If you think that punk or poetry have no power in the twenty first century, you haven’t been paying attention to artists like Benjamin Booker.
Witness, the follow up to his 2014 debut album, is a seminal work of relentless demand from the 27 year-old New Orleans native, fusing punk’s cigarette burns with gospel’s cleansing waters and a hot haze of the blues. The blend of styles is impressive, but the album’s moral core is what really commands attention.
Undertaking a Baldwin-esque journey of Mexico last year, Booker had intended to focus on a sense of introspection conducive to songwriting, but instead found himself confronted by violent truths from which he was unable to run. In this essay accompanying the new album announcement, Booker faces the reality of racial violence in America and presents a challenge at the centre of this record:
“Witness” asks two questions I think every person in America needs to ask.
“Am I going to be a Witness?” and in today’s world, “Is that enough?”
The album’s title track is heavy with emotional urgency and gospel chorus that stand distinct from Booker’s trademark effortless cool, and lends itself to an expression of mourning – of crying mothers and pleading families enduring injustice that seems incomprehensible to the twenty-first century.
“It wasn’t until Trayvon Martin, a murder that took place about a hundred miles from where I went to college, and the subsequent increase in attention to black hate crimes over the next few years that I began to feel something else. Fear. Real fear.”
But where there is fear, a current of anger bleeds through in the insistence of Booker’s raspy vocals and inflections of heavy guitar that made a name for him as a unique artist 3 years ago, even on tracks which themselves take on simpler, quieter moods.
This isn’t background music – this is sit down, shut up, and pay bloody attention music. This is the modern day protest. For what should be a career-defining record for this artist, I certainly hope the world is listening.