THERE WERE three nominees for the Wisden Young Cricketer of the Year award in 2003. Two of whom, Graeme Smith — the eventual winner — and James Anderson, went on to play more than 100 Tests. Smith captained his country more than any other cricketer in history while Anderson is still wheeling away with the new ball as the highest all-time Test wicket-taker for England. The third nominee in comparison played only 10 Tests and didn’t play international cricket post 2005. But somehow 14 years on, his renown probably stretches to more parts of the world than Smith and Anderson could ever imagine, including some where cricket remains an alien, colonial sport.
Only that Omari Banks doesn’t look anything like he did back then. He’s no longer clean-cut or shaved up. He’s also not a cricketer anymore. Instead looks every bit the Reggae superstar that’s taken the music world by storm in North America, Europe and of course the entire Caribbean. The dreadlocks stretch beyond his shoulder, the jeans have wide-cuts on both knees and he’s in a Guns-n-Roses t-shirt when you spot him first. The shiny ear-rings are still in place, just like they were back when he used to bat in the middle order and bowl useful off-spin for the West Indies, but they have company, a conspicuous nose-ring. You ask him whether he can still relate to the Omari Banks who once was spoken in the same breath as two future legends of the sport, not to forget played a crucial hand of 47 not out in the highest fourth innings run-chase in Test history in only his third match, and the answer is a resounding “yes” preceded by a hearty laugh. “Sometimes I feel like I want to challenge myself. Maybe not face Brett Lee right now. Actually, I might be able to face him right now since he’s not playing. Cricket will always remain a part of me, but music has been a part of me since I was born. They say in life you get one chance, I get two,” he says.
Banks became the first Anguillan to play international cricket when he debuted against Australia in Barbados. He was probably also the first major professional athlete to come out of his island. That still didn’t make him the most popular member of his family. His father, Clement or Bankie Banks as he’s popularly known, already had that title and also another one — the Anguillan Bob Dylan. So growing up in the shadow of one of reggae history’s most influential figures at home, meant young Omari was attending music festivals, playing instruments and performing himself from a very young age. And he looked destined to continue the Banks legacy – which he is right now – as he continued to win talent competitions all over the region. But he admits that perhaps being the son of a world-famous musician could well have turned him towards looking for another opening to fulfill his incessant competitiveness. That, and the dream of playing for West Indies that his coach had shown him when he was still just 8 years old. The youngster’s two major passions in life came to a head when he was 15.
“I was selected to go to Philadelphia with the national school choir and on the other hand there were U-19 commitments for the Leeward Islands, which I had started representing when only 12. And I chose cricket, and music was pushed to second place,” Banks recalls. His music and cricket came to a head once again this weekend, even if the status quo might have changed. Banks was in Kingston to perform at the WIPA awards on Friday, which he did with his most famous single yet, “Move on”. But a day later, he had to strap on his pads and get ready to face some of the retired legends of West Indies cricket in an exhibition match, aptly called Masters vs Jokers. For the record, he scored 20-odd runs and took two wickets. It was only the second time he had padded up for a cricket match since playing his last first-class match at 27 in 2010. The closest he’d come to do anything cricket-related was in one music video, “No point to prove”.
“I’m playing the guitar for one second and then suddenly turn it into a bat and play a shot in the air with it. That’s it. So I wasn’t really ready to pick the bat up again on Saturday although it felt really good to hit a four,” he says.
The 35-year-old’s schedule these days doesn’t allow him to follow cricket too closely, though he does keep in touch with some of his former teammates – Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and Darren Sammy among others. But the rest of the time he’s either writing, performing or producing music, and also dabbling in “more photo shoots than he should” in his own opinion. Banks, who has his own band aptly named Eleven, just returned from a solo tour of Florida. A month ago he was touring various parts of Europe, where he opened for reggae legends Third World and even recorded top-10 songs in Germany. In two weeks he’ll be in Baltimore for a major music festival, which will see 350,000 people attending over two days. In the last six years, he’s had a music video ranked No.1 in the Caribbean, released albums and also recorded singles with the likes of Duane Stephenson and the lead singer of Morgan Heritage.
And while he might not always be abreast with what his former cricketing colleagues are up to, he’s constantly receiving positive feedback from them regarding his music. Last year, he even performed at one of Dwayne Bravo’s private parties. Making an impression on a bunch of cricketers with his guitar and voice is something that Banks is used to doing since he was 12, after all. “I would always carry my guitar along as I found music to be the best way to take my mind off the game. I was the smallest guy and would be singing love songs, ballads or some of my dad’s songs for those guys are 17-18,” he says.
Banks made rapid progress through the ranks being a spin-bowling all-rounder, an almost unheard of novelty in the Caribbean, and still gets goosebumps about the moment he learnt about being picked for the West Indies, not surprising when you realise who informed him about it. “I got a call from Brian Lara, who was the captain then, himself and it was surreal. My debut was like a public holiday in the whole of Anguilla, everyone was on the street celebrating,” he recalls now. Banks didn’t too badly in his limited appearances for West Indies, even winning a county contract with Somerset, and was in fact the Man of the Match in his penultimate ODI against Sri Lanka in Colombo. He still doesn’t believe that he’s more famous as a musician than he was as a cricketer, and doesn’t see too much of a similarity between “performing in the middle” and “performing on stage”.
“Sport is something where you are really kind of in a box. You do it this way, get up this time, you bat this way, you bowl this way, you listen to what the captain says. Even your reactions are tempered. You score a century, you can’t act too crazy because you might go and drop a catch and lose the game for the team. Music is a little more liberal. I’ve always enjoyed in music the freedom you have to have a little more of a character and bravado. You can be larger than life and entertain with a swagger,” he explains.
Banks is very conscious about his race and tries to express it through his songs. His father being a Rasta himself meant he imbibed the beliefs of Rastafarianism very early and he insists that the dreadlocks he sports these days are a symbol of it. Not having to spend time hitting balls in the nets meant he had more time to read and develop his own understanding of his beliefs. “Rasta is a cultural movement for black people here who were brought from Africa as slaves. The Rastafarian movement was us getting back to our culture. That for me is what I try to represent. I write music to inspire, about social commentary, and about relationships, and those are the three things that can cover our existence. I want my music to be wholesome and have an impact even 70-80 years later. You can be a prophet through your music,” he says.
Though his groundbreaking success as a reggae sensation silenced any critics of his career move, it did take a while at least back home, he reveals, for people to get over his new look. “I had to hear everything from ‘Yeah, your dad is a Rasta man but you’re a cricketer’ to ‘Are you crazy or something?’ I even released a single called Jehovah Message, which basically says I’m not here to win a beauty contest,” he says.
Banks doesn’t agree that he has a better chance of making a difference as a global reggae star as compared to a West Indian cricketer. He believes the two major forces of his life will always go hand in hand. And that ultimately, he has no point to prove, like his song insists. “Independently, they’re good. Together they’re great. It’s about me being comfortable with being Omari Banks. At the end of the day, what I did in cricket was already done. What I’m doing in cricket, has already been done. I am here to create my own path.”