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Bear, hip-hop, LGBT.  Three words you don’t necessarily see in the music world, however it does exist and has quite a large fan base once you discover the talents that are out there.  One person in particular that exemplifies that is Boston (and frequent Manhattan visitor) Tony Banks, who has made quite a lot of strides in and out of the music world.  A well known presence in the bear community, Tony has developed a big following on social media with his R&B jams and hip-hop rhythms that he has created to get himself where he is today.  I respect someone like him who goes after their dreams and he is a great example of one that is out there today.

Tony sat down with me to discuss a bevy of topics such as his inspirations, thoughts about gay men in the music world, who he is feeling right now, favorite songs he has made and future plans.  Take a look.

Tony Banks, Manhattan Digest
Credit to: Tony Banks

Thanks for sitting down with me Tony.  So what got you into the music scene in the first place? 

Thanks for having me. I’ve been attracted to music since birth. My mother was a church singer so I did the whole church choir thing as a child. Growing up I also dabbled with many different instruments, from guitar and piano to trumpet and drums. I started writing and making beats when I was 15. My best friend at the time and I were tinkering around with the idea of creating a group called 2WICE. He was a rapper and I was a singer. Similar to the “Best Of Both Worlds” album but 15 years earlier. I still might do something like it for the LGBT community. I then did some work at a recording studio and learned the boards, how to produce, how to record and run a session. The rest was just time, experience and a little courage.

Growing up you had to have influences that inspired you to go this route in your career.  Who were some of your biggest influences?

I think my first influence like many in my age bracket was Michael Jackson. I remember the “Off The Wall” and “Thriller” album being played in the house. My sister used to scare me with the “Thriller” video. And when I was a little older and able to understand music being obsessed with the “BAD” album.  Then it moved towards other contemporary artist, mostly males.  Then when Missy Elliot came on the scene I saw a piece of myself. She was big in size but never let it slow her down. The music was fun and silly, but also had meaning- Real Hip-Hop in a Rap dominated world. Plus she could sing and rhyme. She still influences me to this day. Even if she did lose weight….haha. LL Cool J, Andre 3000, Mos Def, Slick Rick, Stevie Wonder and a mess of others have influenced me as well. But I’m also a fan of music of all types. From artist like Jim Croce to Dinah Washington to Leonard Bernstein to Pat Metheny to Buddy Rich Big Band and everything in-between and beyond. I’m not stuck in one style of music. Never have.

Tony Banks, Manhattan Digest
Credit to: Tony Banks

Your music has some serious R&B and hip-hop beats when it comes to the music you produce.  Was that always the venue you wanted to go in?

Yes and No. I’m a huge fan of the 90’s era of hip-hop/R&B music. The mixture of different styles and fusion of sounds was very moving. That was when my creative world really started to form. Actually my first dream was to be an R&B singer. So I would study male R&B artists, past and present. When I started to learn the business and who makes the money I said hell with that I want to be a songwriter. So I would write songs and poems all the time. Life took over. Fast forward. A few years ago I did a funny xmas song. A pop/ hip-hop track. It sparked something that has just evolved into a Hip-Hop/R&B/Pop mix which is the sound of Tony Banks. Something I think is very unique in the LGBT world. So if you listen I write a lot of my music like an R&B song but with more of a rap flow. But I am NOT a rapper!

In 2015 there still really isn’t an out and proud gay man when it comes to the R&B and hip-hop world, outside of Frank Ocean yet he is admittedly bisexual.  Why do you think this is?

There are plenty of out and proud gay men in the R&B/ Hip-Hop culture. Just not many getting the credit or artistic respect that they deserve by the mainstream market. Oddly enough the world has proven that it does accept gay pop artists. Look at Sam Smith, Ricky Martin, Lance Bass, Clay Aiken, Adam Lambert and Elton John. See a pattern? It’s only in the Hip-Hop world that the culture is holding on to this fantasy that gay artist don’t belong. So many of the ones who are mainstream have to hide on the DL. But yet everyone wants to know who the gay rapper is. We are out here! 1000’s of us within the hip-hop community. Creating good music we would love the masses to hear and embrace.

Do you think it is hard for any man of color to be gay in that particular industry that is known for its homophobic over and undertones?

Men….Yes outside a certain field but women no. We have female R&B/Hip-hop artist who are either out or creeping out the closet. Yet the men who are in the industry are the A&R’s, designers, hair and make-up, choreographers, etc. People who are accepted because of their jobs, skills and trades and could make a difference but are afraid to rock the boat. But the more people realize that hip-hop music is for the story teller, the dreamer, the underdog and not just some stupid mask of masculinity the sooner we will be able to move forward. But the black community as a whole has to accept those things first. And erase their negative views on homosexuality. Which is why shows like “Empire” are so ground breaking and important.

Tony Banks, Manhattan Digest
Credit to: Tony Banks

How do you plan on breaking that mold?

I’m not trying to break any molds because I don’t believe I’m stuck in one. Either you accept me or you don’t, but that is more your problem and less mine. I’m making music for the grown and sexy. The hip-hop head who wants to feel something again when they listen to music. Who can relate to what I’m saying and see themselves in my words. Hell just by being me I’ve already broken any mold that my big ass would have been squeezed into anyway. But I would love to perform more and get the music out to new audiences. Become a sort of trailblazer for others who might want to follow in my music bear foot steps.

Of all the songs you recorded, what has been your favorite and why?

I don’t have a favorite but I do have a lot of songs I LOVE. One of those is a song called “Bring it Home”. It’s a song about my partner working, going to school, having fun, living life but when you done all that bring it home to me. Other songs I love are “Whip It”, “Work It”, “Sex Tape” and “Lemme Do You”. Basically if I put it out I love it. I’m a fan of my own work for sure and my own number 1 fan. You have to be. If not then why do it. But I must say one of my most emotional songs that I really love is called “Blue Lights”. “Red and Blue lights in the rear view. While I’m trying to get home to you”. Very cinematic. Sorta like the end of the movies “Set It Off” and “Waist Deep”. Moments when the cops are facing you, you in the car and all you do is think about that person you love before you press the gas and gun it.

Do you have a dream artist or group you are looking to work with?

Missy would be my dream artist to work with for sure, Then LL Cool J. I modeled my swag after him a lot. In reality there are plenty of artist and groups in the LGBT world I would love to work with. I just finished 2 features on other artist projects just this week, both nationally and internationally, but at the same time I’m trying to evolve my sound past “Beats” and more into Hip-hop/Soul just like the Roots. Doing things like bringing in live instruments and opening my music to a wider community. Festivals, concerts and more “mainstream” while still being hip-hop and a gay artist. At almost 34 years old I’m too old to stay in one lane. If you couldn’t tell I’m not a one dimensional person which certainly shapes my music and artistic choices.

Who currently do you think is killing it in the music biz?

My favorite artist right now is Sam Smith. Not because he is gay but because he created a masterpiece of an album. I’m glad he is single again, but would be interested to see what his music would sound like if he were in a relationship. It sucks that so many people come and go in this industry. One hot song and you are everywhere, then nothing. I’m excited to see what Kendrick Lamar has for his follow-up album and I’m personally a big fan of Childish Gambino. A Grammy nom isn’t easy to get but was worth it. He is becoming a great story teller of hip-hop, same with School Boy Q.

You are and out and proud gay man and artist.  What was the experience for you to come out and was the process difficult?

Coming out was a 8 year or so process. A mother always knows but most moms don’t just approach you about it. I recall being younger, maybe 12 and my mother asking me if I were gay. Knowing I was, I told her no. She asked every few years and I always said no. Christmas day in like 2002 or 2003 my older sister found a picture in my book bag of my then boyfriend and I kissing on the fountain at a resort in Orlando. I told my mom I was bi to soften the blow…haha, but since then things have been really smooth. My family loved both my partners since then, and they are very cool with it to where my mom came to my wedding.

What do you have going on right now musically that our readers can know about?

Like I said I’m working on evolving my sound as well as trying different ways to explore music and creativity. I’m about to start working with DJ Shane Phoenix on an EDM/Hip-Hop project as well as releasing my first full length LP “Chocolate Cake” which I’m excited about. I’m performing as a featured artist in NYC end of March for the Bureau Of General Services-Queer Division which should be very cool. I’m looking at doing a concert window event with a guitarist and performing at a few festivals down in Texas. Doing shows in the Southern Region. I just got booked as entertainment for a cruise4bears event this summer. For the first time traveling I’m past London into Spain and Italy. I’m also working on a few more dance/pop tracks for that trip as well as a doing a bunch of collabs. Lots of fun things. All part of the Music Bear Movement.

What are your hopes for 2015 and beyond?

I’m growing beyond being just an artist but becoming a brand. I’ve got a few sponsorship deals and have been the face of a few products for the bear community as well as the overall hip-hop community. So I hope to continue with those ventures. This is one of the first summers I’ve had off since becoming more involved in my career, so I’m excited and looking forward to performing at as many Pride festivals as possible, both in the US and abroad. I also hope to get to London later this year as well as Asia. I just want to reach as many ears as I can- Straight, Gay, doesn’t matter. Believe it or not I do have straight fans. And when you as a gay male can make a lesbian feel sexy and nasty with your music you know you have reached new heights.

For more on Tony Banks, check out his official page & Facebook