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As many of you know, employment at one of Wall Street’s investment banks– and, increasingly, law firms and hedge funds– comes not only with an enviable salary but the corporate world’s version of a free gift with purchase*: a canvas duffle bag. Typically, these bags are navy and green, with one’s respective firm’s name on the ribbon. They can often be seen riding the subway, walking down Park Avenue, and so on a so forth. For most people, the bag represents a place to put gym clothes. For a select few, the bag represents the feeling they’ve arrived. For former Goldman Sachs employee Jihan Bowes-Little, the bag represented an existential crisis. And the beginning of his trading by day/rapping by night life.
The inspiration for his second career came seven years ago, when the American became transfixed watching Saul Williams, the spoken word poet. “It was just, like, absolutely mind-blowing,” recalls Mr Bowes-Little, sitting in a private members’ club in Notting Hill, home to bankers and the carnival. “One person on stage captivating a room full of people, no music, no distractions.” Walking back to his flat with his friend, the pair, who had never performed in public before, challenged themselves to try their hand at it. Which is how, a week later, Mr Bowes-Little, who was then 26, found himself dry-mouthed and anxious preparing to deliver “Goldman Rucksack” on stage at an Open Mic night. The lines were public musings on his personal dilemma: “I wanted underground soul, with overseas dough, they said you maybe have one but you can’t have both.” The rhyme was about the company bag that is issued to junior employees starting at investment banks. To Mr Bowes-Little, who is thoughtful to the point of being over-analytical, a rucksack is more than just something you use to carry stuff in. “When you walk around Wall Street, there are just hundreds of kids all walking around branded by their respective banks.”
Mr Bowes-Little, who is mixed-race and the first in his family to attend university, says that despite joining Goldman Sachs, he still had a great deal of prejudice about the elitist world of banking and a strong “sense that I didn’t want to let being in finance change who I was”. So he refused to sport the company logo, preferring instead to carry his old beaten-up bag. “After a while I thought, ‘This is a bit contrived. I need a new bag’. So I put it on. But I was walking out of my flat, and I thought should I wear it this way, with the insignia out. Or should I wear it the other way. In or out? Is it ego? Or is going the other way equally egoistic.” He wore it inside-out, left the gym wearing his tracksuit and headphones and got on the train. His fellow passengers backed away from him. “I was feeling quite judged. I knew all I had to do was turn my bag around to change everybody’s definition of me.”
And while juggling his life as a credit derivatives trader/rapper initially proved too difficult, JB-L ultimately found a way for his identity as a financier and his identity as an artist to live in perfect harmony.
After the 2008 credit crunch, he quit. “The atmosphere at work was tiring. The music was happening.”
He flew to Los Angeles to focus on music, cushioned by his savings. But after a year, and despite some critical success, his hip-hop career failed to take off – so he returned to London to work for a hedge fund. He refuses to disclose the fund’s name but it is easy to find by searching Google. Since his re-entry into the world of finance, he has not been tempted to leave. “I was really trapped before. I don’t feel trapped any more.” Nonetheless, he still spends time in the studio and is preparing to launch his single, “All In”, a track that was used by Coca-Cola for its advertising campaign in Mexico. Instead of dreaming of escaping banking, he insists, this dual life is better. Now he finds parallels between the two worlds. “Both banking and hip hop are very competitive, both are incredibly exciting and at the very, very, very top, remunerative.”
Today he mixes his two worlds, instead of keeping them secret and separate. “The kinds of finance people who like to come to the hip-hop shows I never would have expected. People are more multifaceted than I think we give them credit for. It’s not obvious to me that bankers are less creative than musicians.”
On a related note, it goes without saying but we’ll say it anyway that employees of a certain hedge fund are going to have a lot of explaining to do when someone finds out that Goldman’s pedestrian little gym bag has inspired a work of art while not one lyric has been put to paper re: his beloved fleece jackets.
*“Hey, here’s a contract for a high six figure salary. Also, please enjoy this finely-crafted bag.