FLINT, Michigan — It had been a year since I attended the Cider & Slides event at Buckham Gallery and was formally introduced to Steven Banks who was just announced as the recipient of the 2022-2023 Emerging Artist Fellowship
. There, he talked about the two sides of his journey as an educator and music artist.
By day, he works as a 7th-grade history teacher, which he finds challenging, sometimes to the point where he “couldn’t handle it.” However, being a Black man in education has made him more confident, especially when his students have discovered his passion for music.
Once the school bell rings and the students go home, he sheds his teacher persona and transforms into a modern-day artist named This Life. We Lead. From the time he began to now, he says matter of factly, music has been an outlet to “release my mind and my stress.” From his first album, 2019’s Drink Responsibly
, which he created after a difficult breakup that spiraled him into drinking and staying out late to avoid the pain, Banks has come a long way.
He confidently says, looking me dead in the eyes, “You can’t tell me that this doesn’t sound good,” when discussing his growth.
Steven Banks, known creatively as This Life. We Lead., walks tall at Cranbrook House & Gardens in Bloomfield Hills on August 7, 2023. (Bryce Mata | Flintside)
In the present day, it’s clear that much has changed. Banks has converted his experiences into smooth lyrics with finger-snapping beats that captivate his growing audience. His latest songs, such as H.O.T.
, Best of Best
, and Control
, showcase his artistic development and ability to enchant listeners from start to finish.
The enchantment, I tell him, over a spread of tacos, chips, salsa, and horchatas inside Tienda Mexicana restaurant in Madison Heights, comes from the bravado of his voice and confidence in his delivery. He asserts in a smooth tone, leaning on the table and transforming from something akin to Steve Urkel to Stefan Urquelle, that it’s because “I know I have to get on this mic.”
But he didn’t always believe he was that kind of suave man which elicits the staunch difference between Steven Banks and This Life. We Lead. So, I have naturally had to ask, “Who are you?”
“In real life, I’m laid back. I don’t need to go to the club. I like to hang out and chill. I didn’t believe I was a lot of that. I felt like I’m not that type of guy. I’m not cool. I’m a school teacher,” he says with a laugh.
“But musically, it’s a freedom thing. What ends up happening is you tap into the energy of wherever I’m at – another layer to me.”
"In real life, I'm laid back. I like to hang out and chill," says music artist This Life. We Lead. seated on a bench at Cranbrook House & Gardens in Bloomfield Hills on August 7, 2023. (Bryce Mata | Flintside)
The evolution of his sound took time to begin as recording music wasn’t initially his top priority. With a sly grin, he admits, “I never really intended to become a music artist.”
He originally started as a producer, but when no one was willing to take a chance on his beats, it presented an opportunity to switch roles which led to him creating a rap style similar to the eclectic group N.E.R.D. Although not released online, that project propelled him to open shows with suburban kids as a significant fanbase, performing with high energy and thinking, “Oh, that’s what they like.”
However, after witnessing changes in the industry and concert venue practices, Banks stepped back from the stage and experienced an identity crisis. He became unsure of who he was, what kind of rapper he wanted to be, and who he was rapping for. Since Drink Responsibly
, and because of the pandemic, how he crafted and created music changed drastically.
He found himself buying equipment, stumbling through the process of trial and error of being “in the lab and all alone.” Although it was a method that took months to perfect, the ability to tap into breakups and new relationships, vent about work, and a sense of wanderlust paid off.
“When the pandemic hit, I had to record myself — no one [was] judging me in this space. I was able to learn myself and say things in the studio. I [could] say things out loud in the house, record, and see what it sounds like. I’ve been able to feel the freedom of expression. [I can] express myself immensely. It came from being in solitude during COVID. I’m in my bedroom, the studio, my office, and you can’t tell me I’m wrong.”
That confidence and being able to “block out all that noise” and exercise his voice came with a realization that his voice had improved, creating his now signature sound. Infusing his lived experiences, teaching, and meeting people unexpectedly into his music led him to discover that he was a storyteller. Becoming a storyteller then begged the question, how would these stories be told?
7th-grade teacher Steven Banks reflects on being a Black man in education inside Cranbrook House & Gardens in Bloomfield Hills on August 7, 2023. (Bryce Mata | Flintside)
The stories of his and other’s time as Black men in education motivated Banks to apply for and become Buckham's 2022-23 Emerging Artist. Although he is still working on music, this new venture has Banks on the lookout for his next passion. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that working on this play and an accompanying playlist, Be Well
, during his tenure could be just that.
“It’s been eye-opening and everybody’s learning. Everybody is into art and willing to learn and grow through this experience. If you got this opportunity here, why not do it big and make something dope?” Banks expresses. “[There’s] a playlist that I made called Be Well
. The play and the songs relate to that. I started Be Well
three years ago while working in a challenging school. I was depressed and stressed and needed something to look forward to. The play is a mix of my life and things that I’ve seen or things that I’ve heard in education. Although it's my story, it’s not. This is something that many males in education experience.”
And sometimes, that experience comes in the form of the unexpected — a moment where everything merges into oneness. For Banks, it occurred when a student, who “a few times sort of blew up on me,” wrote a note expressing how he loved to listen to Banks’ music, specifically his song, Joy
. It became a moment that forever sticks with him and answers the question about who he creates for.
“I think, now, my songs are reflective of what I’m looking for in life. I think I’m rapping to people who don’t know how to express themselves, who don’t know how to open up about what they’re feeling. My music speaks to that. I’ve opened up to make music about life. My name is This Life. We Lead., and, hopefully, it resonates with people experiencing life.”
For more on Steven Banks or This Life. We Lead., find and follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and United Masters.