I became a big fan of Ben Harper when I first heard his 2003 album Diamonds on the Inside. And who wouldn’t be inspired by lyrics like the following found in the song “Blessed to be a Witness”:
Corcovado (mountain) parted the sky
And through the darkness
On us he shined
Crucified in stone
Still his blood is my own
Glory behold all my eyes have seen
I am blessed to be a witness
Anyone hoping that Ben Harper would use his immense musical talent to spread the Good News of the Gospel Jesus Christ must have been as excited as I was when recorded There Will be Light in 2004. This brilliant gospel album featured The Blind Boys of Alabama and songs like “Pictures of Jesus” and “Mother Pray.” These inspirational gems will long be burned in my memory – not to mention stored in my IPOD.
Around that time, I was beginning to think it was too good to be true. Artists so versatile, so talented, so hip, and yet so unabashedly Christian are hard to come by. And then it happened. In 2006, Ben Harper released the album Both Sides of the Gun featuring the song “Black Rain.” As soon as I heard the songs’ lyrics about Hurricane Katrina, I began to regret my purchase:
You left them swimming for their lives
Down in New Orleans
Can’t afford a gallon of gasoline
With your useless degrees
And your contrary statistics
This government business
Is straight up sadistic
Harper wrote nothing at all racist in the opening verse of “Black Rain.” But I was annoyed nonetheless. Certainly, he was too intelligent to believe that those left behind in Katrina – both black and white – were helpless people who had made good decisions but just “(Couldn’t) afford a gallon of gasoline.” And his business about “This government business” seemed to miss the point that black dependency is caused, not remedied, by government intervention. Nonetheless, I kept listening:
But expect us to die for you
You have no sympathy for us
Still I cry for you
You may kill the revolutionary
But the revolution you can never bury
Nor was there anything at all racist in the second verse of “Black Rain.” The jab at the Iraq War was a bit annoying. So was the idea that there is still a meaningful civil rights movement decades after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonetheless, I kept listening:
Don’t you dare speak to us
Like we work for you
Selling false hope like some new dope
We’re addicted to
I’m not a desperate man
But these are desperate times at hand
This generation is beyond your command
I didn’t find anything racist in the third verse, either. In fact, I was glad Harper brought up the issue of drugs. I suspected that the failure of so many people to take heed of the oft-repeated hurricane warnings had something to do with the proliferation of mind altering drugs in the Big Easy. But, towards the end of the verse, Ben began sounding a bit like those anarchists I lectured at Planet U-MASS. Nonetheless, I kept listening:
And take you down one and all
A black rain is gonna fall
Needless to say, I found nothing but racism in that last verse. And what a disappointment it was to hear a man singing the Gospel on one album and fanning the flames of racial hatred on the next.
I’ve never had an ounce of confidence in the people at Virgin Records. They may be bright enough to know that young people are influenced by the words of Ben Harper and, therefore, publishing a celebration of race war is bad for race relations. But the almighty dollar, not the Almighty Father is the final authority to which Virgin answers.
The real questions are about Ben Harper, the artist I once admired:
1. Does he want a race war in the streets of America? Or does he want racial harmony in the streets of heaven? He cannot have both.
2. Is he a Christian? Or is he a racist? He cannot be both.
3. Does he want to spread the Gospel of Jesus? Or does he just want to sell records?
For awhile, I thought Ben Harper (http://www.BenHarper.net) could do both. God knows, I miss the old Ben Harper.