From the outside looking in, pursuing a career in music usually seems fun and exciting — and plenty in the business will say it is most of the time. But what fans typically don't see, however, are the hours that go into songwriting, rehearsing, booking shows, and all the other behind-the-scenes work that comes with being a creative. For many independent artists, finding a healthy work-life balance is already challenging enough — but what if your day-job is also particularly demanding?
For up-and-coming rapper Steve Banks, that question has been central to his life for years.
Born and raised in Flint, Banks currently lives in Detroit and teaches middle school on the east side. During the day he's Mr. Banks, or just "Banks." Outside of school, he's known as This Life. We Lead., the thoughtful, ambitious, and charming rapper-songwriter ready to burst on the scene.
"I used to not be good at finding a balance between myself as a teacher and wanting to rap," he says. "I didn't want the teachers at my school to know. The reason I was able to find a balance is because I stopped caring what other people think. That literally was it. Eventually I just said, 'Fuck it,' this is what I do. I know a lot of people who feel like they can't share who they are at work. When I started letting people know what I do after school, everything became easier."
With regard to hip-hop, 2019 has already been quite eventful for Banks. In February, This Life. We Lead. was the opener for Wale's concert in Flint, which was curated by Banks' childhood friend Brandon Corder, who is a successful hip-hop producer and the brains behind the Beats x Beers lifestyle brand. Banks also attended SXSW for the fifth time. In March, he released his latest project, Drink Responsibly.
At 11 songs, Drink is Banks' most polished and thought-provoking project to date. Musically, there's a little bit of everything. There are bangers ("Toast," "Give It Up,") radio-ready hits ("The Wakeup," "Everything Sweet"), and smoked-out joints ("Drink Responsibly," "Never Enough"). Lyrically, Banks explores relatable themes: overindulgence, bad breakups, losing a family member, finding work-life balance as a millennial, and the inherent value of putting in work. As Banks explains it, Drink was written after going through a series of hard times.
"I went through a year of doing stuff that wasn't really me. I was going to the bar a lot," he says. "I needed to be around people so I would go out. I had to wake myself out of that funk. The core of the album is the emotions I had at that time in my life. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with myself. I had no idea. It was about learning to feel happy about life again. The metaphor with drinking is that sometimes you fill your cup up with too much stuff — too much life."
As he processed and wrote the songs that would become Drink Responsibly, Banks learned even more about how he sees the world. For example, there's nothing wrong with going out, but it's probably not necessary to do that every night. If you like vintage jerseys, go shopping — but don't buy every one that catches your eye. Finally, if you have the capacity to work at something creative — to invest your time in a project you're passionate about — do it. Inevitably because he's a teacher, Banks references and applies these ways of thinking on a daily basis.
To be clear, the vast majority of his middle-school students probably don't actually care "who Mr. Banks is" outside the classroom," he says. But for those who do, it's provided an invaluable opportunity to connect.
"A lot of teachers use music, especially hip-hop, to try and relate to kids. For me it was different because I actually rap," he says. "I always tell my kids, 'Number one, don't drop out to rap. But if you want to do music, you should.' A lot of my kids write poetry and raps. A lot of them make beats. I say, 'Don't let anyone tell you not to follow your dreams, but you need to have a backup.' Have a dream, but don't let that dream be the end of it."
"That's where we get messed up," he says. "I tell them, 'You guys like what I do, right? Keep in mind I have a master's degree and a full-time teaching job. You can for sure do both. You can go to school and do what you need to do. But also, if you like this art, do that on the side because it costs money to do it for real.' I just know I wouldn't be making music now if I had never moved down to Detroit for school and been around so many different types of people and experiences."
You can hear music from This Life. We Lead. at thislifewelead.bandcamp.com.
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