Ben Williams stands alongside the striking Memphis sanitation workers of 1968 on his new album, I Am a Man – which makes his atmospheric, vibey version of “We Shall Overcome” all the more appropriate to premiere below on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The 10-song set, bassist Williams’ first as a vocalist as well, takes its title from the signs the striking workers brandished during their two-month strike, which ended shortly after King was assassinated during a visit to Memphis that April to support them. And most of I Am a Man deals with other issues that resonate today, but with a deliberate purpose in mind. “I try to be careful, even when calling this a social justice or protest record – I think at its core it’s really more about, like, spiritual therapy,” Williams tells Billboard. “To me this is more of an exploration of the black male psyche, exploring the idea of, ‘OK, what does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a black man – mentally, physically, spiritually?’
“A lot of this record is about connecting the past to the present and looking into the future and how this phrase, ‘I am a man,’ meant to those men – why did they need to say it in the first place? – and what it means today. I’m talking about issues that are maybe not so popular, like addiction and spirituality and police brutality, how it affects the family structure and our identity. This album is inherently tied to Martin Luther King and his teachings. There’s an inherent tie to the path to something that happened more than 50 years ago. We all know a lot of things have changed, but a lot of things haven’t changed – or have changed form, and we’re still dealing with them today.”
Finishing the album with “We Shall Overcome,” Williams adds, was meant to “leave the listener with a feeling of hope. I think ‘We Shall Overcome’ really ties it all together. It’s the ultimate anthem of hope and faith and perseverance. It’s just a simple way of saying that despite what has happened, what is happening, we shall overcome. It’s a very affirmative statement that we have in us as people, as a society, to get past these things that plague our nation.”
I Am a Man‘s call for social change parallels the album’s musical changes for Williams, whose credits include Pat Metheny’s Unity Band, Wynton Marsalis, George Benson, Robert Glasper, Pharrell and the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead. He’s no stranger to writing lyrics or even singing – at least backup, or on demos he’s written for other artists. “I like to address different social issues through my music,” Williams explains. “This time I had these very specific things I wanted to talk about. I didn’t feel like writing instrumental music was going to convey the message I wanted.” Williams initially planned to bring guest vocalists in for the songs but was encouraged by Jose James – whose Rainbow Blonde Records is releasing I Am a Man — to take the vocals on himself. “He heard one of the demos and was like, ‘Wow, man, (is) that you singing?’ I went, ‘Yeah, it’s just a demo’ and he was like, ‘Man, I think you should sing. Your voice sounds great. You should think about singing more.’
“He planted that seed in my head, and I got more comfortable with the idea of singing. When we got closer to going into the studio I just made the decision to try and sing all the songs myself. That’s what ended up happening.” The album does feature some guest vocalists, however, including Kendra Foster, Wes Felton, Niles and Muhsinah – along with a string quartet.
And while I Am a Man has jazz touches, it veers closer to neo-soul, while “Come Home” takes a more aggressive rock/electropop path. “This is absolutely not a bass record; There’s no bass solo until the very end of the record,” Williams acknowledges. “The whole approach is not about the instrument; It’s about these stories I want to tell. It was all very organic; I don’t feel I necessarily dictate the direction of everything. I just let it go where it needs to. I just feel like this was the album I needed to make right now. I just tried to serve the music and the cause and not think about career direction or being crossover or anything like that.”