Renowned for his prolific output and complex, spiritually instructive lyrics as lead singer with the Rastafarian roots reggae band Midnite and later Akae Beka, Vaughn Andre Benjamin, 50, passed away on Monday Nov. 4 at Tradition Medical Center, Port St. Lucie, Florida.
Born in the eastern Caribbean Island of Antigua on August 13, 1969, Vaughn resided for many years in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, where he formed Midnite with his brother, bassist and keyboardist, Ron Benjamin in 1989; Vaughn and Ron are the sons of Antiguan musician Ronnie Benjamin Sr. Ron’s musical expertise provided a stunning complement to Vaughn’s ethereal chanted vocals that seemingly channeled an astute ancestral spirit.
Vaughn has released an estimated 1,500 songs; his spellbinding words, steeped in Biblical verse, historical injustices, African liberation and the teachings of Ethiopian emperor and Rastafarian Divinity, Haile Selassie I were intended to help build a more cognizant and compassionate society. He has left a profoundly influential, distinctive legacy.
“There are many clichés in reggae but Vaughn was a refreshing, genuine voice who explored things the way you might in literature, cinema, academia or in conversation, blending ideas and words, captivating people and sparking imaginations,” commented Laurent “Tippy” Alfred, calling from St. Croix where he was born, raised and is currently based.
Tippy holds degrees from Harvard and Yale Law and was preparing for “a very different life, I might have been some Supreme Court law clerk,” he says, when he started producing records with Vaughn/Midnite. Tippy founded I Grade Records, based in St. Croix, specifically to release Midnite’s fourth album Nemozian Rasta in 2001. Tippy has released and co-produced 12 albums by Midnite and Akae Beka on I Grade Records and co-produced three additional titles through his partners’ Zion I Kings label. I Grade also released Midnite’s first video in 2011, “Mongst I&I” from the album Kings Bell.
Midnite disbanded in 2015; following a period of deep reflection, Vaughn took the name Akae Beka, after the sacred oaths written in the Book of Enoch, an ancient Hebrew religious text. He formed a new band, also called Akae Beka, with some members of Midnite but without his brother Ron; the reasons for the regrouping, which followed the cancellation of a Midnite tour due to an unspecified medical emergency, were cryptically stated as resulting from “life changes, convictions and revelations;” neither brother has issued a further comment on Midnite’s split.
Tippy recalls Vaughn’s tireless passion for his work. “Vaughn would do 2-3 hour shows and then spend another 3-4 hours talking with audience members, artists and musicians, that was as important to him as the stage and the recordings. He planted millions of seeds of ideas around the world that have inspired people to think about something they hadn’t considered. That’s why the news of his passing has hit so hard because people have been changed by his words, I can testify to that.”
The substantial impact of Vaughn’s music isn’t quantified by record sales, radio play or industry awards but by the devoted following he amassed through his voluminous releases (72 albums, 61 as Midnite, 11 as Akae Beka) and his extensive touring. The video for “One Foot in Front” (Uhuru Boys Records) offers a glimpse at Vaughn’s life on the road and interactions with his fans across the US.
Upon learning of his death, Vaughn’s many enthusiasts held vigils and listening sessions in several countries, and utilized social media to express their grief, exchange memories and share song lyrics. Numerous reggae acts including sibling outfit Morgan Heritage, veteran band Third World, and a younger generation of reggae stars including Jah9 and Jesse Royal have also commented on Vaughn’s impact. In an Instagram post, Chronixx thanked the “elder soul for the 1,500 insights the I gave us,” and called him “one of the kindest souls I ever connected with.” Protoje, who is featured on the title track to Vaughn’s 72nd album Mek A Menshun (I-Roots Records) released in July, referred to Vaughn “one of the biggest influences I’ve had in music” who possessed “the wisdom of a sage.”
In a thoughtful Facebook post David Hinds, lead vocalist, songwriter and guitarist with legendary, 2020 Grammy nominees Steel Pulse recalled meeting Midnite in St. Croix in the early 90s and thinking “Vaughn and his band were coming to ‘chant down Babylon’ in a way that none of us reggae musicians have ever done before.”
In a phone conversation with Billboard from the UK, Hinds expounded on that prescient observation. “Vaughn didn’t follow trends and wasn’t interested in making songs palatable for radio play or to move units, things that concern so many artists; Vaughn was focused on remaining non-commercial and I was mesmerized when I saw the huge cult-following he had. Vaughn obviously saw that the spiritual and political essence reggae had when it was introduced to the world in the 1970s was disappearing so he was steadfast in producing no-sell out roots songs, a direct damage to the Babylon system that gave his listeners confidence that bad spirits will be kept at bay under his influence.”
The attention Midnite’s music received internationally established the US Virgin Islands as a hub for quality roots reggae, and deeply affected the (reggae) artists who lived there. Delano “Pressure Busspipe” Brown, from St. Thomas, has recorded several collaborations with Vaughn, including “The System” on Pressure’s recently released album Rebel With A Cause (I Grade.) He calls Vaughn “a big brother in the music business. Much of the music I was doing early in my career and even up until now, I looked to Vaughn for his approval or his thoughts, especially anything within the redemption of Rastafari music. With all that I learned from him, it was only right to make Vaughn proud by following in the same roots and culture movement.”
In 2014, Pressure’s song “Virgin Islands Nice” was adapted as the centerpiece of a successful multi-media tourism campaign that increased visitor arrivals to the US territory. The song highlights the islands’ proud history and the accomplishments of its people and includes the lyric “St. Croix produced the band Midnite, ah dem deh kind of roots mek the fire ignite;” Vaughn made an appearance in the song’s video. “Vaughn is a legend to I and I, it’s not since he passed that I understood his worth; when he was alive, I always honored him in what I did, and gave him respect whenever he was in my presence,” offered Pressure.
In October 2017 American photographer Jahvtz Blanton and editor Ana Avital published Midnite Train to Zion An A to Z Photography Retrospective, a coffee table book featuring exquisite images of Vaughn and Ron Benjamin. Shot over a 20-year period at various gigs by the band across the US, the photos are accompanied by select words from Midnite songs. Blanton hails Vaughn as “a lyrical genius, historian and scholar on Rastafari” and Midnite as “the most impactful reggae group since Bob Marley and the Wailers. I followed them since early on,” Blanton explained, “and knew they were putting forth extraordinary words, sounds and power. I feel blessed to have done the book and to have shown it to Vaughn before he passed.”
The Virgin Islands Consortium newspaper, in an article written by Vaughn’s sister, Shanneth Canegata, reported that the Virgin Islands government offered the Benjamin family (which, according to the article, includes Vaughn’s parents, his 10 children and his life partner) a state funeral for Vaughn in St. Croix. However, in agreement with Vaughn’s wishes, the family chose to ship his body to Antigua for burial. A celebration of Vaughn’s life will be held on November 25, 2019 in St. Johns, Antigua, which will be followed by a private interment ceremony; the Benjamin family has not disclosed the official cause of Vaughn’s death.
In a statement sent to Billboard, Richard Motta Jr., Communications Director, Office of Virgin Islands Governor Albert Bryan Jr, said: “There are no words that can fully describe what Vaughn Benjamin meant to our community and the world, even. He was a larger-than-life figure, but you could always find him in his community, amongst the everyday people, giving back.”
David Hinds, who regrets that Steel Pulse never recorded with Vaughn, solemnly expressed his admiration for Vaughn’s integrity. “The principles he had were echoed in his music, hypnotic, enchanted, provocative,” said Hinds. “He was coming from a cosmic perspective and he’s now in the cosmic realms he so often spoke about.”