Q&A: Benjamin Booker – Black, Educated & Guitar-Armed


Benjamin Booker has been billed by many music publications across the land as one of the more EPSON DSC Picturepromising young rock n’ roll stars of this generation. His Self-Titled debut album emerged in 2014 and brings with it a fury of blues influence, intermingled with a punk rock spirit that Booker gained during his youth in Florida.

While Booker can count touring in support of Jack White; drawing crowds at festivals like Lollapalooza and Coachella; and shaking the stage on The Late Show with David Letterman as early-career accomplishments, there is way more to him than those resume markers.

Booker spent his collegiate years studying journalism and has worked in at least one reality shifting non-profit. And, like many of us, he’s watched the racial divide in America get scarier by the day. To say he has plenty of fodder, perspective and views to turn into song, would be an understatement.

In this interview with Riffyou.com, Booker touches on his very busy jump up the musical ranks; the importance of making statements through song; and being well-educated enough to, as a black man, not be scared of the police.

RY: How has the last year or so been for you? I’d imagine it’s been quite the journey.

Benjamin: “At the beginning, there was a lot of stuff and I felt like, ‘Whoa, I wasn’t expecting to be this busy.’ But, it didn’t take long to get into it and really start to enjoy it after a while. Now, I probably feel more comfortable touring than being at home. I would never complain about what I’m doing, because there are a lot of perks and it’s a lot of fun. I had been working since I was 15, but I just wasn’t used to working this much: it’s 24 hours a day.”

RY: “Slow Coming” is a very powerful video that touches on racial inequality. Why was it important for you to put out a video that was more of a statement, as opposed to something very vanity-driven? 

Benjamin: “The song itself was more of a statement – I wasn’t planning on doing a video, but people had really responded to the song. One of my best friends is from Mexico and he came across the border to [America] when he was younger and that song meant the most to him, as it’s partially about immigration reform…then I wanted to do something for it.

“James [Lees, the director] was a fan of the music and had put together this very detailed video that was a visual complement to the song. But, it wasn’t like ‘Let’s make a video and a powerful statement.’ The song was written about a lot of frustrations I had going on for a couple of years.”

RY: You recently made a statement on Facebook about how strange it is that racism and anti-gay marriage still exists. Why do you think certain factions of society can’t get past these things?

Benjamin: “I have no idea – that is where all my frustration came from. To me, if you love somebody, you should be able to be recognized for being with them. The race stuff that’s been going on in America, yeah, I really don’t understand, and I guess that’s also where that song is coming from.

“I was working in New Orleans at a non-profit when I wrote it…just seeing the most ridiculous shit ever. The history of America is not the prettiest and I guess it just takes time to get out of that. But, it’s not just America. We tour around and if you go to France, they have their problems with North Africans…it’s very similar to what’s happening in America. Or Italy – it has a lot of immigrants coming in from Africa and tProcessed with VSCOcam with f2 presethere are riots about people trying to kick Africans out of there. It’s really not [just] an American thing.

“I really don’t know why people…it has to do with a lot of things I guess. Maybe they feel like people are encroaching on their lifestyle, or whatever. Why do you think?”

RY: I don’t know. I am in Canada and it’s quite different here…

Benjamin: “It’s very different in Canada! That’s what is so mind blowing to me. I went to Toronto and it was incredible. America is described here, as ‘the melting pot,’ and it is all different people, and in some places all people get along. But in Toronto, there’s an Indian woman married to a white guy, living next to the house of a black guy, who is married to a Korean woman…everybody seems like they get along. I was just like, ‘Why can’t we just do this?!’”

RY: It’s amazing how two nations that are attached are so different in that regard.

Benjamin: “I know, you guys are doing it right.”

RY: Based on what’s going on in America right now in terms of race relations, is it hard to be a black man in America?

Benjamin: “I think things are easier for me because I believe a really big part of it is about education, class and those types of things. I grew up in a poor, Hispanic and white neighbourhood, which is a very different type of experience. But, I also went to really good schools. When I was in college, I went to school in more of a southern town and I got pulled over maybe nine times in a year. But, my interactions were very different because I was a journalist at the school.

“When I got pulled over, they’d talk to me and I was a college-educated black man that was writing for the school newspaper. I was like, ‘Excuse me, why are you pulling me over? I write for the paper. Do you really want to do this?’ I have a very different experience because I have been lucky enough to just get out of that place where I grew up.

“It can be scary sometimes, but I always felt that I could hold my ground against those kinds of situations – I am not intimidated.

“Some cops are all white cops in black neighbourhoods and they don’t understand the black culture – I think those differences cause problems sometimes.”

RY: Do you think that time you spent in journalism school helped you see the world in a different light than others? 

Benjamin: “Yeah, that was my favourite part about it…and getting to do interviews. I’d go to a funeral home in a black neighbourhood and speak with a funeral home director, or I’d interview a Hispanic woman who was running a small business in town. Journalism definitely helps put things into perspective. When you’re living in a town, the most knowledgeable people in the town are the journalists – they know everything that’s going on around town.”

RY: Is being able to have the platform to write and discuss the topics we touched on earlier something that you want to make the most of?

Benjamin: “Yeah. I grew up listening to a lot of punk and all the bands I listened to were writing songs about issues, not partying, girls, or stuff like that. It was writing about the people around you in the community and making the world a better place than what it is. That type of stuff matters to me.

“The people I look up to, even outside of music, are people trying to do something more than just entertain.”

-Adam Grant

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