Photo Credit: Lauren Desberg
With his mother working in one of the most politically charged places in the country, it was hard for that not to get inside the mind of Ben Williams as the years started to collect. Now grown and doing his own thing, this Grammy-winning artist took inspiration from the past and merged it with the not-so-perfect present for his sociopolitical fueled release, ‘I AM A MAN,’ out February 7th. We talked about the record, skewed history lessons, and more in this back and forth that’ll inspire not only one to listen but to open their eyes and learn something.
Kendra: Growing up with your mother working on Capitol Hill, did you ever think you’d have a career in politics or were you always more drawn to the creative arts?
Ben Williams: I have a particularly interesting perspective of Capitol Hill because as a child it was simply “the place where my mother worked.” I didn’t understand until years later the importance of it all. I however never had an interest in pursuing a career in politics; I was always drawn to things artistic such as drawing/painting and obviously music. I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who pursue a career in politics, especially those who maintain their position with integrity, but I honestly feel that I can be just as influential and affect change through music and the arts.
Kendra: That teamed with a lifetime in DC as well as the always interesting trials and tribulations of being Black in America seemed to have all culminated in ‘I Am A Man,’ but did you start out thinking this record would encompass all of that and then some or did things start to take shape after you penned a few songs and saw a theme?
Ben Williams: When I began this project, I knew even in the very beginning that it would be centralized around the theme of social justice. Between the current sociopolitical environment and the overall response from the art community, I felt the desire to contribute my viewpoint. I, however, wanted to do something different than a “protest” record. I was inspired by the “I AM A MAN” phrase from watching an Ava Duvernay documentary (13th), and that became the thematic framework from which I wrote the songs. I wanted the record to be more introspective and really delve into the soul and mind of the black American male. The ideas and the direction became clearer and clearer as I went on.
Kendra: When it comes to what we’re taught about US history and history in general, it comes from a pretty particular perspective so we don’t always know all the ins and outs of what happened before us. Was the 1968 sanitation worker’s strike, that inspired your album title, something you learned on your own?
Ben Williams: Yes that’s absolutely right, there is so much that is left out of US history and there’s so much that we’re not taught about that has such an impact on how things are today. It is incumbent on us citizens of this nation to really take it upon ourselves to learn the history that we haven’t been taught because it ultimately informs how we navigate the present and how we will build a future.
I knew very little about the Sanitation Workers Strike before starting this project and only knew that “I AM A MAN” was the slogan adopted for that protest. Doing this project and reading more about the strike was a great opportunity to learn about this very important moment in American history. It is my hope that through this project people will become more aware of this movement and how it relates to the issues we face as a nation today.
Kendra: Now let’s talk about “If You Hear Me.” A wonderful song that captures not only the soul of who you are as a songwriter but also finds a nice balance between natural and man made sounds. When you’re writing new material, do you often hear the melodies and composition in your head or do you start strictly with the words and the music comes later?
Ben Williams: “If You Hear Me” originally began as an instrumental tune (the chorus was the A section of the tune). As the project as a whole began to move more and more in the direction of being a vocal album I started to write lyrics and added a verse section.
I am definitely a musician first and foremost, so I usually hear the melodies and music first. My lyrics come from ideas and concepts that I jot down and try to keep in the back of my mind so that when I am inspired musically the songs come together organically. I don’t consider myself a pure songwriter in the sense that I can just sit down and write a song, but I view my music as an entire ecosystem of ideas in which any and everything that contributes to the song is valid.
Kendra: You’ll be playing an album release show for ‘I Am A Man’ out in DC in mid-March. What can people expect who head out to the show?
Ben Williams: They can expect to see something quite different than what they’ve seen from me before, but it will be an experience and in-depth look into the mind and soul of the Black American male. I will have an incredible band with me (including a string section!) and some very special guests as well!