Benjamin Carter's Sonics May Change, But the Message Stays the Same [Q&A]
Photo: Abe Azab
As Benjamin Carter took frame over a short video call, the first thing I noticed was the outspoken artist donning a self-made ‘MAKE ROCK BLACK AGAIN’ fitted hat, a nod to the power of reclamation and a slogan Carter isn’t taking lightly. Born in Tampa, Florida and spending a majority of his childhood in the Cayman Islands, Carter masterfully mixes a breadth of influences spanning rock, pop-punk, R&B, gospel, and a little touch of everything in between. I was lucky enough to see Carter open at a small show in LA where the dedicated crowd seemingly mirrored every word of his set and chanted along with the artist as he exclaimed “Hands Up (DON’T SHOOT!)”.
A mix of sounds and genres, Carter has described his work by saying “the sonics may change, but the message stays the same,” which perfectly sums up this multi-talented performer.
Ones To Watch: Congrats on everything so far! How are you feeling about the release of your EP Black Boys on the Radio: Part 1?
Benjamin Carter: The best way to explain it is it feels like there was something I needed to get off my chest. From "Psycho" being the feelings of a black kid that was told at some point in his life he was an oreo and couldn’t skateboard, "Black people don’t do that," being told my music taste made me less Black, White people telling me they were more Black than I was, and I was like “ah this fucking sucks”... to "Lost Control" kind of being the culmination of everything, judgment, and how it all makes me feel and just begging for help. It’s something that’s been brewing for a while.
Where did you first learn to use music as a way to talk about these bigger issues?
Probably my dad… up until 7th or 8th grade, I thought everyone wrote songs… I just thought we all did it because my dad, from childhood, was always on the guitar, always writing songs. He was a choir director, pastor, and singer-songwriter, and he was writing musicals. And then my mom harmonizes and sings as well and would do stuff with him, so it was this beautiful mix back and forth between them and that was a really cool thing for me to witness.
Where do you get the confidence to say things that could be seen as controversial or might even place you in a precarious situation?
It took me the longest to do it, which is why I laughed when you said "the confidence" because I’m like, "Man I was scared to shit!," and I felt weak because I was scared. I felt like I shouldn’t be scared because I’m a Black man, these are my experiences, this is what people have said, I should just own my experiences and just do that, just say it. I was like "Kanye doesn’t care, I shouldn't care," and then every day I would lay down in bed and I was like “How can someone disagree with me that my life matters?” 2020 was this turning point where, I had experienced racism, I experienced racism in relationships, I’d experienced cops thankfully not pulling a gun but definitely putting their hand on the gun, multiple times, screaming and yelling at me for no reason. So I think all of that led me to a place where in 2020 I was having panic attacks every day and eventually I was like, I want to write songs where I can speak up about things like this.
What does it feel like to hear something like “Hands Up (Don’t Shoot!)” live with the ad.
It’s going exactly the way I thought it would… If I showed you where we started that song and where it ended, drastically different. It was on some Leon Bridges kind of thing, and I eventually was like “YOU'RE A KILLING MACHINE” and I just started yelling. When I listened back in the car I just started crying, and it’s still the song to this day that if I play it in the car, I will ball my eyes out. And I tell people that and they’re like "that song's not like a crying song.” I’m like, “Dude, I don’t know what to tell you man”... so to see other people and be reminded, I’m not alone in this.
Tell me about working with such an intimate team on this project.
I knew that [Jesse Barrera] was in a pop punk band called My American Heart, and I was like “dude let me blow off some steam, let’s go in the studio” and first night in, me, him, and Albert wrote "Psycho," and I had already written "Black Boys on the Radio" at that point so that’s kind of my reference of the type of song I wanted to write. And the very next night in, we wrote "Finish the Job" together” with my friend Paul who came in. I just kept going because it felt like it was flowing easier in the moment and there was no way for me to really explain it except that it was all coming out very naturally.
How do you think your childhood influenced your music?
There have been these articles saying “Ben was born in Cayman” and someday someone’s gonna come out and be like ‘[he] was lying!’ so I wasn’t born in Cayman, my mom’s entire side of the family is from the Cayman Islands and I moved to the Cayman Islands when I was a baby, but I was born in Tampa. Up until “Fragile" or maybe "Bad Habits," I was not repping Cayman, I was straight from the DMV, D.C. kid. I was like "there’s no music that I listen to that comes out of Cayman," but I looked at my childhood and realized I was an American Caymanian boy living on an island that’s as long as a marathon, and I was on the internet experiencing YouTube for the first time as everyone else in the world was, and I'm watching videos of Naruto in Japanese with English Subtitles over anime music videos with Linkin Park, Crossfade, Nickelback… so I’m listening to all this music and I was like "this is so sick man!," and it made me so excited to learn… I think those experiences together brought me tons of different music styles, plus my dad in church, the gospel, the singer-songwriter, my dad loved big hair rock… I want to tap into what younger Ben would like and how younger Ben wants to do it all.
How would you describe your sound or genre?
Genre is tough, because it would be one thing if I mixed genres but sometimes it’s just like, that’s just a punk song. You did a full singer-songwriter song. You did a full punk song. So last year I kind of wrote down how I would describe myself to other people and it's that, “the sonics may change, but the message stays the same.” I’m always going talk about justice, I’m always going to talk about security, I’m always going to talk about my journey, I’m going to talk about addictions, I’m gonna talk about all the things I’ve gone through. The message is pretty constant. I think the new generation of listeners, they’re just so exposed to everything that they don’t give a fuck. How it translates live, that’s what really matters.
So, Black Boys on the Radio Part 1. Are you already thinking about Part 2?
Part 2 is done unless I write more. We’ve come to a kind of a concise understanding of messaging. We want to make as many people not feel alone as possible.
If people take one thing from the release of Black Boys on the Radio: Part 1, what do you want it to be?
Part 1 specifically is about the Black experience, coming from my point of view… I just thought about the music industry, athletes… I imagined if someone outside [of the U.S.] thought they were going to pull up and be fully appreciated because they saw Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Kanye, Lebron. They saw it from the outside and thought "Black people must be fucking loved in America" and then they pull up and they hear they’re in the wrong neighborhood, they’re in the wrong part of the country, and the Jayland Walkers aren’t just a one-off. So I don’t want to see so much of the "Hey man, were all good, Black people are always playing on the radio, we love you.’ I want people to see and understand that celebrating a couple of us who’ve taken our talents and used them doesn’t meann you don't have to address your own prejudice, address your own bias. each one of us has to take personal responsibility.