Nigerian-born British vocalist Jacob Banks is one of soul music’s brightest rising stars. That's ironic considering he was never interested in a music career or even soul music, for that matter.
“I started singing through my friends, just asking me to do shows here and there,” he says. I was never much of a musician... My friends pushed me into it."
Banks left Nigeria when he was 13. Once he found himself in his adopted home of Birmingham, mainstream radio was a revelation.
“I grew up listening to a bunch of stuff. I got into music quite late. My first introduction to pop-culture music was 14, 15. This was around the time of 50 Cent's ‘In da Club,’ and I found Westlife, Kanye West, Bob Marley, and all these incredible artists all at the same time... I listened to anything I could get my hands on.”
He listened to few of the classic soul singers whose style he shares. Banks has the passion of Otis Redding, the presence of a Baptist preacher, and the deep, trembling baritone of a thunderstorm. Although he sounds like he belongs on an old 45, Banks is much more interested in what he calls “digital soul.”
"Soul music is probably the genre I listen to the least. When I sang, I just happened to be an old voice... What I'm really trying to do is modernize soul music and push the needle and ask questions of people. It's important for me to try not to emulate the people who came before, but to innovate on what they did — trying to take the old-school sound and add lots of electronic elements.”
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Banks already has two impressive EPs: Monologue (2013) and The Paradox (2015). He's set to release another, The Boy Who Cried Freedom, the first week of April. It’s a record he calls a “journey,” and it's already garnering attention thanks to the hit lead single, “Unholy War,” a song with a very contemporary thought process behind it.
“It’s about reminding the oppressed to keep the faith and keep fighting for what they believe in... It’s a hymn for the oppressed.”
As for who those oppressed people are, he doesn’t discriminate.
"'Unholy War' [was written] right around the time when there was a lot of prejudice against a lot of black people, which is generally still happening, but it was around the Black Lives Matter movement. It was that and many other things that were happening, like the Trump campaign... We should all show up for each other. That’s where ‘Holy War’ was birthed: unifying us as a people.”
Because family members, including his father, still live in Nigeria, social issues that could mean the difference between life and death are never far from his mind.
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“I follow everything there. My dad still lives there. I’m still very much in touch with that side of my family. They’re suffering a lot, not just currently with the recession, but there’s a terrorist group called Boko Haram that’s still very active and still causing heartache all over Nigeria.
Ultimately, Banks has been one of the lucky ones and credits his father for helping him escape a less than ideal future.
“My dad always wanted to travel when he was a kid, and he never quite got the chance. So he always had a dream for his kids to have a chance to see the world. He worked hard to get us to the UK, and [we’re] just happy to have a chance at life.”
At the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival. 1:45 to 2:45 p.m. Friday, March 3, at Sunshine Grove, 12517 NE 91st Ave., Okeechobee; okeechobeefest.com. Tickets are sold out.