Benjamin Starr puts activism at the forefront of his all-encompassing live recording of A Water Album 

Swimming Against the Current

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Keely Laughlin

Benjamin Starr speaks softly when he's not in a recording booth. His words are regularly full of emotion but sound as if they were chosen prudently. Starr's tactful diction and cool mood out of the spotlight stand in contrast to his talkative vigor on stage and his take-no-prisoners attitude in the rhyme book.

Maybe it's his adaptability, maybe it's his peaceful confrontation of social injustice, or maybe it's just his beats and words, but Starr knows how to captivate a room. And that's a skill he will put to good use with his latest release, titled A Water Album.

click to enlarge DJ Sista Misses, a.k.a. Samira Miche, created the artwork for 'A Water Album' - SAMIRA MICHE
  • Samira Miche
  • DJ Sista Misses, a.k.a. Samira Miche, created the artwork for 'A Water Album'

The new LP is not a live album in the traditional sense. Yes, Starr will record a performance of a show in front of eager fans, but every song is new and unheard. A Water Album is the long-awaited follow-up to 2015's Free Lunch.

"I think the best way for me to capture all of those things, that mental, spiritual, emotional connection with the people in the city where I wrote this album is to do it live, and bring people into that recording process," says Starr.

Fans are one thing, but the rapper went further than most would by bringing on DJ Sista Misses to make the album artwork, Ill Vibe the Tribe to curate an art show in the lobby, affordable housing activist Vanity Reid Deterville and City of Charleston Director of Transportation Keith Benjamin to speak, the Charleston Activist Network to register and educate voters, and a slew of featured artists performing alongside him. In short, the night is Holy City as hell.

"What's cool about this, with so many people involved and capturing this moment in time and this moment in Charleston, is that all of that becomes part of the record: the people in the room, what's led up to it, the energy in Charleston right now," says the production's creative director, Elliott A. Smith. "It's not going to sound like a stop on a tour that we happened to record live. It's like this one thing for Charleston."

And just like a flood, the album started small and grew into something much bigger.

Brain Waves

Conceptually, A Water Album was formed from a conversation Starr had with a friend. "I was talking to her about me just going through all of these changes," he recounts. "I'm maturing, and I'm becoming much more in touch with who I am, emotionally, spiritually, mentally. And that's a transition."

She responded to him by reminding him of his astrological sign. "You should be like water," she told the rapper. "Whether water is liquid, solid, gas, water can exist in all those different forms."

This moment of contemplation began Starr's three-year process of reevaluating himself, and writing, organizing, and fine-tuning his latest release.

Starr's 2015 local hit Free Lunch is the best jumping off point when examining A Water Album and its elevated concepts. Between the jazz influence, political commentary, and descriptions of life in the African-American community, Starr found himself looking outward at the world around him on the 2015 LP, which came out the week of the massacre of the Emanuel Nine, its release show the same day as a Black Lives Matter march in downtown Charleston. As an artist, Free Lunch was the rapper's Sirens of Titan, the moment when he put all of his recognizable characteristics into a work that demanded full attention.

Taken at face value, Free Lunch was an excellent socially conscious rap album, but below the skin, it was a commanding statement. "Free Lunch was kind of a defiant message to the status quo," he says.

In this respect, A Water Album is the response to Free Lunch's call. "The music and the lyrics on this album are speaking to the community of black people, the allies, the oppressed people," he explains.

The genesis of this theme came from the innate introspection that aging brings. "This one, being 26 versus being 30, I realized that everything I ever do is going to be speaking to the status quo in some regards, because I believe that it is going to be a spirit of rebellion," Starr states. "It is going to be truth and honesty, and often times those things disrupt the status quo, as they should."

A Water Album's list of producers include Aaron Mac, Enon Jacobs, MANHE, SwaVay, and Yang. Contour, who produced the song "Resurrection," says that his J Dilla and Madlib-influenced production was chosen because it fit the album's style. "It's a piano sample and a drum line," he said. "It's a pretty moody composition."

According to Starr, the writing process was more difficult than his previous works. The brunt of this is put on the wide range of emotions he forced himself to tap into throughout the album. Some of them forced him to confront his own preconceptions about how to act as an African-American man. Starr invoked a concept from author Bell Hooks to explain some of the thoughts he grappled with while writing A Water Album.

"If I'm an angry black man, and I'm loud, I'm violent, and you're trying so hard to go against the stereotype, you're trying to be antithetical to what that is, you're still allowing in many ways for that thing that you're trying to be free of, to control you," Starr says. "I've realized it's OK for me to be angry, it's OK for me to have rage, it's OK for me to be thoughtful, it's OK for me to be really sensitive."

Just as the name hints, the music flows through emotions, putting them all in different forms. A Water Album promises to be as fierce as a storm surge, as harmonious as a stream, as pensive as rain, and as communal as a river meeting the sea. "I think this is the music that I was supposed to write," says Starr.

Preparing the Water

From the beginning, an event of this weight was not planned. Benny Starr wrote the album like any other release, but once it was complete, he realized that the concept of the album would inevitably bleed into the world.

After asking himself how he could lean into the theme of water further and use his platform for what he considers its best use, Starr concluded that the answer was to, once again, be adaptable as water.

"I don't want the market dictating to me how I'm going to give my most precious gift to the world, and that's what I create," he said. "So, I was like 'I'm going to throw a wrench into this whole thing' and do this the way I want to do it."

He did this by pulling an impressive string of connections to record the album live, opting to add live instrumentation to the beats with the FOUR20s.

click to enlarge Rodrick Cliche - JONATHAN BONCEK FILE
  • Jonathan Boncek file
  • Rodrick Cliche

"We've been reproducing the music that was already amazing before we jumped on it, and we're trying to approach it in a live aspect," says FOUR20s' bandleader Rodrick Cliche.

Starr, Cliche, 95GRVMZ, Vonta E-Nuf, and creative director Smith worked tirelessly to recreate the beats and build on them for a live audience. Cliche says that the impromptu feeling of classical and jazz were an inspiration to their work on A Water Album.

"We're literally trying to make it feel like waves, the aggression of water, but also the free flow," Cliche adds.

"We're going to leave a lot of room for spontaneity, which is sort of the whole idea of doing a live album recording," Smith says. "Hopefully, you can capture some organic spontaneous element that is sometimes pretty elusive in the studio."

Coast Records owner and engineer Matt Zutell will record the album. "I'll mix and produce a live version of that album once it's all said and done," he says about his role in the process. "Most of the work is up front, and getting all the instruments and the vocals to sound the way I want them to."

click to enlarge Eddy Smith - JONATHAN BONCEK FILE
  • Jonathan Boncek file
  • Eddy Smith

The show's managing producer McKenzie Eddy Smith (and bandmate in Very Hypnotic Soul Band) was tasked with helping every cog in the machine communicate, a goal she says was easier than expected because people were so willing to contribute their time and energy. "One of the super cool things is that there's a whole community of people, not just artists, rallying around a hip-hop artist," she notes. "The even cooler thing is that we have someone so prolific to rally around."

"It speaks to the way that his art touches people and the way that it can touch a variety of people based on different life experiences," Eddy Smith adds.

The fact that the recording will take place at a venue the size of the Charleston Music Hall is a sign of the increasing support for rap music in Charleston.

Music Hall Director Charles Carmody was happy to provide his site for the event. "We believe [Starr] is pushing the envelope for the hip-hop scene in Charleston," Carmody says. "We believe that Charleston needs to progress and evolve in the art they consume, and we want to be bringing more diverse acts to town. This may mean taking a risk, as Charleston has a history of not supporting diverse acts, but we believe it is an important risk to take."

From the ample amount of help Starr was able to commit to the performance, he is displaying a music community that has started to show a newfound enthusiasm for collaboration. More importantly, the artist believes that the power of cooperation will be palpable in the music of A Water Album. "There's really something special about the experience of being in the midst of a lot of people and the spirit and the energy is really thick in there," Starr says. "You can't replicate that in the studio."


What to Expect

Before the show: 6-8 p.m.

Charleston Activist Network will provide a voter registration/education drive.
Park your bike with ease thanks to Charleston Moves' bike racks out front. Ask about their Just Ride initiative inside the lobby.

Check out the IllVibeTheTribe-curated activist-themed art show, Artivist, featuring local works across multiple mediums.

John Gaulden Photography's prints (images seen in opening performance) will be for sale.

Onstage

At 8 p.m., host Tamika Gadsden of the Charleston Activist Network takes the stage. Terraphonics will open the show.

At 8:30 p.m., community speakers Keith Benjamin, Director of Transportation, and affordable housing activist Vanity Reid Deterville, will take the stage.

At 9 p.m., Benny Starr will debut and live record his sophomore solo project, A Water Album, with special guests: Contour, Matt Monday, Niecy Blues, Poppy Native, Shaniqua McCants. The FOUR20s (Rodrick Cliche, 95GRVMZ, and Vonta E-Nuf) are Starr's backing band.

John Gaulden Photography will present a series of photos during the opening performance that he's been compiling for 10 years called The Water is Rising.

The set design was imagined by Starr and Samira Miche (who, with Starr, incorporated this imagery into the album artwork), and the Very Hypnotic Soul Band (creative direction).

How the album is coming together

The album's tracks were originally produced by Aaron Mac, Contour, Enon Jacobs, MANHE, SwaVay, and Yang, then arranged for a live performance by Benny Starr, FOUR20s, and Elliott A. Smith. The live audio recording will be produced by Matt Zutell of Coast Records. Samira Miche (a.k.a. Sista Misses) created the album artwork.

What else?

John Peters will direct and edit a short film that artistically captures the event, alongside cinematographers Carson Tucker and Kevin Cecil, with Khari Lucas as assistant director.

The MOJA Arts Festival is assisting by making a portion of the tickets available to underrepresented audiences that share in the vision and socially engaged nature of the event; the event will be added to MOJA's calendar.

Production support provided by BACE League of Charleston: The Royal American, Dellz' on the Macon, Rarebit, Warehouse, Mission Yoga, Graft, and Call to Adventure Podcast.


Drowning the Status Quo

Listeners who have perused Starr's back catalog know where his heart lies in his music. Never one to shy away from civil rights and social justice, Starr has confronted racism and misogyny, often discussing black culture through it all.

You can hear it on Free Lunch singles like the religion dissecting "Allah," the black female empowerment of "Love, For You," and the oppressed worker emboldening "Black Owned."

"Art, for me, is as political as anything else because it reflects what I'm living through, what I'm going through, and what a lot of people are going through," says Starr.

click to enlarge Elliott A. Smith - JONATHAN BONCEK FILE
  • Jonathan Boncek file
  • Elliott A. Smith

The rapper took it one step further by stating that it is the responsibility of artists to take a stand and "speak truth to power." Starr and Very Hypnotic Soul Band arranger Elliott — who also co-host a new "political podcast made by creatives," Emcees & Esquires — see it as a warranted check on the established order. "My friend Elliott always says that art is the natural predator of the status quo. And in an ecosystem, it has to have a natural predator for balance, I believe," Starr comments. "You need a natural predator, because if you don't have a natural predator, the status quo will run rampant."

A Water Album's political pedigree will stay firmly in line with its forerunner, as a document of Starr speaking to his community. But he wasn't content with leaving everything to the album. For his Sat. Sept. 22 recording, Benny Starr recruited several Charlestonians to bring the socially conscious themes to life in the Charleston Music Hall.

click to enlarge Tameka Gadsden - JONATHAN BONCEK FILE
  • Jonathan Boncek file
  • Tameka Gadsden

Among the artists and speakers will be progressive advocacy group Charleston Activist Network (CAN). "My work tends to revolve around electoral justice and making sure that marginalized communities have the same access to voting," says lead organizer and host of the Mic'd Up Podcast, Tamika Gadsden. CAN will provide that service at the performance with a voter registration and education drive in the Music Hall lobby.

While CAN has worked diligently to promote social justice, as it did with the Charleston Women's March earlier this year, they have a renewed focus on voter advocacy, thanks to the looming midterm elections.

According to the S.C. Election Commission, a picture ID of some form is required to vote in South Carolina. Many voting advocacy groups believe that "voter ID" initiatives like the one adopted in S.C. in 2011 discourage members of minority communities from casting their ballot. "It's important in South Carolina to remove barriers to voting, because it's our right and because participating helps your elected officials know that you were there, you care, and that you need representation as well," says Gadsden. "If people aren't seen, they can't be helped."

Carmody says that it's an effort that the Music Hall is eager to participate in. "We believe the arts can be the catalyst for change in a community," he says. "Coming together, sharing ideas, experiencing art, is an important element to any community as we try and build a stronger and clearer conversation between humans of all walks of life."

On the topic of regularly voting in elections, Starr says that it's an important practice for people to change their everyday lives. "That is one step in helping people to understand the power that they do have as citizens, individually, but also the power they can have collectively," he says.

As the event grew, Starr took his philosophical approach to his art further by asking himself about the unique issues that affect Charleston the most. Pedestrian and bike advocates Charleston Moves will provide bike racks outside of the Charleston Music Hall, City of Charleston Director of Transportation Keith Benjamin will speak, and Ill Vibe the Tribe will curate an activist-themed art show, Artivist, in the lobby.

"How do we take the thread and connect all of these issues and show that we can be connected seamlessly?" Starr asked himself while envisioning the event.

So many of the socially conscious aspects of Starr's music are sewn throughout the event's fabric. As the artist will tell you, the ability to speak up in his music and give a message is just a part of who he is. "The personal is political for me," he says. "And the political is personal. It affects our everyday life."

Changing Tides

Given that the city's representation for rap artists has been a point of contention for a long time, with many complaints being lobbed at the lower frequency of rap shows compared to other genres, Starr hosting a show this monumental to his career at a venue as integral as the Charleston Music Hall speaks to a larger shift in the city's culture.

click to enlarge Charles Carmody - JONATHAN BONCEK FILE
  • Jonathan Boncek file
  • Charles Carmody

Carmody believes that an increased spotlight toward black artists and rap artists has finally begun. "I think we are seeing a renaissance in the arts in Charleston and particularly in the hip-hop genre," says Carmody. "I am seeing more hip-hop shows at more venues and I am seeing better hip-hop acts call Charleston home. We hope to just do our part by trying to book more diverse acts and supporting our local musicians."

Sometimes, it's easy to ruminate on the negatives. And it doesn't take an objective perspective to see that things aren't always perfect or even good. But the folks behind the scenes find some solace in the foresight of what this city could be.

"There's a lot of talk about Charleston's hospitality, and its friendliness, and its unity, and I think there's a lot of people in this city who certainly want that but don't think that's been earned yet," says Elliott. "And we're in a position now to envision that for ourselves."

"This city needs to make a statement about the people that live here that look very different than the statement that gets made about us," says McKenzie. "This city needs to progress a lot quicker than it has been and I think everybody's rallying around that and [Starr] is the leader of the vision for that."

For some, the collaboration from all walks of life on this LP is a glimpse into that vision of a more unified city.

That may sound like a lot of pressure to put on one man, but Starr knows that he's not alone in this ambition. Many of the creatives and activists involved anticipate the message of A Water Album to spread like wildfire.

"I think what the goal of everybody who has been involved in the planning and execution of this show is to continue that energy, magnify that energy, continue pushing it, so this won't be some culmination of it that manifests itself into nothing," Starr says. "We're going to push and we're going to continue to push for people to be politically engaged and politically active. We want more people volunteering. We're going to make our voices heard."


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