Every time a black NFL player takes a knee or raises a fist during the playing of the national anthem in protest of societal injustices and police brutality, much of the public response is some variation on the theme: “Poor oppressed millionaire. If you’ve got it so bad in this country, why don’t you move somewhere else and see if you can make a fortune playing a game there.”
Instead of football, California-born singer-songwriter Ben Harper plays “an eclectic mix of soul, blues, folk, rock and reggae,” but he too is familiar with the pattern of protesting the protester.
The title track from last year’s album by one of his side projects, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals’ “Call It What It Is,” came in response to myriad highly publicized cases of black men dying after encounters with white cops:
They shot him in the back
Now it’s a crime to be black
So don’t act surprised
When it gets vandalized
Call it what it is …
Call it what it is …
Call it what … it … is …
“Yeah, I was shocked as to the reaction to that specific song,” Harper told The Salt Lake Tribune in a phone interview from Gardone Riviera, Italy. “Maybe it was too hot a subject, either for my fanbase or just the public at large. I mean, it’s on front street — that song is the album title. I’ve been both pleased and shocked at responses to that song and this record. It seems like it’s kind of a ‘Are you in or are you out’ record. And song. And kind of a dividing line in my fanbase, in a way that I didn’t think would be the case. It caught me off-guard. I didn’t realize there would be that much pushback from my side of the fence, as far as that subject and that sentiment.”
Despite the reaction, he doesn’t regret the song, saying it made a point that needed to be made — and still does.
“To me, it’s the most balanced take. ‘There’s good cops, bad cops, white cops, black cops. Government ain’t easy. Policing ain’t easy. Oppression’s not easy. Hard times, racism, fear — these things aren’t easy,’ ” he added, paraphrasing some of the song’s lyrics. “But every single cop seems to get off — they all can’t be innocent! I mean, come on! At this point, it’s a charade, and it’s a deadly charade. It’s a charade and a funeral parade. So, it’s time we look at this through a different lens. And that’s kind of what it says. I don’t know, I don’t know. … Clearly, it’s my perspective. However, I wouldn’t back down from that edge for a second. I’m glad I said it, I’m glad it’s the record title, and stand behind it 100 percent.”
“Every single cop seems to get off — they can‘t all be innocent! I mean, come on! At this point, it’s a charade, and it’s a deadly charade. It’s a charade and a funeral parade. So, it’s time we look at this through a different lens.”
— Ben Harper
The album proved a controversial reunion for Harper and The Innocent Criminals, who had last made an album together in 2007.
Their yearslong hiatus after “Lifeline” wound up making the new album that much better, Harper said.
“The ICs and I kinda split out of necessity, in that it was time for us to do anything but make music as the Innocent Criminals — play with other people, write with other people, tour with other people. ’Cause we never took breaks, and that was my fault as a bandleader — I never took my foot off the gas, I never slowed things down, 300, 320, 330 shows, days on the road,” he said. “Had I been a bit smarter and taken breaks when I should have, we probably wouldn’t have had to come to a complete stop. However, sometimes it takes that momentum to actually get to where the momentum brought you, so it’s a double-edged sword. So, it was time. What we were able to bring back to the table, when we agreed it was a good thing to reconvene, enabled us to make a record like ‘Call It What It Is,’ I think.”
The album is classically eclectic Harper. The title track is swamp-funk-blues social protest, but there’s also the riff stomp of “When Sex Was Dirty,” the sun-drenched pop of “Shine,” the gyroscopic, vertigo groove of “Pink Balloon,” the reggae-infused breeziness of “Finding Our Way,” and the wistful folk of “Goodbye to You.”
It never stays in one place very long, but what could be a chaotic collection of mismatched styles in lesser hands still somehow feels seamless under Harper’s direction.
“That’s my stock in trade!” he said, laughing. “I’m the guy out of my generation that gets to do that. There’s very little unique about me, but if there’s something that is unique about me, it’s being able to blend genres.”
For his next project, however, he was happy to fixate on just one, announcing he’d reprised his Grammy-winning collaboration with legendary bluesman Charlie Musselwhite.
The duo took home the Best Blues Album award in 2014 for “Get Up!” and Harper believes the follow-up is a step up.
“I just finished a second Charlie Musselwhite record that’s coming out February 2nd next year, and I’m proud to say it’s on the label Anti, which is such esteemed company. The fact that I’m labelmates with Tom Waits now is a big deal for me! … I’m so excited about this next Charlie record, ’cause the first one did real well, and this one’s so much better than that record!” Harper said. “Charlie, at 71 years old, is on fiiiiiire! And as really one of the last of the true-blue Mohicans, in the original Chicago school, by way of Mississippi, Charlie is one of the great pillars of blues music, and he’s stronger than ever right now. And the fact that he is willing to join forces with me — game on!”
While Harper still has years of making music ahead of him, he also maintains his intention to one day give it up and instead run his family’s famous music store, The Folk Music Center and Museum in Claremont, Calif.
“It’s full circle, it’s my roots, my heritage, it’s one of the most special places. As far and wide as I’ve traveled, I still come back home. Walking through the door of my family’s music store is one of the most special places I can step to,” Harper said. “And it would just make sense. It calls to me in that way. It can use my help, it can use my voice in running it. Yeah. It calls out to me in a specific way that I can’t deny, so I’ve gotta keep my eye on that.”
More immediately, though, his eyes are on Saturday’s show in Sandy.
“Oh man, we’re gonna mix it up,” Harper said. “We tend to not browbeat people with all new stuff, but we also tend to sort of explore the new record, so we’ll end up doing a few songs, maybe three or four songs off the new record, tops, out of like a 20-plus-song set. And then the rest will be a mix of evvvvverything we’ve done — all the records.”
Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals
With Hey King
When • Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where • Sandy Amphitheater, 1245 E. 9400 South, Sandy
Tickets • $55-$80; Smith’s Tix