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First Play: Benjamin Booker, Witness

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Holly Gordon

“‘Am I going to be a witness?’ And in today’s world, ‘Is that enough?’”

These are the two questions New Orleans’ Benjamin Booker asks of himself — and us — at the end of a heart-rending essay he wrote to support the title track for his upcoming album, Witness. Mavis Staples, featured on the same track, echoes his urgency at the song’s close: “Am I going to be a witness?/ Just a witness?”

It’s the question of whether witnessing something is enough — and for Booker, the answer is no. “This song, ‘Witness,’ came out of this experience and the desire to do more than just watch,” he says in the same essay. That line comes after he has detailed his drop-everything-and-run trip from his hometown to Mexico, a trip that he told himself was to shut off and get some writing done for this new album. But a run-in during the trip with a few people who didn’t like “people who aren’t from here” made him realize what he was actually trying to leave behind.

"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. I fled to Mexico, and for a time it worked.

— Benjamin Booker

Witness, the song and the album, came out of wanting to do more than just watch. The followup to Booker’s acclaimed 2014 self-titled debut, these 10 new songs were written by Booker, produced by Sam Cohen (Kevin Morby) and mixed by Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes). Booker punctuates soul, R&B and blues with his garage-punk roots, creating a protest album that can’t be categorized.

Opener “Right on You” builds with muddled dissonance and comes into focus when Booker’s raspy vocals come through, putting the burden right on all of us. On “Witness,” Booker and Staples unite on a song fit for anyone’s personal church, beckoning you with Staples’ refrain “Am I gonna be a witness?” while Booker picks up his hand-clapped beat singing, “Right now we could use a little pick-me-up/ seems like the whole damn nation’s trying to take us down.” Closing song “All was Well” ends with a whispered promise: “I’m gonna tear this building down.”

Witness will be out June 2 via ATO Records. Pre-order it now.