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Jabari Banks on breakout ‘Bel Air’ role: ‘My life went from zero to 100’

As the second season of 'Bel Air' airs today (February 23), star Jabari Banks looks back on the journey so far and teases what to expect from the show's return

By Sam Moore

Jabari Banks (Picture: Clarks)

“Now, this is a story all about how my life got flipped-turned upside down.” The opening lyrics from the theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air could just as appropriately be about Jabari Banks, the Philadelphia-born actor who has stepped into Will Smith’s sneakers for a reboot of the hit 90’s sitcom. One day, Banks was an unknown actor, the next he was on national TV being told by Will Smith he was set to lead a modern day, more dramatic retooling of the era-defining show.

As his career follows a similar trajectory to the original Will Smith’s (Banks is also a musician), the 24-year-old is already establishing outside the long shadow of his predecessor as a lauded on-screen talent with an eye for dazzling red carpet fashion choices. The rebooted show received much acclaim for tackling contemporary social issues such as racism, inequality and parental abandonment which has helped distinguish it from its light-hearted original. Bel-Air is not just another reboot.

With the second season of Bel-Air premiering today, Banks sits down with Rolling Stone UK to talk about how Bel-Air changed his life, those big red Astro Boy boots, his favourite rapper and much, much more.

What have you made of the reaction to Bel Air since the show premiered last year? 

Jabari Banks: I really love the reaction to Bel Air. It’s such a privilege and honour to be a part of this legacy. And I knew that people were going to be sceptical about it because they hold it so close to their hearts but I’m so glad that they received it with as much love as we poured into it.

As a Philadelphia boy, what kind of influence did the original show have on you? 

Growing up, it was so dope to kind of see myself portrayed on screen in that way. Especially repping the city like it was just an amazing feeling. So I grew up loving the show and it’s made such an impact on me and the way I even go about life. 

Through this show and your performance, you’re now going to be immortalised in Philadelphia culture. How does that feel? 

That feels insane. Like, last year, I remember they painted a mural of me in the airport. It was just an insane feeling of my life going from zero to 100 in a way that was so surreal. So to be immortalised in Philadelphia culture as you said – which is a crazy word to me – it’s an amazing feeling. It feels surreal. 

Remarkably, Bel-Air was your screen acting debut. How did it feel being thrown in the deep end like that? 

It definitely was scary. At first. I had no clue what I was doing, honestly. But I had a great support system around me, people who supported me and reminded me that I was there for a reason because they love what I did. I had to break past that barrier in my mind of like, ‘why they chose me for this role?’ I had to go and show up every day and just be myself and bring myself to the role and really tap into the frequency that I was on when I booked it. I had to let go of all my fear. 

The now viral moment where Will Smith tells you that you’ve got the role. Can you talk a little bit about that? 

Yeah. So basically, I was in my friend Dante’s house. And Morgan Cooper had texted me, he said, ‘Hey, we want to do one more creative session with you.’ And I was like, ‘what does a creative session mean when it comes to acting’ so I was Googling creative sessions. I was like, I don’t know what he wants to see. But I’m gonna give him everything I got. So I had my sides ready and was gonna give it my all and I actually did the audition in my friend Dante’s closet. When I got on the call, Will Smith was there and his screen was so clear, I thought it was a pre-recorded video, but he was like, ‘Yo, what’s up’ and before my eyes, it was Will Smith talking to me. He told me I got the role. It was such a crazy feeling, I actually went to sleep after. 

What was it like working with a comedy legend like Marlon Wayans on those intense father/son scenes? 

When I heard that Marlon Wayans was going to be playing my dad, I thought whoa, this is an interesting choice. Because I’ve just known Marlon to kind of do those comedic roles. But Marlon was super tapped in when I got to set. It was such a joy working with an actor like that, who’s super prepared and super ready to just bring it and put it all on the screen. He surprised me with some of the choices that he made during our scene and I think he’s surprised a lot of people as well. Marlon, he’s such a great human to work with, such a down to earth guy and he’s such a legend. It was an amazing opportunity to work with him. 

Hip hop is a big part of the show and you’re a musician too. Who are some of your favourite rappers? 

So some of my favourite rappers of all time would have to be Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Chance the Rapper but my favourite rapper right now is Lil Baby.

What can we expect from you musically in the future?

 So I have a project that’s about to drop in the next couple of months, which I’m super excited about and you can expect to hear some music in the show as well. 

Saweetie also appears in the second season, what was she like to work with? And can we expect more musicians on the show? 

Saweetie was an amazing person to work with. She had great energy. The first day that she arrived on set, we were actually filming on a yacht and it was a long day and it was hot. And then when it turned night, it got super cold. But Saweetie, she had such great energy, she was so fun to work with. She was just along for the ride. And yes, you can expect more musicians on the show as well. A lot of dope cameos from a lot of dope artists. So I’m excited for people to see who shows up in Bel Air this season.

You have a great sense of personal style, where does that come from? 

That comes from my appreciation for fashion in general, streetwear and high fashion as well and mixing the two together and I just really love fashion. I’ve always had a great love for fashion. Thank you for saying I have a great fashion sense. I love to just try things on and I’m not afraid to push the boundaries or try new things when it comes to fashion.

What is your general approach to fashion? 

I usually always want to wear some timeless piece, you know what I mean? When I put it together, I really want people to appreciate the whole outfit as art. So I’m not afraid to wear different colours and different silhouettes. I look at fashion in a silhouette sort of sense. So I feel like we need new silhouettes in the future. I think people are scared of those Astroboy boots that Mschf just dropped. But I think that they like to add a dope silhouette to the bottom of the feet so I just appreciate them for that. 

What are your ultimate favourite items of footwear?

I’m excited about the Clarks Torhill. I really think they’re pushing the Clarks brand forward and they’re a new frontier. There’s an old saying that when you walk into a restaurant the first people look at is your shoes and your watch and I feel if I have my Torhill’s on or Clarks in general I’ll be making a good scene.

It’s been a crazy couple of years for you. How has your life changed since the show premiered? 

It’s changed in such a magnificent way. The reach of the show is so amazing. I remember I was told the story. I was sitting at dinner with my family. And a little boy runs up. And he’s like, Oh, I love the show. Can I take a picture? And I was like, Yeah, for sure. And his mom follows behind him. She’s like, yeah, he actually just got his hair cut today just like you because he loves the show so much. So I was like, wow, that’s such an amazing feeling, to touch the youth in that way. Alongside that, I’ll have 50 year old women come up to me. So it’s like the reach of the show is so large and I’m just grateful for Morgan Cooper for giving me the opportunity to bring this show back to life.