The musician discusses his latest album, Witness.
Musician Benjamin Booker
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Pleased to welcome Benjamin Booker to this program. Three years ago, he was just another 20-something working at a coffee shop and taking gigs around New Orleans when he was discovered. His self-titled debut received early praise and landed in the top 10 of two Billboard albums charts.
This month, he’s released the follow-up to that break-out album. It’s called “Witness” and it features a guest appearance by Mavis Staples on the title track. Who better to have on a track called “Witness” than Mavis Staples? Benjamin, good to have you on the program.
Benjamin Booker: Good to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
Tavis: My great honor. Let me start by asking or saying I don’t know that I’ve ever opened up and read liner notes that thanked James Baldwin and John Paul Sartre [laugh]. I was impressed, but I was a bit taken aback by that. So tell me the rationale for your shout-outs to James Baldwin and John Paul Sartre.
Booker: Well, I was having a little bit of an existential crisis, I guess, when I was…
Tavis: Sounds like it [laugh], yeah.
Booker: Part of writing, I guess, this album and taking a trip to Mexico and just isolating myself was really searching and just the idea of trying to see who I was without the comforts of home and like the people around me and those of kinds of things. So I think that a lot of it was me trying to see who I really was. That kind of thing.
Tavis: So the time alone in Mexico was good for you?
Booker: It was very good for me, yes. I had to get away from, you know, the 24-hour news cycle that was happening at the time. New Orleans also was a little stressful.
Tavis: The violence?
Booker: The violence was stressful, yeah. I mean, I got shot at in New Orleans right before I left. The city seemed like it was getting worse and worse. It was getting a little hectic and I needed to get out. But it was good. I think you need those times, you know, to just think about where you are in your life and where you need to go, you know.
Tavis: I get from listening to your music and reading about you that being an entertainer alone isn’t just enough. So how do you navigate that?
Booker: Well, that was a big part of this album, I think. I kept thinking about being older and looking back on my life and just would I be happy if I was just like a song and dance kind of guy? You realize that you have this platform to just speak to people.
So I guess I just wanted to start making music that connected to people on a different level that could maybe help them by showing them what I was going through and the things that have helped me. So I think that that’s what I was looking to do with this record. Just reach out, you know, to people.
Tavis: So musically — I’m just trying to get inside your process. So musically when you sit down to write an album, by your own admission, that you want to use to reach out to people, you want to write an album that says something. Yet you want it to be musically inspired. You want it to be entertaining. How do you mix all that up together?
Booker: Well, I think that if you don’t focus on it that much, it kind of comes. The best albums, my favorite albums, were made by people who were passionate in like I’m passionate about James Baldwin, about Sartre, about those people from before.
This album is really throwing a history of Black music into one album. Everything from gospel to blues to soul to jazz and all those kinds of things. So I think that if you’re passionate about those kinds of things, it’s going to come through with the record.
Tavis: So how does one put together a project that people get, that defies all the labels, defies all the boxes, defies all the categories?
Booker: I think that you just have to be honest. I mean, that was something I really focused on with this album, you know. I was watching this interview. Maybe it was with Maya Angelou. She was talking about how when she writes, she writes like it’s the last words that she was ever going to say. Like that’s how she writes.
So I was trying to express my feelings like that in like the simplest terms I possibly could. And, yes, they do try to market you, you know, and put you in these categories to sell records, but I think that all I can do is do my best to be honest with people and to hope that they’ll come, you know. It might not be quick, but I couldn’t do it any other way, you know.
Tavis: Well, it’s happening quick enough. I mean, that first album got a lot of acclaim. So it might not be overnight, but is happening with some pace and some speed. How would you, Benjamin, describe your sound? I don’t want to categorize you, but how would you…
Booker: Stemming from that last…[laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. How would you define your sound?
Booker: Well, I mean, this time I was focused on — I was listening to a bunch of like Nigerian funk from the 70s, people like William Onyeabor. I was listening to that Sly & The Family Stone record “Fresh”? I don’t know if you’re familiar with that one. So I think that this time, I was taking a lot of gospel music and combining it with funk music. So I think that that’s a lot of what you’re going to get on this album.
Tavis: So, you know, what you just said is heresy to some people [laugh]. Ray Charles got in trouble for that.
Booker: I know.
Tavis: Back in the day. It wasn’t really funk in his era. But you’re a person of faith. You grew up in that tradition certainly. How do you see the weaving of those sounds, gospel and funk, to use your words?
Booker: Well, I’m not a religious person now, but I did grow up with that kind of — in that environment. I don’t have a problem with the weaving of it. I mean, the thing that I take away most from gospel music, even though I don’t consider myself a religious person, is just that, I mean, you can’t get the kind of emotion from anything else than somebody who’s singing to their God. You know what I mean? Like that kind of passion is just like very specific.
So I think that that was something that always just connected with me, just kind of like primitive emotion, just like they’re longing for something more, you know. I think that that’s something I try to translate to the music. So that’s where the gospel element is coming in, into the melodies and those kinds of things.
Tavis: I want to dig a little deeper. Can I go a little deeper? Will you be offended if I go a little deeper?
Booker: Do what you got to do [laugh].
Tavis: I will anyway. Thank you. I appreciate it. I know from reading about your back story and preparing for this conversation, listening to your music, that you did, as I mentioned a moment ago, grow up in a pretty strict Christian environment, pretty strict. I know something about that, having grown up in a Pentecostal church, as I was saying to you before we came on the air in our private conversation.
How have you navigated that journey of putting music out where you’re weaving gospel and funk and doing other things where there are folk in your immediate family, folk in your universe, people you grew up with, who judge you by the music that you’re putting out?
Booker: Well, I mean, you can’t focus on those people. I mean, like if you’re worried about people judging you, I don’t think that you’d have a very long career in music. But I guess for this album, I realized that when we were talking earlier about people like James Baldwin, he’s somebody who left the church early, but it still kind of filtered through his writing.
And I think that I realized that because I hadn’t listened to secular music until I was maybe 16 or so, and I only listened to gospel music, I realized that that was part of my palette. Like I can try to take it away, but it’s always going to be there. So I thought I might as well just throw it in, you know.
Tavis: You’re being kind when you say it kind of flowed through Baldwin’s writings. No, it was deep. Wasn’t no kind to it. It was deep in his writings, but I take your point. Tell me about this title track, “Witness”, and how you got Mavis Staples to do that with you, yeah.
Booker: Yeah. I was lucky enough to write a song for her last album, so she did me a favor when we called her up and asked her this time that she performed on the track. It was the perfect person. We couldn’t have had a better person.
And I guess it was also just important too because it is a track about police brutality and those kinds of things. It was important to get somebody that I could point to for maybe listeners, fans who weren’t familiar with Mavis, to show them this woman who’s done so much in the last civil rights movement and kind of give them this inspirational person, you know.
Tavis: You talked about the project earlier in terms of what you wanted to do musically. Tell me more about the songs and what the takeaway is for the listener when they listen to it from beginning to end.
Booker: Right. Well, the album started when I was reading this book by an author named Don DeLillo. It’s called “White Noise”. There was a quote in the book that said, “What we are reluctant to touch often seems the fabric of our salvation.”
I remember reading that and I knew immediately what I needed to do. I think that I was very confused at the time and scared going into the process. And I think that I knew that in order to get to some kind of peace, some kind of happiness, that I was going to have to go to those dark places, you know.
So I think that that was what this album was about. It’s just like telling people that life is about growth. It’s about a continual process of self-reflection and trying to get somewhere. So I think that it’s important to address those things in your life that you might be scared of, those demons. Because you’re not going to be at peace. You’re not going to be happy until you do.
Tavis: His name is Benjamin Booker. And if you have not heard of him, you now have. I can promise you that well into the future you’ll be hearing the name Benjamin Booker. He’s a great songwriter and a great artist, and if you have not heard of him, pick up his stuff. Add it to your collection. Trust me. Benjamin, an honor to have you on the program for the first time. Hopefully not your last, my friend.
Booker: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Nice to meet you.
Booker: I appreciate it.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.