To understand the world of Jacob Banks, start with self-directed music video for his recent single “Be Good To Me” -- it’s cinematic and intense, following a man breaking free of brutal captivity and running to freedom through tangled cornfields. The imagery contrasts with and complements the song’s bittersweet lyrics, turning its laments into a cry for freedom. The clip serves as a small taste of the ever-expanding audio and visual universe that has helped establish the singer as one of the year’s breakout acts.
"I get to show a different side of me on YouTube," the 26-year-old Artist on the Rise explains of his powerful videos. "If I put out a song, most people take it just one way. They take from a song what they want. But when I show you a video, I get to show you another way to listen to the music. Another way to understand the story. Songs can mean so many things, and we often just limit our mind to how we can digest music."
It’s an approach that is resonating deeply with fans. “Be Good To Me” is nearing the 2 million views mark, while his blue-hued clip for 2017’s “Chainsmoking” has topped 8.2 million. Two of his tracks—including “Runnin’,” his collaboration with A$AP Rocky—soundtracked pivotal moments in the widely acclaimed “Creed II.” All that heat, plus Banks’ visual-first ideal, led to him being selected as YouTube’s Artist on the Rise.
"It feels like a full circle to be here to be a part of something that's contributed so much to my knowledge in general,” Banks explains of the Artist on the Rise selection. "I spent a large time growing up in front of YouTube, learning to play guitar, learning to play sax, learning to play keys. I fixed my car from YouTube. Anything breaks in my house, I go on YouTube and I fix it because if someone's done it they put it on YouTube. I could pretty much fix anything. I could deliver a baby. Things beyond your wildest dreams I could achieve because of YouTube."
Banks lived in Nigeria until he was 13, when his family moved to Birmingham, England. There, he was introduced to music -- he quickly became a voracious listener, and his ever-widening palette eventually resulted in him making music on his own. Banks’ first EP, “The Monologue,” came out early in 2013, and it caused such a stir that Banks became the first unsigned artist to appear in Radio 1’s Live Lounge, with his mashing up of Rihanna’s “Stay” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe” providing an early signpost of his wide-ranging style. He toured with Emeli Sande, Sam Smith, and Alicia Keys around the U.K., and he collaborated with fellow Londoners like the MC Avelino and the house-garage act All About She. Stateside sets at the Fader Fort during South by Southwest Festival and the Austin City Limits Festival, as well as his 2018 Coachella debut, added to his buzz.
“Village,” his first full-length album, continues Banks’ journey, with music traveling through genres, borrowing from soul and gospel and hip-hop while being wholly of its own. "I think the joy of having two homes is when I'm making music—or making anything—I have a larger pool to choose from," he says. "It allows me to be so much more fluid in how I make music, because I don't really like to identify with genres. My album has an Afrobeats song; I don't have to explain that to you, because I'm African. I have like a reggae song; I don't have to explain that, because British youth culture is Caribbean. I have the blessing of all these landscapes, and I'm fortunate to have them present in my life and use all those experiences to tell stories."
Those stories shine on YouTube, where clips like the aforementioned ”Be Good to Me" and the stark drained-swimming-pool performance of "Unknown (To You)" took off. "I use lots of imagery when I'm writing … It's very visual and cinematic," he says. "I think great songs trigger memories; they should play a film in the back of your head of a memory that you had, or wish you had. Music should be seen, and not heard. I feel like music and film, music and pictures are very synonymous to each other."
“Slow Up,” the most recent single from “Village,” is a salute to finding wisdom from every interaction, whether it’s riding ocean waves or talking to a soldier. "That song celebrates life, and second chances, and highs and lows,” he says. “Understand that everything will come—everything. Good, bad, in-between.” The video—another showcase of Banks’ arresting visual style—depicts everyday people in situations as varied as crashing surf and an intimate kitchen. “I wanted to do a video that documented real people doing real-life stuff: Hugs, kisses, just holding hands. I really wanted to celebrate how magic we are."
Banks' rise is only beginning. He kicked off the European leg of his world tour in November, and in January starts a three-month stateside stint. Appropriately, his designs for his music career are globally minded. "My plan is to make music that keeps people company," he says. "We take music everywhere—on a train, on a bus, on a drive to work. It's always accompanying everyone. I just want to do my part.