MS BANKS interview – Evening Standard, 23 Aug 2019

Ms Banks is running an hour late and the battery on her iPhone is at a perilous 1%. Before I get to ask her any questions, she has an urgent one for me: do I have a charging cable?

As a Samsung guy, we’re off on the wrong foot, but the 25-year-old rapper isn’t being a diva today – she’s just in demand. Straddling the worlds of music, sport and fashion is keeping her “ridiculously busy,” she says. Before she could get to me, she was talking to girls at a secondary school in Neasden about the importance of sports bras, in her capacity as an ambassador for Nike (the Instagram hashtag is #strongerwithsupport). She was delayed because she couldn’t say no to all the selfies.

You can’t miss her as she walks in – around six-foot tall, dressed head to toe in a tight green Nike tracksuit, flanked by two men, her managers, carrying several boxes of gifted trainers of the same brand. A last minute venue change means we’re in a Pizza Express rather than somewhere more glamorous, but she doesn’t mind – her mum used to work here. We’re in business once a waitress has solved her phone issue, she’s established my star sign and received doughballs and a Sicilian lemonade. She can relax enough to tell me about the year that looks increasingly like her tipping point.

“It’s an amazing time to be a rapper,” she says. “I don’t have to make something with a commercial feel. We’ve come too far for that. We’ve seen Dave and Fredo going to number one with Funky Friday, Stormzy with Vossi Bop. We’re allowed to be our authentic selves. We don’t have to try for pop – rap is very much a part of pop culture.”

Having written her first lyrics at 11, she has been releasing her own music for five years and earned her spot on the BBC Radio 1Xtra showcase Fire in the Booth – an esteemed measure of your rapping significance – over three years ago. Now, though, she’s getting much closer to the mainstream. You may have spotted her earlier in 2019 performing on stage at the Brit Awards with Little Mix, modelling clothes for tall girls with her own collection for Pretty Little Thing, and doing the theme song for the BBC’s coverage of the Women’s World Cup – a female-focused reworking of the 2005 Fort Minor single Remember the Name.

“She could be a sister, niece or your girlfriend or mother/Do it like no other/Going harder than all of you brothers,” she rapped. She prefers the gym and isn’t even that much of a football fan, she confesses – or wasn’t, until she started researching the players’ stories to write the lyrics. Of course she sees parallels between the public’s warm reception for the World Cup and the current rise of women rappers.

“Their grow-up in sport is similar to mine, being in a male-dominated field,” she says. “They wanted a message of empowerment in the song and they know that’s what I’m about. Women in rap are having their time. In America this is the most female rappers they’ve had charting in one year.” She’s right: Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Saweetie, Iggy Azalea, Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion and City Girls have all cracked the Billboard singles chart in 2019, while over here Stefflon Don keeps sharing song space with big names and Little Simz is a dark horse to win the Mercury Prize.

When she started out, choosing her stage name because her real name, Thyra Oji, always reminded people of the supermodel and presenter Tyra Banks, it didn’t occur to her that her gender might hold her back. She thought success would be instant.

“I just thought it was gonna be an easy ride. I thought it would be much easier than it was. It’s not like that,” she says. “It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of late nights, pushing yourself to the limit and constantly creating. But now, in the same breath, I feel like it’s possible to be bigger, to be international. Before, that would have felt like a dream. Now I feel like it’s attainable. So the journey hasn’t been as easy as I thought, but I know I can take it further.”

There has been an international focus to her summer. In the current festival season she’s already been a guest at Stormzy’s #MERKY festival in Ibiza, the Body & Soul festival in Ireland and Afro Nation in Portugal. This weekend she’ll be back near her south London home, at the dance festival South West Four on Clapham Common.

She has a brand new single to promote – Back It Up, out this week. It’s suitably summery, with a glamorous video shot on the Greek island of Mykonos, tropical synths and the relatively rare experience of Banks singing in a sweet croon. It follows her bouncy afrobeats song Snack from earlier this year, both signs that she’s feeling more upbeat right now.

“My next mixtape is a bit more fun. It’s more of my enjoyment side, party vibes, not too deep, not about heartbreak. Its just about having a good time,” she says. Even so she’s going to release it in November and call it The Coldest Winter Ever 2.

Her first Coldest Winter Ever, confusingly, arrived in spring 2018, named after the 1999 novel by New York author and sometime rapper Sister Souljah. “I liked her story of a young girl coming from the hood, from nothing, trying to be something. That really spoke to me,” she says. “Growing up in south London on a council estate, not having much, but chasing a dream and wanting to be more than a statistic.”

It had some miserable moments, notably on Made It and Over (Your Shit), which dealt with her long-term relationship with the cruiserweight boxing champion Lawrence Okolie. “How could I give you all my love and my trust?/ You go and trade it for lust,” she rapped over the bleak beats of Made It. A lovey-dovey joint interview and photoshoot for The Face in April this year called them “Britain’s new power couple”. They’re not together any more, and I gather this is mostly what Banks is referring to when she tells me that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“For a long time I kept it under wraps. I wish I still did. You can’t hide it when you’re both in the public eye,” she says. “Having a lot of eyes on you is different from what I imagined.”

Did she worry about the reaction from the other party when she talked about her personal life in song? “I don’t even think about that. It’s my story. I’ll say what I want. I ain’t checking with no one about anything.”

Such confidence will serve her well when her real commercial breakthrough finally comes. She’s still waiting for the songs she’s recorded with her vocal fan Nicki Minaj to see the light of day. “It’s all up to her. We just have to see what she wants to do.” Support slots with Cardi B have also shown that she’s moving in the right circles.

“I always thought I was good, but I’m much better now,” she says. It shouldn’t take too much longer for everyone else to notice.

Ms Banks’ new single Back It Up is out now. She performs at South West Four, Aug 24-25, Clapham Common, SW4 (southwestfour.com)

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