Coffee and a Conversation with Benny Starr, Inaugural One Water Artist-in-Residence
In October 2020, Benny Starr, a Hip-Hop artist and activist from the Black Rural South, joined the US Water Alliance as our inaugural Artist-in-Residence. Benny has spent his career pushing the boundaries of creativity and challenging systems of racism and inequality through music.
Benny recently sat down for a virtual coffee with Sara Allen, US Water Alliance Membership and Development Associate. Read on for an abbreviated version of their conversation on arts, water, and social movements.
Sara: When did you first realize that you were an artist?
Benny: It was a moment in 6th grade. My late sister was a poet, and under her bed was a shoebox of poems. It drove her nuts, but I used to sneak into her room. to read them. One day I wrote a poem for Black History Month or something. My teacher submitted it to the principal. They asked me to read it out loud on the intercom to the entire school. I was terrified. Afterwards, this 8th grade girl approached me and said, “Hey, you did good. That was really good.” It changed my whole day. I never stopped writing.
Sara: What questions and concepts does your work explore?
Benny: I’m a hip-hop artist so music for me – writing, lyricism –all these things pull from my inspirations in music that exist right now, artists that came before me, utilizing the sounds and expression that occurred in the canon of Black music. I pull from things that I can tether myself to. Back in 2015, there was a time of a lot of unrest because of police brutality playing on newsreels and social media. That inspired my project titled Free Lunch, which used the theme of the 1960s Black Liberation struggle to express my experience as a young Black person in their 20s. Another example is relocation back to the Lowcountry in Charleston. Climate change and flooding was a daily, weekly, monthly challenge. I was inspired to write A Water Album using the concept of water to explore these different challenges and what it’s like to live in a Black body in America.
Sara: How powerful. Home is an important concept in your work. Can you tell us a bit about where it is?
Benny: Home is very important to me. I am generations deep in Pineville, South Carolina, a small rural town in the northern part of Berkley County. This is one of the three counties in the Lowcountry and has the largest landmass. The town had many plantations. Some of my ancestors were enslaved people. Some of them built and worked on the construction of the Old Santee Canal, which runs through Pineville. Before enslaved labor dug this canal to connect the Santee River, there was no way to ship goods. There was no connector to the Port of Charleston to the Atlantic.
Being able to dive back into that history and really just sit with those thoughts and feelings is powerful. Imagine what it may have been like for them. They dug out what would be the equivalent of two to three pyramids, with hand shovels and hand tools. It was grueling, back-breaking, devastating work. I think about them a lot. I think about their lives and what it must have looked like, how they persisted and how they got through. Their spirituality, their moments of joy, their courage. Everything they were up against. It evokes a myriad of emotions in me, but it also gives me sense of purpose. It guides my work, not just as an artist, but who I want to be. Who I strive to be as a person and how I walk my values. What I want to do for myself and my community. That’s my tie to Pineville, South Carolina that I try to take with me wherever I go.
Sara: Whom else do you see your work in conversation with?
Benny: I am tethered to this place, Pineville, of my home. And my grandmother is so very inspiring for me. She lost her mother when she was eight years old. Quit school in 3rd grade to help the family. Eventually, she raised nine children, got her GED, took care of her sick husband, put kids through college, and taught in the public education system for 25 years. She helped raise other people’s kids and still always provided for her family. To imagine doing that in this rural area of South Carolina where things were really hard. Our millennial generation, we experience how hard things are in different ways. We struggle with living wages, healthcare, access to housing, feeling safe in our communities. There’s a myriad of things we are up against. I don’t know how my grandmother did it. She found a way.
By way of that, I hope my work, my music, is in conversation with the people that remind me of my grandma. Everyday people on the street. I try to strike a balance of taking complicated issues and making them palatable for the average person that I might see at the grocery store or the book store. Somebody that is working a 10- or 12-hour shift, who has their own hierarchy of needs. I believe my conversation is with them. That means the most to me.
Sara: What inspires you about water as a subject?
Benny: Water is essential to so many people and for so many reasons. I always said: “water always takes the shape it needs to take to do what it’s purpose is to do.” As I began to learn more about people and all different parts of the country, and different parts of the world, I realized that everyone has their unique water challenges, but that water is still vital. For some people it’s flooding, for some people it’s drought, for some, it’s access to clean safe drinking water. It’s inspiring to me. I believe we have enough water, enough creativity, enough ingenuity, enough will power to really walk in that truth. However, the challenges are just so present in every way. I am inspired by seeing the approaches people are taking to solve these problems. Their willingness to challenge the systems and institutions that say, “it doesn’t have to be this way simply because it’s been this way for so long.” We’re creators. At the end of the day, we love and care for one another. We can have an equitable and just world, where everyone has a right to water because we have enough of what we need. I love taking on this challenge.
Sara: Why were you keen to work with the Alliance?
Benny: My experience at the One Water Summit was so moving for me. I was opened up to a world I didn’t know about. I remember one plenary talking about utility costs in Buffalo, New York. The amount of concern, care, compassion, and thoughtfulness that went into understanding rate increases and water access. They asked how do they keep costs low and make this affordable. That’s just one example of how the type of conversations and people I was able to meet that were challenging the norms, trying to do everything they could to solve these complex problems. At that point, I knew that I wanted to somehow be a part of this. It gave me so much to bring back to South Carolina with me.
Sara: Can you talk about how art can be part of social change?
Benny: So many artists end up scoring movements. We in ways are historical markers, we document, we explore all the feelings that people have. While we don’t aim to speak for people, I think by nature of what we do we end up giving voice to the deep-felt pits of people. Sometimes they may not feel they have the room to express, or maybe that expression won't be taken seriously or, if heard, change anything. As artists, I believe we have an incredible ability to connect with people through intense feelings, passion, desires, failures, and more. But our capacity to influence change extends beyond this. The artistic process, and how we work with others to create, gives way to a blueprint of sorts: direction on how to galvanize energy behind solutions, how to better communicate with one another, and how we can all step up to be courageous and daring. I try to take cues from those before me like the Nina Simones, the James Baldwins, the Paul Robesons. Showing up as who you are. Showing up as an artist. Doing what I do best and leaning into that adds tremendous value to movements and social change. We need as much as we need courage, grit, and steadfastness, we need real hope and creativity.
Sara: Social change has certainly been a theme of 2020.
Benny: This has been a difficult year for so many people. We’ve lost so many. I sit with that feeling of just how many people. I sit with a feeling of gratitude, but it’s also mourning. To still have breath in a world of uncertainty. I'm keeping in my prayers the people on the front lines, working every day trying to save lives. The people on the front lines still being forced to work, even with this invisible terror that can befall them at any moment. Still fighting for communities at a time when communities need the energy behind that fight for so many different reasons and issues. I am trying my best to stay courageous and keep doing the work. I am just waiting for us to come out on the other side of 2020. To really come to terms with the fact that we are going to have to do a lot of grieving. We are going to have to do a lot of the work to really deal with the year that it has been, a year of immense uncertainty. We will keep going. There’s much work to be done, but I am all in. I’m ready.
Sara: What gives you hope?
Benny: You know, this might be me being Southern, but I pull a lot of hope from people who are still daring to love. When I constantly encounter people who are willing to love, who dare to love, and when I say love I don’t mean this benign form. I mean it in the way when Cornell West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” That love ethic that bell hooks talks about. I think about that so often. I can’t separate love from justice. I see people daring to love their partners, their work, and their communities. People serving others, speaking truth to power, and having moments of joy and seeing people in a way that doesn’t reduce them to fractions of what they really are. I see a lot of that from young people, elders, and people doing this work really show up. That really gives me hope. Bad things happen, trauma happens. We bruise, we hurt. Just seeing people that are daring and courageous, able to work through it all and just continuing to do so. Not becoming what is thrust upon us. That really gives me hope.