very cut off from all this, that’s why they can’t relate to it. Like if you don’t have to rely on any of these institutions to make a life for yourself then it wouldn’t matter to you. For example, I was born in Nigeria and I lived there for 13 years. For 13 years, I was just a boy and then I moved here and now I am a Black boy. In Nigeria, I wasn’t relying on any of these institutions that exist here, like systemic racism or any of the other systems at play here. I wasn’t having the Black experience, I was just having an experience. Now [in this country] I have to walk through life, having the black experience and adding pressure to everything. We are not allowed to be mediocre, we can’t cruise through life. We are not afforded the luxury to fail.”

A deepened sorrow and air of anguish overcame Banks as we investigated the current state of affairs further, questioned whether a brighter future lay ahead and contemplated how this might all play out. “I think we’re going to fight this battle for a few more years and if it looks like it’s not happening then I’m going to have to find some way of living outside of society, maybe I might go home to Nigeria. I’d still be doing what I’m doing and making music but I’d just be in a different environment because there is no point in me upholding a society that does not give a fuck about me. If I have no equity in society then why would I give a shit. We’re already seeing it and that’s why people are rioting and protesting. When people look at society and they don’t’ see themselves in it, then there is zero reason for them to uphold the system.”

- - -

- - -

“If you had a house that you were told was for you, but then every time you went in the house, the people in there made you feel like it wasn’t yours, then you would stop giving a shit about the house – it’s like 'Oh we don’t want you here but can you help out with the cleaning?' and it’s like NO! I went to the march in London and there’s no other way to explain it, I was heartbroken the whole time because I felt like I was getting someone to fuck me and I hated it, I hated that feeling. I hated that this is the reality for us. Regardless of what you look like, we all have to be here.”

“If I were to ever bring children into this world, I’m going to have to explain all this shit to them and it’s like, do I just take a stand and fight for the future generations to come or do I just have my peace and leave. But if I choose to just leave then it would be irresponsible for me to bring children into this world. If I choose to go to a cul-de-sac to just live out a good life and I bring children into this world and they choose to leave the cul-de-sac, then I reckon when they leave, they’re not going to like what they find.”

He sighs, and finishes: “Either you choose to stand here and fight so the future generations don’t have to, or you run away.”

- - -

- - -

Jacob Banks new single 'Devil That I Know' is out now.

Words + Photography: Yasmin Cowan

Follow Clash

Buy Clash Magazine