By Damion Smalls
The Charleston Music Hall played host to one of the most significant cultural events in recent city history September 22, 2018 as South Carolina-bred rapper Benny Starr spearheaded a seminal moment with the live debut recording of his second album, entitled “A Water Album.” Strengthened by dynamic guest performances, symbiotic band chemistry, and an impassioned audience, Starr held the crowd in the palm of his hand with flair and affection. The artistry on this display that night will soon be able to be experienced once again as Starr prepares for the “A Water Album” June 19 vinyl and digital commercial release.
To the uninitiated, Pineville native Benny Starr is a Black community advocate, youth mentor, and respected creator who happens to be a talented rapper. He has made a positive impact locally through his activism, social engagement, and role model status for Black youth. Starr shares his values of proud Black identity with no hesitation through his songs, speeches, art, and lifestyle.
Starr’s first album, “Free Lunch,” dropped on Juneteenth in 2015 to critical acclaim. His fan base has grown steadily ever since, but the artist has been careful to operate his career at his own pace. “I can only make albums when I have something to say that I feel that is important,” he states. In his music, Starr reflects on life through the eyes of a young man that seeks justice for Black people, expresses his everlasting love for Black women continually, values the education of Black accomplishments, and pushes listeners to be keenly aware of their environments and tumultuous times they live in.
Benny has used social media and regular musical appearances around the state to further connect with his following. The intricate rhymes and penetrating social commentary Starr deftly communicates through his songs have gained the artist the admiration of local media outlets and fans not just limited to the hip hop genre. “I respect how my supporters engage with my music. I think that it’s a mutually respectful relationship,” he says.
Most appropriately, “A Water Album” will be released Wednesday, June 19 = Juneteenth. And in an act of seemingly guided by the ancestors, nearly nine months after its original recording.
Four years after “Free Lunch,” Benny has noticed how differently he feels about life. “I embraced whatever growth process I was going to go through,” Starr says. “During that growth process, I realized that I was changing tremendously. I was learning and unlearning things. A part of that process came vulnerability and being able to accept that things won’t always go my way, while still being very intentional on the things that I do want to go my way.”
Starr credits extensive reading and looking back at the past as influences on his decision to produce a live album. Referring to legendary artists like Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and Paul Robeson, Benny leans on their groundbreaking legacies steeped in political activism and musical expertise for motivation. His knowledge of record making and sound allowed for the idea of a vinyl disc release of “A Water Album” to manifest into reality.
“The vinyl mixes have just been phenomenal,” he reports. “Some people choose to have that warm feeling of playing a vinyl. We just finished the last round of test pressings and it sounds like you’re in the room that night. And for me, it’s a different feeling because I was a performer that night. It just blew my mind on how warm it was and how it sounds like you’re literally in the Music Hall.”
Featured on “A Water Album” along with Benny Starr are The Four20s (Vontá E-Nuf, 95 GRVMZ, and Rodrick Cliché), Elliott Smith, Jimmy Choate, Matt Monday, Niecy Blues, Poppy Native, Contour, Shaniqua McCants and Terraphonics. Starr recalls how he thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with each musician, not once butting heads with any one. “It was me building records with them from the bottom up, saying ‘I think I have something for you. Let me get your feedback.’ And being able to be flexible, vulnerable and willing to take the ego out of it and say ‘I want to make the best record for the both of us possible. I want you to be in your comfort zone. I want to be in my comfort zone.”
“The Water Album” “is bigger than one person or one idea,” reminds Starr. “It’s about manhood, masculinity – what that could or should look like as a Black man. It’s about our emotions, our environment, our spirituality, our relationship with women in our community, our relationship to other marginalized identities within our community. It was a beautiful process.”
His team, who include co-creative directors Elliott Smith & Mika Gadsden, managers Troy Richardson & Sergio Thomas, project manager McKenzie Eddy Smith, and musical director Rodrick Cliché played a vital role in the album’s creation. Starr humbly states how the effectiveness of teamwork and the creative power of each member enabled him to be a better artist.
Starr is changing the standards of Charleston music with his innovative methods and creative processes. “I challenge the way that we’ve been socialized to look at artists. They’ll try to say that ‘you’re a conscious rapper’ – well, I’m an artist. And I feel everything and everything is political. ‘Why don’t you just make love songs?’ Who I love and how I am able to express that love is in essence political when you think about it. My ability to care for the one I love and to care for myself, my ability to have access to the means in which to do that, my ability to have access to quality food in order to go about doing everything else I need to do. If you think everything isn’t political, then you may not have a very sound understanding of what to be political really means.”
Starr likens his live album performance to a preacher giving a sermon to the congregation that they’ve yet to give before, welcoming spontaneous reactions from the crowd and improvisation from the acts on stage. The intimate connection with the audience Starr sought was palpable on that evening last fall. “A Water Album” lets Starr share his mindstate with strangers, fans, and critics alike on his own terms with authenticity and intellect.
Benny Starr and Four20s will be performing at ‘Convocation’ June 17 at the Charleston Pour House (1977 Maybank Hwy). Tickets are $20 and available on Eventbrite. The show starts at 8 PM. Before that, Starr will make history June 9 as he becomes the first hip-hop artist to perform at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival Finale, which takes place at Riverfront Park (1001 Everglades Dr, North Charleston) from 5 PM to 10 PM. Tickets are $15.00 – $35.00 and can be purchased at https://spoletousa.org/.
“Don’t just make music. Give people an experience,” Benny Starr believes. With his latest project, Benny gives listeners a comprehensive experience on the level of a motion picture. A moment in Charleston history was made September 22, 2018. And it was all due to the labor of love from a rapper who deserves his flowers while he’s here. Visit www.bennystarrsc.com to place your order of “A Water Album.”