Benjamin Booker’s latest record, Witness, boldly explodes the garage-blues paradigm of his previous work. In an essay announcing the record, he detailed the dual inspirations for this radical shift: the work of civil rights activist and writer James Baldwin, and a trip to Mexico City. Booker visited the latter, in an attempt to escape the structures of American society. The former could almost be seen as a catalyst for that trip. Booker’s experiences during his Mexico City jaunt, and the conclusions he’s reached on Witness, feel like an echo of a letter Baldwin wrote to his literary agent in 1979: “I am saying that a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find, or what you find will do to you.”
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What Booker found, and what he shares on his new record, is anger, understanding, clarity—maybe even purpose. Many have heard the titular lead single as a call to action against police brutality and systemic violence against and subjugation of black bodies in America. And while these readings are accurate (“Now everybody that’s brown can get the fuck on the ground,” Booker spits before Mavis Staples sings, “Am I gonna be a witness?”), Booker recoils at the suggestion that this is a “political” record.
Instead, Booker’s gaze was turned inward, and Witness is a reflection of that; it’s an exploration of his role in America, a dissection of his own agency. In the end, Booker’s self-examination prompted action, and a dedication to “bearing witness to the truth,” be that an indictment of racist law enforcement, or an indictment of our own unspoken complicity in those systems. With Witness, he pleads that we have those conversations with ourselves. In 1963, on Dr. Kenneth Clark’s WGBH program, Baldwin pled the same: “There are days… when you wonder what your role is in this country, and what your future is in it. How precisely are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here?”
I was reading an interview with you from 2015 that mentions James Baldwin and the idea of “witnessing.” It seems like this record has been a long time coming.
I discovered James Baldwin in college, and since then it’s kind of changed my life. I guess I’m always one of those people who would look for guidance. I’m not a religious person or anything like that. You gotta find other things to guide your path. [Baldwin] was one of the people that I’ve looked up to and gone to for advice, so I’m sure that he’s come up occasionally.
You’ve cited the Baldwin quote, ‘Once you find yourself in another civilization, you’re forced to examine your own.’ The trip you took to Mexico City sounded like a desire to remove yourself from the social constructs that informed your life.
That was definitely the case. I was reading a lot of [Jean-Paul] Sartre and Don DeLillo, which is like absurdist literature. Both of those people were forcing me to look at the world a little bit differently. I wanted to take myself away from the comforts I had at the time, and the things I was used to, and just see who I was in an uncomfortable situation.
Mavis Staples’s contributions on ‘Witness’ are both inspiring and comforting. How did that collaboration come about?
I wrote a song for her last record. We met once in London and had spoken on the phone before, and when it came time to find a vocal for that song, I thought I’d ask her, and she said yes. She was definitely a big influence on this album. When I was writing a song for her album, I was trying to get to know her, and find where she was in her life. She was telling me that she was focused on being present and spending time with her family and friends, and those were the only things that really mattered to her. She just seemed so positive, just this ray of light. I wanted that, so going into this album—and isolating myself and going to Mexico—was trying to figure out how I could get to that place, how I could learn to enjoy the moment. In order to do that, I think I needed to deal with a lot of demons first.
Confronting personal demons is taxing work. How do you balance that confrontation with self-care and taking a step back?
Before I took the trip, I had already started making changes. I tried to cut back on drinking and started exercising. I’ve always been a very curious person. This needed to be a more personal album. The fear that I was feeling going into making this album was more about the fear of making bad music, the fear of putting myself out there. So I knew that I had to do it, and I didn’t really question it.
It seems that confronting and dealing with these things is a form of self-care itself, because, hopefully, you reach a better place after it.
Exactly. That’s what the whole trip was about. The album starts off in the New Orleans period before I went to Mexico City, and you have [‘Right On You’], about hedonism and this lonely, selfish lifestyle. Then, we dip into this period of self-reflection, and the songs ease out and get more calm and reflective. The whole structure of the album was done intentionally. I hope people take that away from the record. You can’t just passively change, you have to make active decisions every day to better yourself. When people think about politics and all the things that are happening right now, it just seems so overwhelming, and I think it’s important for people to just start with themselves. We don’t need the bureaucracies and politicians to guide us. We can guide ourselves if we just work on ourselves and make ourselves stronger.
Right. These things have more to do with personal progress and shouldn’t be painted as political. They’re human issues, they’re not just political talking points.
That’s been incredibly frustrating for me, because the album is not a political album at all to me. It’s something that I fought with the people I work with a lot about, but they’re trying to sell records. It makes me angry, but what can you do?
The record seems aimed both outward and inward. It sounds like these are things that could be said to oneself as well as to others.
A lot of the time I was [in Mexico], I was by myself. I didn’t speak the language, so I spent a lot of time just in my head having conversations with myself. Some of the songs are almost like mantras for me. There’s a song on the album called ‘Carry,’ that I wanted to be a mantra, something that I was repeating to myself: ‘I don’t need to carry all the things I’ve done wrong, aren’t there things I’ve done right?’ So a lot of the songs are like that to me. I am hoping people relate to them, but it was more for me to just move on. That’s the reason why I was writing these songs, to better myself.
The word ‘witness’ has different connotations; it can be used to denote passivity, or to indicate responsibility and agency, holding people accountable. How do you see that role?
People will probably hear it in different ways, so I tried to leave it open. The first way that I’m talking about was the James Baldwin, black church, ‘bearing witness to the truth’ kind of thing. They were talking about bearing witness to the truth. Their role was to reflect what was happening to society, that the people who were struggling deserved a voice. But it could also just be a witness to the world around you, to crimes, like police brutality, just witnessing these things happening. I guess that’s a more simple way to put it. It’s been described as political, but I don’t really see it as being political. The song is about the overwhelming feeling of seeing the world around you crumbling and the people around you struggling and feeling powerless, like you can’t do anything about it. It was another one of those songs that, to me, was me motivating myself to do more, like, ‘Am I just going to be a witness?’ No, I had to do more than just watch from afar. A lot of the songs are like that, just things that I needed to tell myself to keep going.
The song ‘Believe’ seemed to deal with how we need a religious or political identity to give ourselves an in-group or place to belong. I was wondering how that idea came out.
That’s exactly what it’s about. Like I said earlier, I was reading Sartre and these books on existentialism. At first, I was left with this feeling of, ‘Well, all of this is bullshit and I don’t really believe in anything.’ That can be a really depressing, dark spiral to go down. I think I had gotten to the point where I just felt like I didn’t know who I was at all. It was a really scary place to be. So that’s when I wrote this song. What I’m trying to say with this song is that there is another side to that, which is once you acknowledge that the world around you is constructed, and we don’t have answers, then you can take things less seriously and just laugh a little bit about it. That’s what I was trying to tell people.
‘All Was Well’ is a striking closing track. It seems tense and anxious to end the record. It suggests that things aren’t resolved. Was that intentional?
With this album, I wasn’t trying to give people answers to anything, because I don’t have any answers. But the whole point was to encourage people to have more self-reflection. That Don DeLillo book, which started all of it, there was a quote that said, ‘What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation,’ so I was just trying to encourage people to dig deep and try to figure these things out. I think there’s more peace and happiness on the other side. But the end is more aggressive because it’s never going to be perfect. In some ways I’m more angry now than I was when I started the process, but I think that I’m at a more peaceful place.
As far as there is to go, with this record coming out, do you feel you’ve reached a little more internal clarity or peace?
Definitely. This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my whole life. I started a relationship around the time I was making this album. I mean, part of this album was learning to love myself so I could open myself up to be loved by other people, you know? Which is important in life, maybe the most important thing. So I think I’ve finally gotten to a place where I can do that. That’s really when you get to a happy place.