written by Maria Arroyo
The new and incredibly moving album from multi-Grammy Award-winning musician, Ben Williams, I Am A Man, is out today. The album is a collection of stories that signify moments from the 1968 African-American sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee. Williams is known for his compositions and exceptional work as a very sought after bassist and singer. Williams explained, “Instead of just lashing out, I wanted to turn the mirror on us and show the world the complexity of our humanity as Black American men. I wanted to discuss how we process our daily lives – mentally and spiritually.”
The opening title track, “I Am A Man,” brings us immediately into his world with influences of jazz, hip-hop, and blues, along with a ton of reverb to open up his sound. There was a nice spin on the recording style that mimicked that of some older radio recordings that add some age to the song. “If You Hear Me” is a very dynamic and diverse arrangement that speaks volumes of his skills. The balance between all the instruments is executed perfectly and complements the lead vocals very nicely. Initially, the song has a softer feel to it, but with the addition of the horns and percussion, the perspective shifts to a smooth R&B and jazz-like demeanor that is brought to life in the buildup of the song. While the song is on the longer side, it almost goes unnoticed because of how engaged the music keeps the listener.
“March On” has an intense percussive entrance that felt overpowering, but after hearing the message it has in context, it makes total sense. The song truly feels like an anthem for the African-American community.
The song “Promised Land” is a huge turning point for the album, and while every song has a strong story to tell, this one reached the top of my list. The mix of reverb saturated and delayed vocals really add to the darker mood he is creating. When I listened to the song, part of it felt a little too familiar to me, and after doing some research, I realized why. His lyrics “But I promise us as the people will get to the promised land” comes from the final speech “I’ve Been To The Mountain Top” that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., had created. The way he incorporated such an iconic speech into this song really resonated with me and will be a song I will not soon forget.
Both “High Road” and “High Road, Part 2” have a whole lot of soul and R&B with some jazz influences sprinkled throughout. The first song introduces a female voice that captivates the listener from beginning to end. The balance between the two artists is remarkable and the spoken word halfway through is a great addition. There was so much going on with the song and not one second of it felt overworked.
“Take It From Me” has a strong percussive intro with some prayers in the background. The harmonies are incredibly dynamic and the addition of a rap part is a nice touch. This song was one about the differences between the white population and the African-American community with lines like “When you was 12 years old, when will it all stop… When hell gets cold because racism is the rain, the soil is our pain, and tall money tree grows out of the terrain… ”
While we can never understand their pain, we can empathize and listen through his songs and try to wrap our minds around these dark times. This song is also a message to his son explaining to him that no matter what happens, God will always be there for him. I don’t want to give away the ending but if there were anything more powerful than that, I don’t think I’ve heard it yet.
“Come Home” starts with a women’s choir that portrays a beautiful mix of folk and gospel. Williams does not disappoint with his lyricism with the lines “born with an invisible target painted on my head I see red, and what about the dreams I had Its father, keeping them from going 6 feet under…”
“Death Of Emmit Till” is a magnificent piece all its own. Emmit Till was an African-American boy who died at the age of 14 for allegedly flirting with a white female, and was brutally beaten, mutilated, and left for dead 3 days later. The piano and string accompaniment for the song is so perfect and fitting for the song, but I wish the vocals were a little more present in the mix because this song had everything it wanted to say in his words.
The repeated use of a gospel choir in the back kept the sound true to him. The lyrics are raw and heart-wrenching in the worst and best possible way. This hurt was turned into the most marvelous piece of art. He hits you with this story with lyrics like “Dragged to a barn and beat him up, they said they had a reason but I can’t remember what they tortured him… to evil… the screaming sounds inside the barn there was laughing sounds out on the street…” This song broke my heart in every way. I took a moment to really analyze and pick out how I was supposed to feel, which caused me to look into the story of Emmit Till. It made the song come full circle. This song made you feel something; something so strong that it made me realize that I do not want to ever live in a world like that and while we have so much further to go, we have come so far from where we started and there is only hope to keep moving forward.
“We Shall Overcome” is by far my favorite in terms of execution. The use of sound traveling from one side of your head to the other is so tastefully done. There was a slight delay between the left and right mix and truly redefined the idea of sound travel. The choice is so creative and amazing and I just soaked it all up. The instrumentation is so simple which really let the vocals breathe and how great the song is produced. I think after all the high intensity and tough subjects covered in the album, it was an optimistic feeling that felt lead to a brighter day. A phenomenal choice to end the album with.
This album is a game-changer. Having the courage to write about something so profound and deep, while keeping it simple enough to create into music, is exquisite. I like the consistency in instrumentation throughout the album while still making his sound diverse and different. There’s a lot of time spent on the rhythm and percussion parts, and even more attention to getting the story right. I Am A Man is truly going to change lives and having an inside scoop into it makes it that much more special to me.