When a North London boxer met a South London rapper after-hours at a restaurant in 2017, the pair had no idea that two years later they would have fallen in love and be sat in an East London studio, eating pizza and doing their first ever photoshoot together.
The rapper is Ms Banks, the ferociously talented MC, and the boxer is 26-year-old British cruiserweight boxing champion Lawrence Okolie. Banks' sharp wordplay and contagious confidence are fuelling her rapid rise. Already approved by Nicki Minaj, Ms Banks has an arsenal of bangers to prove she’s a force to be reckoned with, like the club-ready Hood Bitch and Afrobeat-fused Snack. But it’s in the more introspective moments on her debut album The Coldest Winter Ever, where she truly reveals her dexterity as a rapper, confronting everything from Black Girl Magic (Come Thru) to the situation in Syria (Know U Know).
As a teenager, Okolie was overweight, and took up boxing to keep fit and trim down. His fierce talent and relentless determination meant that by 2016, he found himself competing in the Rio Olympics for Great Britain and by 2017, he’d turned pro. One of Anthony Joshua’s protégés, Okolie has never lost a fight in his professional career.
Together, Ms Banks and Lawrence Okolie pack one hell of a punch. Self-confessed "underdogs" turned natural leaders, prepare to fall in love with The Face’s favourite lovers...
Shannon Mahanty: Where did you meet?
Ms Banks: At Shaka Zulu, it’s a restaurant, but it was after-hours so it was the raving time...
SM: Did you have any mutual friends?
Lawrence Okolie: No. Obviously I knew she was a very good-looking woman so I had to go over. Some of her friends were telling her not to chat to me.
LO: They almost ruined her life.
LO: Thankfully she had some sense and didn’t listen to them.
MB: My friends are just very protective of me.
LO: Is that what you wanna call it?
MB: They probably thought, "This guy is just here to chat up girls", but I got good vibes from him. When he first approached me he said, “Sorry, I haven’t had a haircut.” I thought he was funny. He looked good, handsome, he was really tall. He had this shirt on from Zara which I thought was kind of cute...
LO: She was the only person I spoke to that night, despite her friends crazy accusations.
LO: I hadn’t planned on going out, but you know what? It ended up being one of the best decisions I ever made.
MB: Are you fake crying right now?
LO: I was interested in her from the start, I pursued her for a while but I think she was on her own journey and I was on my mine. I don’t think I’ve said this to you Thyra: you actually helped shape my boxing career. Early on when we were just talking I started to hear you on the radio, so every time we’d meet up, I’d tell you my own aspirations: “I’m going to go pro, I’m going to go to the Olympics," to the point where she thought I was chatting rubbish. A bit of it was chatting rubbish, but a bit of it was me believing in myself…and then...sorry [starts fake crying].
MB: Shut up!
LO: I made all those dreams a reality...
MB: Can I swear?
MB: I did think he talked a lot of shit, but actually, he really spoke things into existence. He messaged me straight after we met, but we didn’t go on a date till a couple of months after. We were both busy.
LO: She wasn’t interested in me.
MB: It’s because I was tipsy that night, so I was second guessing my judgement! I saw pictures and I was like, "Is he as nice as I thought he was?" Then when I saw him I thought, "He’s beautiful!" I knew it.
MB: You are photogenic though babe, you know you are. So anyway, we went on our first date and he talked a lot, but when he started achieving all these things, I realised this boy isn’t just talking, he’s really working towards something. He’s the opposite from me in that way. When I have goals, I don’t speak about it until I’ve achieved them, but he says it. I think that’s so much braver. He proved me wrong, I’m proud of him for that.
SM: Let’s talk about the first time you saw each other perform and fight.
LO: I first saw Thyra at her headline show at Omeara in London Bridge, and I said to myself, "I’m done for." Seeing her on stage just heightened everything I already thought of her. It was so moving and powerful to see someone in the flesh doing what they really love. The truest version of herself. She’s very authentic, very confident, energetic. I thought to myself, "I’m the lucky guy that gets to see her later."
MB: You are ridiculous. He makes me blush. The first time I saw him fight, I was so nervous. We were staying at a hotel nearby. It was his fifth professional fight against Russell Henshaw. I was sweating. It was a lot. People expect me to suck it up because my partner's a boxer, but you don’t see people fighting every day and it’s scary. I don’t want to see him get hurt, but as time goes on I’ve realised that Lawrence is a champion and he’s good, he’s very strong. He’s got this.
SM: Do you enjoy it more now?
B: Yeah for sure. I walked him out the other day. I still get nervous, but I felt more confident. I knew he had it in the bag.
LO: Before we walked out I was meant to be focusing on the fight but all I could think about was how beautiful she looked.
MB: I don’t know if you’re acting or not
LO: Did I not say that to you, “You look so beautiful right now. I’m gonna do this for you”?
MB: You did not. This guy!
SM: Does she keep you humble?
MB: To be fair, there’s nothing about Lawrence that’s humble.
LO: I actually don’t like the world humble.
MB: Exactly, the definition of humble is about making yourself small.
LO: She couldn’t go on stage with Nicki Minaj if she was being humble.
B: Yeah, when I’m performing it’s not my time to be humble; that’s my time to be my most expressive.
SM: Speaking of Nicki Minaj, what were you doing when she first reached out to you on Twitter?
MB: I had a show the night before in Leeds, and when we got back to the hotel, I was watching this film she’s in with Cameron Diaz called Another Man. Then the next morning I woke up to a tweet from her! I’ve been a fan since I was 14 and now I’ve shared a stage with her! I was with her during the peak of the concert when she was in her absolute element. Originally I was just supposed to open up for her, and she said, “Banks, come on stage with me, it’s going to be a bigger moment.”
Did she give you any advice?
MB: When we first started talking and swapping ideas, she basically told me on some verses I need to go harder. That’s something I always tried to keep in mind. Be stronger. Lawrence says the same kind of thing: “Make sure when you say things you sound sure. It’s not if or maybe, it’s certain. It’s you being who you are”. I make sure my delivery is tight and what I’m saying is spot on. Rap is about being boisterous and braggadocious - is that a word?
LO: You’re meant to be humble.
MB: Shut up. I feel like as women we should try and stick together because there’s only 16% of us in the music industry. If we really want to talk about female empowerment and broadening opportunities for women, then we need to work together. We can’t beef at each other, that’s not what it’s about.
SM: Lawrence, it feels like an exciting time for women in boxing too.
LO: Definitely. In the same way you see Thyra has lyrical content that can match any guy, there are female boxers who can compete skill for skill with any man. You have people like Katie Taylor, Nicola Adams and Shannon Courtney flying the flag, which is going to inspire younger women. When you see someone else do it, you know that you can do it too. If you’re encouraged to do it from a young age then it makes female boxing even better, even more competitive. It’s becoming a force to be reckoned with.
MB: It’s hard being a woman in a male-dominated industry, but I feel like I do it not only for myself but for a lot of black girls from South London, and for girls all over the world.
SM: What are the hallmarks of a good relationship?
MB: It’s important to give each other space. I believe in honesty, and communication is so important to keep a relationship alive. And sex.
SM: What about when you’re apart?
LO: Yeah, FaceTime really goes a really long way.
SM: Do you guys argue?
LO: Yeah. Most of the time it’s about...
MB: Why did your eat my food?
LO: Where shall we eat?
MB: I only had one Capri Sun, why did you drink it?
LO: She’s very hot-headed and sometimes she talks to me in a way that I don’t think is acceptable.
MB: Do you know what, yeah, he’s a big bad boxer - it’s like no one in his world ever disrespects him and I just get right up under his skin.
MB: And I like it. Really and truly, he’s got the power a lot of the time because women have been moulded in a way where women submit to men, so I’m always trying to make sure that he’s happy.
LO: For people who can’t see my facial expression, it’s one of absolute shock and horror.
MB: I always stand my ground. Especially coming from an African background, it’s like you’re expected to bow down at the guy's feet and bring out the red carpet. I like to make you feel good, but I’m not gonna lose myself trying to be a housewife. I’ve also got a career.
LO: Fortunately I’m the type of guy who enjoys your ambition. I’m proud of you going out there and getting yours. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be dating a rapper. I’m so glad we did this shoot, but at the start I was really 50/50 about it. I was quite nervous. She slapped me on the back of the head and told me we have to do it. What that tells you in terms of our relationship is that she finds a way of winning every single time. Is it cos she’s right all the time? I don’t know, but I find a way to compromise, and sometimes she does too, but there’s always a way we can both win, and both be happy.