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Breaking the Banks: rap “underdog” Alfred Banks 

The New Orleans rapper tears away at mental health stigma on his rise in hip-hop

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On "March 20, 2014," Alfred Banks recreates a phone call with his mother, unleashing an avalanche of emotions and grappling with his brother's schizophrenia and suicide.

  "Everything was going super smooth," he raps in the song's opening line, setting up the inevitable. "It felt like there was nothing I could lose."

  "He was the guy I called whenever I had problems — from elementary, getting picked on in school," Banks tells Gambit. "He missed my high school graduation, first time onstage, a lot of things. When he came back around, we picked up where we left off."

  When his brother Orlandas returned to the family after nearly a decade-long absence, he helped Banks put together a home studio. "'Merry last 10 Christmases,'" Banks says. "He always told me I was his favorite rapper."

  The following tracks on Banks' 2016 release A Beautiful Prelude EP — "A Beautiful Song," on which he promises "I gotta keep rapping if not for me for him, so I keep a pen in case I need to vent," and "Bless You" — address his brother directly as Banks thinks aloud, coping with his brother's death and revisiting the things he missed and will miss. Weaving through his thoughts is a confused and compassionate voice coming to terms with his brother's illness. This fall, Banks releases the full-length album The Beautiful, extending the story of his relationship with his brother while the album's fictional Banks copes with his own mental illness.

  "I just wanted to break down this barrier," Banks says. "In hip-hop, I think, there's more of a bravado — and I have my songs, I talk my ish, in a sense — but I feel sometimes it's OK to get personal. I don't know when to cut it off. When I get personal I go all the way. I don't hold any punches. ...

  "A lot of people said the intro made them uncomfortable. And I was like, 'Perfect.' ... Mental illness is an awkward conversation. With the little voice I have, I don't want it to be awkward anymore."

  Banks' longtime collaborator CZA produced the EP — the pair met in high school when they noticed they wore the same pair of Kobe Bryant Nike shoes. As Banks learned to write and rap, CZA — armed with FL Studio software and a laptop — started making beats. "He has this unique sound, really big sound — I call it stadium music," Banks says. "His music should be played at the Super Bowl, like on the last play."

  Banks sat on one of CZA's beats for more than a year following Orlandas' death. "When I found out my brother passed, I didn't really write. I kind of fell back for a while," he says. "But when I heard that beat, I started writing. It started to flow."

  Banks briefly attended Loyola University — but he didn't have a place to live. After his mother's eviction, "I put my stuff in storage and kind of roamed a little while," he says. He bounced from friends' dorms to nights in Audubon Park to a friend's kitchen, where he stayed for several months and saved money to afford rent. "I was broke as hell, but it wasn't really a sad thing," he says. "It was just life at the moment."

  He created a monthly hip-hop showcase on Tulane's campus, rounding up then-budding rap stars like G-Eazy and Hugh Augustine and opening doors for rappers in the making. "I just wanted to battle everybody," Banks says. "I wanted everybody to know Alfred was the best rapper in the room."

  Underdog Central — Banks' social media handle, music umbrella, social movement and mantra — is "for anybody who worked really hard at what they do but still wasn't appreciated, and they had to go to the Batcave and get everything together."

  "That explains me in a nutshell," he says. "This album is the one that's going to make people say, 'Who is Alfred Banks?' ... I've been doing this touring thing for a very long time. I've put the effort into this for a very long time. I've been doing this since I was 18. And one day it will matter."


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