Ben Williams Shares 'We Shall Overcome' for MLK Day
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, acclaimed Grammy-winning bassist, composer and bandleader Ben Williams today shared his powerful rendition of the civil rights classic "We Shall Overcome" via Billboard. With Frank Ocean-esque R&B production and a world class band, the track is a unifying call of the moment that grounds us in history, present, and a continuously hopeful future. It follows first soulful single "If You Hear Me" from his upcoming album I AM A MAN, out February 7, 2020 on Rainbow Blonde Records, a record label co-owned by singer, songwriter and kindred spirit José James. The title is a reference to picket signs held during Memphis' historic 1968 African American sanitation workers' strike and is Williams' most poignant, sociopolitical statement yet.
Hailing from Washington, D.C., Williams graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Michigan State University and The Juilliard School, winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2009 and a Grammy Award in 2013 for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, as a member of guitarist Pat Metheny's Unity Band. He has also performed with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, George Benson, Maxwell, Robert Glasper, Pharrell and beyond, making his film debut with Don Cheadle in the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, as well.
Williams revealed his talents as a keen composer and bandleader on his first two Concord Records albums, State of Art (2011) and Coming of Age (2015). With the help from sound engineer Brian Bender, his new album I AM A MAN boasts a humid and hazy sound that recalls Soulaquarian albums released by The Roots, Erykah Badu, Bilal, D'Angelo, Common, and Roy Hargrove's RH Factor. Williams said he "wanted this record to deal with the past, present, and future." From hip hop grooves and cinematic synths to afrobeat-tinged R&B and haunting soul, he does just that.
I AM A MAN's title references Memphis' historic 1968 sanitation workers' strike, during which African American men marched through the streets with picket signs that read, "I Am A Man" in arresting, boldface type. "The image of this long line of men, holding the picket signs, all saying the same thing - there's something powerful about seeing this message over and over again," Williams explains, before saying that the messaging reminded him of how we use hashtags today to help ignite activism such as Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements.
In addition to playing electric and acoustic bass, Williams sings lead on almost all the songs. Joining him is a stellar lineup, comprised of keyboardist Kris Bowers, guitarist David Rosenthal, tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Marcus Strickland, percussionist Bendji Allonce, trumpeter Kenyon Harrold, flutist Anne Drummond, and drummer Jamire Williams and Justin Brown. On some cuts, Williams complements the music with a string quartet, consisting of cellist Justina Sullivan, violist Celia Hatton, and violinists Maria Im and Chiara Fasi. Sharing vocal duties are the splendid special guests - Kendra Foster, Muhsinah, Wes Felton, and Niles.