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20 Jun

Tunesdays with Benjamin Booker

Released June 2, Benjamin Booker’s second album, Witness, packs a major punch. Embracing the idea that the personal is political, he doesn’t waste any time before analyzing his part as a citizen in the current social climate. The title track is “not a praise song; it’s a piano-pounding hymn for Black Lives Matter that has Mr. Booker singing, with furious mockery, ‘See we thought that we saw that he had a gun/Thought that it looked like he started to run.’”  NYT

It is extremely evident that Booker has been influenced by punk, rock and blues. The first album he said to have purchased, at around 13, was Elephant by The White Stripes. Their unique use of instruments and non-traditional sounds- reminiscent of the Doors, definitely seem to have a place in the framework for what has become Booker’s musical identity.

His deeper and raspier voice pulls from garage grunge and echoes the stylings of those such musicians as Eddie Vedder and, Screaming Trees, particularly in Shadow of the Season.

While Booker has grown into his comfort zone as a songwriter on Witness, he had to leave home to find it. As he explains in an essay about the creation of Witness, a bout of writer’s block and a thirst to escape that aforementioned dystopian loop of racism in America led him to do just as his hero James Baldwin did in the late 1940s. Baldwin flew to Paris without speaking a lick of French; Booker, meanwhile, arrived in Mexico without speaking a lick of Spanish. Both felt it necessary to escape America, her porcelain hands tightly wrung around their throats. But Booker spent only a month away. After getting into a physical altercation outside of a club, he came to the realize that hostility can’t be escaped; it’s right on you, and it’s best to confront it.” Pitchfork

Similar to Beyonce’s Lemonade, he reflects on America’s racism in a way that references the continuous cultural civil wrongdoings that have been going on for years, while lending a modern tone to his verbal ponderings.

“In his essay, Booker recalls realizing that for much of his life, even growing up in the South, he’d convinced himself he could “outsmart racism.” But as he processed Trayvon Martin’s death, he’d begun to feel fear for his safety in a society that disproportionately harms black bodies — and, at the same time, frustration at his own “lack of effort to do anything about it.” In Witness’ final track, “All Was Well,” Booker seems to come back to those epiphanies: “Built around the truth to keep it secret / Made excuses all my life until I just believed it / Believed that all was well.” In resolving to make a change — “If I have my way / I’ll tear this building down” — he could just as easily be alluding to the edifices of his own mindset as to harmful social structures. So, yes, Benjamin Booker has examined his own civilization, and he’s found it wanting. But it’s clear that, along the way, he’s been examining himself.” NPR




Gabrielle Levy
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