Alfred Banks is rapping to save lives. With the release of The Beautiful (released this past March), Banks has become a mental health advocate, primarily by paying tribute to his older brother Orlandas, who committed suicide in 2014 after living with schizophrenia. At a recent show, a fan told Banks she was so moved by the single “The Funeral of Orlandas Banks” that she decided not to kill herself. The song, which opens the EP, recreates his brother’s funeral and the raw emotion Banks and his family went through. He has also partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and is the spokesperson for Loyola University’s “Unmask the Stigma,” a month-long campaign bringing awareness to mental illness.
Banks started rapping at 17, partially thanks to his brother’s own success as a rapper (Orlandas was nearly signed to Cash Money Records but opted for a career in the military instead). With a full scholarship to Loyola, Banks’ academic career was cut short after two years while he struggled with homelessness. Still, he kept rapping through it all and never stopped hustling.
Now, at 25, he’s enjoying international recognition, including an interview with BBC Russia and a feature in a European Volkswagen Polo commercial. He’s currently on tour with Memphis-based artist Marco Pavé. I sat down with Banks at Hey Café right before The Beautiful dropped to talk about his new music, his mental health advocacy work, and how he has grown as an artist.
Why do you think people are ready for this EP? Do you think people are more open to talking about mental health?
There are a couple of reasons why. One, this is my first album in four years, so they’re just ready to hear new music, aside from the singles I’ve dropped. It’s the first EP in four years. Two, more people are open to the idea of mental health and talking about it. In pop culture you’ve had your Kid Cudi issues, your Kanye West issues, and just in the history of music we’ve always had people that have dealt with it. Thelonious Monk for instance. And Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, he was schizophrenic. Now more than ever people are more comfortable with the idea, and it’s in hip-hop. Whether it’s a major label or underground, I can only name on one hand people that have talked about this subject. So people are just ready to hear [the message]. And I told people it’s a concept record, so they want to hear how I was able to interpret my brother’s death and what direction I’m going. When I put out the song “Funeral of Orlandas Banks,” it just hit people over the head. People went, “Whoa, this dude really went there. He made a funeral on the record.” So yeah, people are ready. It’s incredible.
You partnered with the National Alliance of Mental Illness and Unmask NOLA. What are your roles with those organizations?
With NAMI, it was more of helping bring awareness to what they’re doing with the urban community. They felt like what they do, obviously people support it, but they just wanted to spread out a little bit further and talk to people that wouldn’t normally hear what they have to say, so that was my role with them. With Unmask The Stigma, I’m the spokesperson of getting into the urban community, just to help them get their point across. It’s helping them spread the word about getting rid of that stigma, making sure mental health is a conversation we’re all well-versed in, that people are comfortable talking about it. People don’t really want to talk about mental health. It’s awkward, it’s weird, whatever. So it’s just helping get rid of that stigma.
Especially for males.
Yeah, trust me—Black males, it’s crazy. Black people in general, we never had a moment to just like, repair. We always had to quickly lick our wounds and keep going. It’s time for us to kind of relax. We have to understand we’re human, and mental health is just as important as physical health—realizing that and making sure that we’re taking care of ourselves.
What do you think your brother would say if he heard The Beautiful?
I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. I think he would like it. I think he would like how hard I worked on it, how long it took me to work on it and the beats and the lyrics. I think he would be like, “Yo, you really stepped up, fam.” With something like that—losing someone that was as close as he was to me—it isn’t something to be taken lightly. I think if he heard it, I think he would enjoy it. He’d bump it. He’d bump it a lot. He was proud of the music I put out before he passed, and I think he’d enjoy the hell out of this.
Are your parents proud of you?
Your parents go to a lot of your shows.
My mom and my stepdad call me up before every show and be like, “You kill ‘em, have fun.” I love it, man. It’s super tight. Moms is so proud of me. My stepdad is the worker and he’s always working… but like my mom, she’s my real support system. She’s incredible. Every time I tell her, “Mom, I did this,” she’s like “Boy, look at you. I’m so proud of you.” They’re both proud of me and they’re both excited to see what I’ve been doing as it pertains to helping keep my brother’s memory alive, to talk about that struggle and what he went through and bring it to the masses and let them know, “Look, you’re not alone. People go through this all the time.”
I think that’s really important because it often gets swept under the rug.
Yes, it does.
Or people just talk about it in whispers.
If you get shot at you make the news. If you rob someone, you make the news. If you die from a mental health issue, it’s kind of like, hmmm. For me, it’s like no, we’re going to bring it to the forefront. Just that real awkward feeling when you lose someone, I wanted to capture that in music.
You were really trying to honor your brother with this album.
In a selfish way, I really just want the world to know who my brother was. He was a good guy. He was in the military. He took care of my parents whenever things were hard with them, and he took care of me. The last thing he did before he passed was send me $300 through Western Union. I told him, “Yo, man, I’m kind of hurting right now,” and he was like, “What you need?” I said, “Just give me a hundred, dawg,” and he sent me 300 and told me, “You know, as long as I’m here you know you’ve got something, just let me know.” He was such a good guy. And you know what’s the coolest thing? When I’m doing interviews, talking to blogs and they ask, “So who’s Orlanda Banks?” And I’m like, “Hell yeah, you know his name.” That’s it for me, that gratification of knowing that people know who that dude was.
Were any of your family members nervous or hesitant that you were putting these songs out?
Moms was really nervous, but more for me. She was like, “Do you really want to do this?” This is, in a way, very stressful.
It’s so deeply personal.
When I debuted the “Funeral of Orlandas Banks” I performed it for my mom. And she was crying, I was crying. She asked, “Are you cool with putting yourself through that every night for the record?” And we had that conversation. So moms was a little apprehensive at first, but she was like, “I trust you.”
You’re a New Orleans-based rapper, but you’re not necessarily a New Orleans rapper. When you’re on tour and someone hears you’re a New Orleans rapper, do they expect a certain sound from you?
All the time. And mostly because I’m not a superstar guy, I’m still in the underground. I did a show in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and they didn’t know I was from New Orleans. They were like, “OK, you tight, where you from, Boston or New York?” And I said, “Nah, I’m from New Orleans,” and they were like, “Wah, but I thought you’d sound like Ace Hood or Lil’ Wayne.” And I tell them, “Nah man, we don’t all sound like Cash Money.” No matter where I go, it happens all the time. Even somewhere as close as Memphis.
Do you feel like you’re trying to break barriers in that regard as well?
Yes, I am. I love the fact that I am a representation of New Orleans. Whenever Pell goes somewhere, whenever Lil’ Wayne goes somewhere, Nesby Phips, Dee-1— whenever we go places we are an extension of our city. And I take great pride in that. I take pride in the fact that no matter where I go, whether it’s Hamburg, Germany or Los Angeles, California, I am repping New Orleans, Louisiana.
I’ve followed your career since you were 17, and one thing I love is that you’ve kept the energy the same but you’re more sophisticated now.
The energy has always been something that’s been important to me. My live show, I try to be as energetic as possible. Energy, the ambiance, the feeling of the record—that’s the most important thing. There’s a song on The Beautiful called “Can’t Handle It” that’s probably my favorite, because I give you that classic, bouncy lyrics type of deal, but you get some of the most complex lyrics that I’ve probably ever put to pen.
And you’re singing a little more.
Yeah man, I’m singing!
I remember you tweeted that you’re trying to sing more and how you’re nervous about it.
I am! I’ve got a good voice. I can rap in front of a million people, but I can’t sing in front of my girlfriend. For me, I am now becoming the type of people I laugh at, the type of people that just do stuff on the internet and don’t really do it in real life. They get known for doing stuff on the internet… I’m the guy that will randomly sing on his Instagram. But live shows, I’ve been singing more, I’ve been trying to harmonize.
I like when you sing on your Instagram stories and get a little silly.
I wanna have fun sometimes. And with the album so serious… I have a spectrum of emotions just like anyone. I am a very silly person when I want to be, I am very serious sometimes. You’ll hear me go off on a tangent sometimes about rap stuff, real life stuff.
You can’t have your foot on the gas pedal all the time.
Nah, not all the time. Yeah, that singing stuff. The next album after this, I’m probably going to have to do two or three records where I don’t rap, I just sing.
I really just want the world to know who my brother was. He was a good guy. He was in the military. He took care of my parents whenever things were hard with them, and he took care of me.
Like I said, there are moments on the album that are high energy. I’m also going to mix in other things like my song “Homecoming” and “Underdog Central.” There’s a movie called Burning Sands that’s coming out on Netflix and “Underdog Central” is in that movie. I’m going to have to bring that song back around—I stopped performing it a few years ago. So the high energy stuff, I’m going to throw it in so you get that mix. I’ve always felt like my shows are a spectrum of emotion. I can give you some super serious stuff; I can give you some bars, some high energy stuff. I can give you some real slow, real thought-provoking stuff. So that’s what I have to do.
What do you hope people get out of this album?
You’re not alone. We’ve all lost someone we love and we all cope with it in different ways. And look, when you feel that emotion, express it. Don’t feel like you’ve got to be so reserved. Let’s not just be this type of person that’s always happy.
How do you stay motivated to keep doing this? You’re just nonstop hustling all the time.
If I didn’t do music I’d be dead, that’s it. So I just do it. I have to do it. My mom read me my brother’s suicide letter. And in the letter he said, “As long as nothing like this ever affects you, there’s no reason why you can’t be the greatest to ever do it.” So I literally can’t stop rapping now.
Do you feel like you owe it to your brother?
At this point, yeah, if I don’t rap or if I stopped he’d be like, “Say, bruh,” so I can’t. It’s kind of a gift and a curse. Some days I just want to chill… but I’ve got emails. And then there are other things. I’m on SimplePlay Management now. And there are guys that are blowing up, as we speak, and I want to keep up. I’m the only rap artist on SimplePlay, so I have to work my way up from the bottom in that regard, but it’s healthy competition. There are a lot of ways I get inspiration to keep going. I care so much about success, but it’s not like success validates me. It’s more like, yeah, I did that. It’s the accomplishment.
For more info on Alfred Banks and his latest release, The Beautiful, check out underdogcentral.com.