BEN MACLEAN: DIVING INTO HISTORY
By Juliette Coleman
Edited by Chloe Gross
We spoke with R&B artist Ben Maclean as he shares his introspective discoveries and the history of his Black American and African musical influences.
Where’s your head been at the past few weeks, with the anti-racism movement continuing to grow and pick up speed?
Definitely very overwhelming and horrifying in a lot of ways. There's a lot of feelings for sure.But I think, maybe, one of the things that I've seen this time (which is a little bit encouraging) is that I don't think I've ever seen this many people feel so strongly and speak up about it. Black, white and every other colour, which is a nice thing to see. And one thing I've been thinking about a lot, especially with everything that’s been going on the past couple weeks, has been my racial identity. I mean even for me, as a mixed person with my dad having grown up in Africa, I've just been trying to learn more about my own history: African history and African American history. It's just made me think about that and my relationship to music too because all of my musical idols are Black and I've always been very deeply moved by Black American music as well as African music because I grew up just listening to both of those my whole life. And I've been making more of an effort to deeply dive into all the different musical idioms within the Black American music traditions, and then also the kind of African music that I grew up listening to. Because that is part of my history and ancestry and seeing the way all that music is connected. Like I'm starting to see it and I'm starting to feel it when I'm listening to that music and I've just been thinking about… I've just been feeling a lot around those sorts of things and how all that sort of relates to my racial identity, in a way.
"...the thing that ties them all together and makes Black American music what it is, is that it was definitely born out of suffering. But I think it was born out of a lot more than that too because it exemplifies the ability of Black people to keep moving forward and to create beauty still and to live and survive and fight no matter what."
What sort of things have you learned while exploring Black American and African music?
One really beautiful and interesting thing I've been learning, and when I say learning I don't necessarily mean intellectual learning but just feeling and listening to the music of Black Americans, is that it all has the blues in it. And I don't mean the blues as the genre, I mean as a feeling or as an expression of the soul; all is routed in the blues, all Black American music. And it's just amazing to hear how it manifested across all the different genres that have shaped American culture: blues, rhythm and blues which turned into rock and roll, and soul throughout the years. You know from the 50s to the 90s to R&B and jazz, the thing that ties them all together and makes Black American music what it is, is that it was definitely born out of suffering. But I think it was born out of a lot more than that too because it exemplifies the ability of Black people to keep moving forward and to create beauty still and to live and survive and fight no matter what. Through all this suffering there's, I don't think triumph is the right word, but there's just an unimaginable strength of spirit that is in all Black music that I think is so important. That's just something that I've been hearing and feeling through the music whether it's Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Curtis Mayfield or Sam Cooke and it's not even just when their singing songs about revolution or their struggles specifically. It's singing you know, love songs and loss songs and songs about missing home and all the normal human emotions you know? That's been something that I've been exploring for a while but it takes a long time to check out a lot of music and there's a lot more listening and learning for me to do along with reading fiction and nonfiction books on the topic. But it's something that can really be felt, and I don't know how else to describe it. In terms of African music, I mean the music that I listen to is like Highlife music from Ghana in Nigeria, from I think like the 60s, 70s and it's very different than Black American music, although it actually more borrows from it. And it's dance music, it's happy music but it's music that makes me feel very at home somehow, maybe it's just because it's in my blood but I listen to it to I guess to connect with myself and my past.
Is there anything that this time in isolation has put into perspective for you?
I mean yeah, just having so much time apart from my family and my friends, and it's also just the age that I'm at, when you start to think about who you are, and where you came from, your family, and just trying to connect more dots. I've talked to my family a lot more, not that we weren’t close before, but especially with my brother we've just had a lot of long phone calls and talked about a lot of things from our past and growing up and stuff that both of us hadn't thought about for a long time or didn't even remember. I think these are things that would be happening anyway around this time in my life, like I was sort of already thinking about these things before but I don't know. Maybe it’s just because there's more time in the day and I have more time to think. You know, life was so busy before this, I was the busiest I've ever been, and now I have the time to just be still and think and that has led to a lot of self-reflection.
Check out the music video for Ben's new single I Don't Mind.
You spoke earlier about how the anti-racism movement has led you to think more about your racial identity, how has that reflection been?
So, I guess the whole racial identity thing is interesting and sort of a hard thing to talk about for me because it's just something that's very confusing to me and something I haven't even put enough thought into. It's something that I think I'm starting to realize now requires a lot of looking inside oneself and also looking back into my family's past, ancestry and history and a lot of things to sort of understand who I am as a mixed person. I was raised by a Black father and a white mother and I grew up going to operas all the time because my mom works at the Canadian Opera Company. And then with my dad, I would go with him to his gigs because he's a drummer, and he played a lot of African music; traditional African drums with dancing, and I was around a lot of that when I was a kid too. So, there was like these two separate worlds growing up, but my parents really never said, "You're Black, you're white, you're this or that." They just kind of exposed me to a lot of different things, which is really cool in a lot of ways. But also, in a society like ours - even though it is multicultural - but just an American society with the history that it has, there's a lot more weight attached to being Black or white. In the case of my dad, it doesn’t matter where he is from because when he comes here, he's Black. It doesn't matter that he's Ghanaian or even that he's actually half Ghanaian and half German, he's also mixed but he's dark. And when he came here, he became Black in a way that almost strips his identity the way most people perceive Blackness. For me, someone who looks mixed in some way but from the outside people could guess a million different things, you know. So it's hard to find an identity in that sense, and also because it's not obvious that I necessarily have African blood. And I think one thing I have to also think about and learn about myself is what sort of privileges that gives me, you know? And what it means to sort of stand in a strange, ambiguous spot in that spectrum of Blackness or whiteness.