No honorable critic working in the Year of our Lord 2017 should ever make such an admission, but the truth is the truth—Ben Harper’s music changed my life. When I showed up at Flagler College as a fresh-faced freshman in 2001, Ben and his protégé Jack Johnson were ubiquitous. At every party, the dudes would blast “Burn One Down,” an earthy ode to the joys of marijuana. Shortly thereafter, the ladies would spin “Steal My Kisses,” dancing to the breezy romantic ditty.
Both of those songs, along with nearly everything on Harper’s first four critically acclaimed albums (1994’s Welcome to the Cruel World, ’95’s Fight for Your Mind, ’97’s The Will to Live, and ’99’s Burn to Shine) feature crisp, concise production from longtime associate JP Plunier. That allows endless room to move for both the gentle power of Harper’s voice—up, down, quiet, loud, falsetto, basso profundo, the man can truly do it all—and his diverse musical influences.
Born to an African-American/Cherokee father and a Jewish mother who traces her ancestry back to Lithuania, Harper grew up in his maternal grandparents’ business, The Folk Music Center in Claremont, California. Founded in the 1950s thanks to their friendship with Alan Lomax, loyal customers included Leonard Cohen and Ry Cooder. In 1978, a nine-year-old Harper saw Bob Marley and Peter Tosh onstage in Burbank; Country Joe & The Fish once played a private concert in Harper’s grandmother’s living room. In the ’80s, Ben became enamored of hip-hop, but he also taught himself bottleneck slide and lap steel guitar, advancing to such a high level of excellence that by 1990, he was touring and recording with modern blues icon Taj Mahal.
In a genius long-term creative decision, Virgin Records signed Harper to a lifetime contract in 1992, allowing him the creative freedom and time to make debut album Welcome to the Cruel World, a masterpiece that laid the template for Harper’s far-ranging diversity. He nimbly evokes a gospel upbringing on songs like “Like a King” and “How Many Miles Must We March,” funky modernism on “Mama’s Got a Girlfriend Now,” and tender balladry on “Waiting on an Angel.” But the fact that Harper closed the album with a recitation of Maya Angelou’s “I’ll Rise” and a gut-wrenching cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “…By and By I’m Going to See the King” made his intentions clear: social justice, political consciousness and cultural awareness would represent a continuous through-line in Harper’s music.
That sense of possibility is what cinched it for me as an impressionable 18-year-old. On Fight for Your Mind, the bongos of “Burn One Down” rub shoulders with the minor-key despair of “Another Lonely Day.” On The Will to Live, the raucous rock of “Glory & Consequence” balances out the fragility of “Widow of a Living Man,” all while Harper embraces Rastafarianism on “Jah Work” and mainline Christianity on “I Want to be Ready.” Meanwhile, Burn to Shine was mine and mine alone—the recent death of a devoutly religious aunt made “Two Hands of a Prayer” and “In the Lord’s Arms” instant tearjerkers, while my romantic self drowned in dreamy tracks like “The Woman in You” and “Show Me a Little Shame.”
Cheesy shit, right? Indeed—which is why I’ve never shared my love of Ben Harper with any of my musically astute friends and colleagues. But looking back, absorbing those first four Ben Harper albums incessantly as an 18-year-old set me up for a lifetime of empathy, enthusiasm and emotion, both as a writer and a human. In Ben Harper’s exploratory spirit, I found a willingness to accept and enjoy all genre permutations (and the often clunky combinations thereof). In Ben Harper’s fits of pique, I discovered the ability to simultaneously laugh, cry, rage and dance. In Harper’s collaborative albums with legendary gospel singers The Blind Boys of Alabama and celebrated blues harp master Charlie Musselwhite, I connected with a desire to honor those who walked before us while marching ever onward in the name of fundamental human progress. In Harper’s high-minded concept albums like the Jekyll-and-Hyde Both Sides of the Gun and Childhood Home, a folksy collaboration with his mother, I found a kindred intellectual spirit. In Harper’s long and illustrious filmography, including guest spots on everything from Daria to One Tree Hill to The O.C. and House, I found a smart pop-culture sensibility.
It doesn’t hurt that Harper has always maintained a sense of understated personal style, even in the dreadfully tacky ’90s. He became famous in Europe and Australia before he broke big at home in the U.S. He travels the world to surf, owns a private indoor skatepark and has worked with everyone from Ringo Starr and Jackson Browne to Mavis Staples and Toots Hibbert in his decked-out Santa Monica studio. In between tours, he can even be found behind the counter at The Folk Music Center, the institution he inherited from his grandparents, which he intends to perpetuate.
In short, even though he came of age in the ’80s and established his career in the ’90s, Harper was made to be a 21st-century celebrity: handsome, intelligent, prolific and outspoken, with a dash of mystery and joie de vivre mixed in. Speaking about the way his latest album, 2016’s Call It What it Is, bluntly addresses police brutality and racial inequality, “Music should always be authentic [and] worth exploring,” Harper told Blues Magazine last October. “It’s important to see just how deep it can go, how it can become a fuse. [At the same time], the music must have room to breathe. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never been or had to be mainstream. If anything, the mainstream has in fact shifted to meet and fit me.”