Benjamin Booker’s feather-like, tip-toeing speaking voice inspires serenity in the Brudenell Social Club gig room. All is calm, the perfect ambience for an interview, when, rudely, the sound guy starts blaring music, ready for the crowds to shuffle in. Your interviewer freezes; Booker leaps to attention, hustling over to the sound desk to kindly asks for the noise to be hushed. This genre-defying singer songwriter from New Orleans is a peacemaker. If Booker had been around in the fifties, he might have been one of the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest assets, either as an artist or orator. Thankfully, he doesn’t see racism as a problem anymore.
‘When I was younger, maybe. But not so much anymore. I grew up in the south so occasionally people would yell not-so-nice things out of the window while they drove by. But most of the time it’s fine. I guess all the people who are anti-black are putting their energy into the gay rights stuff now. America was founded on racism, but it’s definitely better.’
Though racial prejudice is on the decrease, Booker is well read in the history of its luminaries, particularly the polemic writer James Baldwin. At times it is hard to discern whether Benjamin is talking about himself or his idol. Both were forged in the white heat of evangelism, but fought break out of that restrictive mould.
‘I love my parents and stuff, but sometimes I feel like you need to look for a second father, that person that you really connect with. For me, [Baldwin] is the person who I look to. He was a social activist too, just trying to make the community around him have better lives. That’s the kind of person who I want to be.’
‘My Dad was in the military, and my Mum was very involved in the church, so you can imagine what kind of house that is. Pretty strict, conservative. There was a point when I was a teenager where I just thought “this is bullshit, I don’t want to do this at all.” I identify with James Baldwin so much because he started off in a very religious environment then realised it was all phony and a joke. There’s a song on the album called Wicked Waters where I mention “James”. I’m talking about James Baldwin.’
It seems that his single ‘Have You Seen My Son’ is autobiographical. What was the background to that song?
‘We had taken a trip to see my cousin who was in hospital. He was just a kid, but he was dying. We all knew it wasn’t good, and I think he passed away a month or two later. Doing that and seeing that kind of stuff makes you think about your relationship with other people, and I had this five hour long fight with my parents in the car about the things that I believed and the things that they believed. I had tried for so long to change them, because they felt so far in the past to me. But I guess that was the day where I realized that we weren’t going to see eye to eye on a lot of things. But they’re still my parents. I’m sure everybody has that time.’
Watching his show, it is obvious that Benjamin Booker has found a voice (or, in his case, a scream), just as James Baldwin and other black civil rights heroes did. Since he brings peace and equality in the day, I think I’ll forgive him for playing such an anarchic set punk-tinged blues at night.
Benjamin Booker’s eponymous debut album is out now on Rough Trade.
Slider photo: theguardian.com/uk