By Nikole Tower, August 2017 Issue.
Self described as a gay, black man with the fun of Missy Elliot, the swag of LL Cool J and the dance moves of Heavy D, Music Bear Tony Banks is a 36-year-old hip-hop artist who refuses to conform to any box, label or genre.
Earlier this month, the artist recently dropped the music video for his song “Static,” a funky track with a hip-hop with a message.
On his forthcoming EP, Yes Homo, he tackles such issues as love, lust, partying, the state of hip-hop and police brutality – what he considers a full depiction of what it means to be a black, gay, male, hip-hop artist in 2017.
Echo caught up with the Music Bear following the release of “Static,” and here’s what he had to say.
Echo: Where did the name Music Bear Tony Banks come from?
Banks: I’m what they call a bear in the gay world and I went from there. It became my name, of sorts, so people can start to recognize me as not just Tony Banks but Music Bear Tony Banks which is fun. Genesis has Tony Banks so I have to differentiate from him anyways.
Echo: Are you still proudly representing the bear community or was that more of your identity at the time you got started?
Banks: I will be a bear probably until they kick me out. It’s part of myself, my community, it’s who I associate myself with. It’s a slippery slope at times but overall the community is great.
Echo: Congrats on your forthcoming EP, Yes Homo. What can listeners expect on this album?
Banks: This is probably the most thought out lyricist album I’ve ever done. It’s sort of like my F-U to everything – the gay community, the police, love, hatred, my love letter to my partner. There are a lot of things that are really emotional and meaningful to me. Not everything is based on my life, it’s not my diary. People have topics and situations that they go through all the time and they can relate to me and I can relate to them. That becomes their story and their way of expressing themselves through music.
Echo: So, where you draw inspiration from for your music, it’s not just your personal stories, you draw inspiration from stories that you hear?
Banks: Correct. It was a hot topic when LGBT[Q] people were not married and partners were being thrown out of their houses. It’s a story from the ‘50s and ‘60s that’s sadly continuing to this day. Partners who are together for 50 years living in the same house and then all of a sudden the family kicked them out and they had nowhere to go. So, I wrote a song about that like as if my partner passed away and I had nowhere to go or turn to.
I’m not a party animal so sometimes writing party songs feels awkward to me. I can have a good time but I’m not in the club popping bottles and throwing up hundred dollar bills. I have a song on my EP called “Get on the Floor” where I’m trying to get into the club because I’m performing that night and I can’t get in … That’s my kind of life – everyone’s on the inside having a great time and I’m on the outside looking in. I don’t always hate that because I’m a total homebody, but when I want to perform and have a good time then I want to perform and have a good time.
Echo: Do you see music as a platform for advocacy? How to you tackle topics that aren’t so easy to talk about?
Banks: It’s everyone’s fight, everyone’s struggle. I’m just trying to do my part to make people know there is another way to do things. It’s not just black and white especially in my case when it comes to LGBT[Q] hip hop. Everyone feels like you have to be a certain way to be accepted … You can be a more masculine guy and still appreciate lyricism and hip hop and love men. The gay world is one way and the straight world wants you to be a straight thug rapper. I can just be myself now and be accepted. It’s a different world nowadays and people have to learn that the old breed is going to die out eventually. You have this new wave of hip hop artists and these young artists who are gender-bending everything and the people are loving it. Young kids are loving it so eventually these old bastards are going to die away and the young guys are going to rise up. You won’t need the term “gay rapper” it’ll just be rapper. The stereotypes we learned are going to be pushed away until we just have artist. It’s not just being a rapper that’s why I don’t call myself a rapper. I’m a hip hop artist – artist first, rapper second.
Echo: There’s been a lot of controversy around intersectionality within the LGBTQ community as of late. The song “Run!” touches on some of the issues. Will there be similar songs on your next EP?
Banks: That’s the only song, per se, about police brutality. The title track “Yes Homo” is me saying F-U to the straight world … Hip hop was a product of all the works gays had done before that in the discos and the house music before hip hop ever came around. All the stereo systems, the club settings, the parties – all of those got put down by gay men. If you look at the show “The Get Down” all those DJs were gay. Who put music on the radio? It was all gay men buying the music… If it wasn’t for gay men and women there would be no hip hop.
Echo: The music video for “Static” was recently released. How was it directing the video? You are involved with songwriting, production, directing, you’re doing everything.
Banks: At this level of my career, I have to do everything. You hire the right people and then you lead the ship. The same thing happened with this video. I knew what I wanted and how I wanted it to look. The video as it is was never supposed to be the video that came out. We were going to do a single shot drone take of the pier and boardwalk. On the first official take the drone hit a pole and broke. The whole video was not supposed to be what it was but I’m happy with how it came out. We took shots with handheld cameras and then I found a guy to do some animation for me. I finished editing and it was great.
Echo: Who would you most like to work with at this point in your career?
Banks: My number one influence has to be Missy Elliot. She is the number one influence in this whole music industry to me because she is unapologetic in her size, her style, her music, her direction. She’s going to do what she wants to do, and people follow her. She’s an innovator and pioneer. I think it would be totally awesome and I would love for that to happen. Besides that, I am so open to working with anyone who is serious about what they are doing and are willing to match my effort whether they’re straight, gay, other.
I’ve been doing this officially for only three years and I’m at the age where I don’t have time to waste. I’m not a 20-something year old, I’m 36 years old. This is my time now to do it the way I want to do it. I know who I am, I know who I am as an artist. It took me awhile to get here. I’m going to do what I want to do. I’m not going to conform and play these games that other people are playing. I am not talking about fucking bitches and I’m not going to wear a dress. They’re fine, but they’re just not me. People are appreciative of that honesty from me.
Echo: Do you have an upcoming tour dates that you can share with us at this time?
Banks: I am performing my first concert on July 21 at Lovecraft Bar in New York City … Then hopefully in November I am hitting the road for 14 days in the midwest, northeast area.
Echo: What would your advice be to anyone who is just starting out but doesn’t see anyone like themselves out there doing their thing and experiencing success?
Banks: It’s going to take some time to realize who you are as an artist but once you do stick to your guns and then fight for everything after that. Don’t change with the times because people want you to be something that you’re not.