Written By: Emma Robins
Benjamin Booker’s most recent album Witness, summons the listener into a deep struggle between individual aspirations and collective responsibility. Through his poignant lyrics and versatile musicality, Booker is able to be as critical of himself as he is of society at large. In his opening punk-influenced track, “Right On You,” Booker sings “I’ll be damned if I don’t get what I want/Take it now while I have the chance/Right now, I can only think for one.” This sets the stage for the rest of the album’s scathing critique of the American Dream narrative, alongside conflicted personal reproaches for pursuing it. Booker’s versatile voice brings the listener through his contemplative, yet forceful journey, as styles range across blues, folk, punk, and soul genres, to name a few. We struggle alongside Booker as he claims that “You could have it all if you just try harder/Make it to the end without going under” (“Overtime”), while critiquing the same pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ideology; “ I just worry about means/I’ll just take what I need, hope someday you will see/It’s the last time, I know you’ll probably disagree/It’s a blatant dismissal of a sad history” (Motivation).
Witness is as much introspective as it is a social critique. Throughout the album, Booker wrestles with himself — “Having trouble trying to accept the/Thought that someone could love me” (“Truth is Heavy”). Background vocals are strategically inserted to provide a haunting atmosphere, perhaps the sense that Booker is in conversation with an elusive and enigmatic voice, in an album which consistently represents his alienation. A recent essay from Booker, published through NPR, casts some light on his self-examination; as a black American artist who has chosen to live outside the United States in a time of horrific racial violence, he struggles “to see the world inside my cage” (“The Slow Drag Under”).
In perhaps the most powerful song of the album, “Witness,” this scathing critique of American racial marginalization is most explicit. Booker sings, “Do you need another reason to get up/See how fast they turn when you’re looking up/They say your dangerous/Cancerous/Not to trust/Now everybody that’s brown can get the fuck on the ground (Witness). Booker’s voice conveys anger, doubt, fear, insecurity, and even hope, as he asks “am I gonna be a witness,” to the violence against the black community.
By his last song, “All Was Well,” Booker has established his musical virtuosity as well as his poetic prowess in this well-crafted album. When he claims “ you know this won’t be easy/But I’m trying real hard/I’m gonna tear this building down” (“All Was Well”), the listener is struck by his double-meaning; that he might strike down the doubts, fears, and insecurity within himself, as well as marginalizing systems and structures. In his incredible vulnerability, Booker invites us to introspection and social action.