Steve Banks spent this summer like many Black people in America: isolated and away from loved ones during quarantine while watching the near-constant coverage of police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the protests that followed. Music gave him an outlet for the emotions he was experiencing.
“As an artist, what else are you going to do?” said Banks, a Flint native and Detroit Public Schools teacher who performed under the name This Life. We Lead. “I’m in the house as a Black man, and can’t believe that I’m seeing this stuff. At the moment, I was living alone, didn’t have my family around me, and had so many ideas in my head all at once. I had to write. I had to get some feelings off my chest. Music has always been a way to relieve all the stress in my life.”
What resulted is the song, “Black Lives.” Banks recorded it in his home in about two hours, and originally just intended to share it with friends. Another Flint artist, James Thigpen Jr., designed the album artwork.
“When I sent it to some friends, they said, ‘You’ve got to put this out,’” he said. “I didn’t want to sell something off of this (the protests) though. I didn’t want to do it for fame or notoriety, so I said if I do put it out, whatever funds I get, I want to give back to schools.”
People bought and downloaded the track on Bandcamp for $1. Banks is using those proceeds to support schools in Flint and Detroit by purchasing subscriptions to “Because of Them We Can,” a company that highlights achievements in African American history. The service provides teachers with materials and lessons that can be incorporated into their curriculum year-round. The project has fused several of his passions -- music, teaching, and history -- and allowed him to share them with more kids.
“For me as a rapper and artist, history is great to teach because you have to get creative with it,” Banks said. “I’m trying to do whatever I can to get younger kids excited about the history of America, the world, of Black people, of everyone. There’s so many interesting things out there to learn. This curriculum helps get kids to see that history is fun and interactive and not just sitting in front of a book.”
Banks graduated from Flint Southwestern and lived in the city his whole life until he went to college. He grew up with his dad playing Jazz music all of the time at home, and he started making beats when he was in school in Flint. But it was in college that his exposure to other cultures added to his musical influences.
“At UM-Dearborn, that was the first time I was totally introduced to different cultures all at once,” he said. “I had no choice but to learn from them. I made so many new friends from different backgrounds and they showed me new music, new sounds, new food. That all gave me a big influence, and I started to write a couple of years after that.”
Now, like many teachers, Banks is preparing to return to school in uncertain circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But one thing is constant for him -- being there for the kids he teaches.
“I want the kids safe and I want to be there for them,” he said. “We just need everybody to be flexible. As a teacher, you have to be used to things not always going as planned. We have to do what’s right for the country, the kids, the schools, we can’t make this about politics. It’s about the kids and people, so we have to do what is best and safest for everyone.”
The protests this summer -- particularly the fact that many of them have been led and organized by young people -- also represent an opportunity for him to bring more lessons into the classroom.
“I’ve always told my kids to search for the truth, speak their minds, but also do research,” Banks said. “I’ve always told them, ‘You guys lead. You can’t wait for grownups.’”