Rocker Benjamin Booker Channels James Baldwin on ‘Witness’

By Sameer Rao Jun 02, 2017

Like James Baldwin, Josephine Baker and other Black artists before him, Benjamin Booker went abroad in search of creative liberation. The rock singer and songwriter’s time in Mexico City, where he was forced to confront the racism he wished to ignore, inspired the socially conscious ethos behind his second album, "Witness." It drops today (June 2) via ATO Records.

Booker opens his essay that accompanies the album with one of Baldwin’s quotes about moving to France: "Once you find yourself in another civilization, you are forced to examine your own."

But Booker didn’t initially do that when he left New Orleans in 2016 to live in Mexico’s capital city in hopes of combating writers’ block. Instead, he created a bubble in his new setting that even his friends’ texts about Black-led activism against police violence could not penetrate. That bubble burst when a group of young men approached him and a friend outside a music venue:

One night, I went to Pata Negra for drinks with my friend Mauricio. Mau was born and raised in Mexico City and became my guide. He took me under his wing and his connections in the city made my passage through the night a lot easier.

We stood outside of Pata Negra for a cigarette and somehow ended up in an argument with a few young, local men. It seemed to come out of nowhere and before I knew it I was getting shoved to the ground by one of the men.

Mau helped me get up and calmly talked the men down. I brushed the dirt off of my pants and we walked around the block.

"What happened?" I asked him.

"It’s fine," he said. "Some people don’t like people who aren’t from here."

He wouldn’t say it, but I knew what he meant. 

The experience pushed Booker to bridge his upbringing in the American South with his present: 

Growing up in the South, I experience[d] my fair share of racism but I managed to move past these things without letting them affect me too much. I knew I was a smart kid and that would get me out of a lot of problems.  

In college, if I got pulled over for no reason driving I’d casually mention that I was a writer at the newspaper and be let go soon after by officers who probably didn’t want to see their name in print.

"Excuse me, just writing your name down for my records."

I felt safe, like I could outsmart racism and come out on top.

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.

It was like every time I turned on the TV, there I was. DEAD ON THE NEWS.

I wouldn’t really acknowledge it, but it was breaking me, and my lack of effort to do anything about it was eating me up inside.

Booker channeled that newfound recognition into the album’s title track, "Witness," which features singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples singing "Am I, am I going to be a witness? Just going to be a witness?" on the chorus.

The title comes from Baldwin’s 1984 interview with The New York Times, in which the writer explained his definition of a witness: "I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is."

Booker addresses Staples’ open question by referencing police killings: 

Right now we could use a little pick-me-up, seems like the whole damn nation’s trying to take us down
When your brother’s dying, mother’s crying, TV’s lying, all the reason’s in the world don’t mean shit to me now.

See we thought that we saw that he had a gun, thought that it looked like he started to run.

Listen to "Witness" in full below via NPR: