‘You're still Black and you could still be killed like George'
Benjamin Hey! talks about "pretty privilege," protest, and coming out to his proud Black father
When Benjamin Hey! first wrote 'God Where You At?' – a song he says is one of the most honest, most raw he’s ever had to write – he’d already been penning a new piece of music every day for more than three years.
Every single day – even on the days when he didn’t think he had a song in him – he’d write, and post the results on Instagram. “I made a commitment,” he says. “It started, in April 2017, as a year. That went to two years, then it went to three years, and I said, ‘You know what, I'm just going to keeping it going.
As the pandemic took hold, and every day’s news held another grim piece of the puzzle – the virus affects older people; it disproportionately hits people of color; but some younger people can get it too – he said it felt like a boogeyman we didn't know anything about. “And there was the economic fallout. It was a lot,” he says. “I was like, ‘God, where you at? I'm looking for you. I can't find you.’”
Then Ahmaud Arbery was shot by two white men while he was out jogging. Breonna Taylor was fatally shot in her bed after three plain clothes police officers broke into her house in a bungled drugs sting. And George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, who knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
"I think Black culture is like, if you're educated, if you're a doctor, if you're a lawyer, if you live in an affluent environment, you're not the same as somebody who lives in the hood.”
And Benjamin had to rewrite the lyrics. “‘Can't jog, can't breathe, can't be, can't stand. They treat me like I'm less than human.’ It was like stuff I’d heard about from history, from slavery, before Civil Rights. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this stuff is still happening in 2020? That's crazy.’
“For so many years, because I went to private school, and because I've been exposed to so much abundance – and I'm grateful for all those things – I’d think, ‘That's not my experience.’ I think Black culture is like, if you're educated, if you're a doctor, if you're a lawyer, if you live in an affluent environment, you're not the same as somebody who lives in the hood.”
"I have pretty privilege. I'm a good-looking man. People listen, they invite me to parties. So privileges exist in every shape and form ... But always, in the back of my head, ‘You're still Black and you could still be killed like George.'"
That concept of privilege has come up a lot, he says.
“I was watching this sermon by Pastor TD Jakes, who said, ‘I have pastor's privilege. I can walk into places and people look at me and they see me, and the sea parts and they give me everything I want.' And I realize I have pretty privilege, dammit,” says Benjamin. “I'm a good-looking man. People listen, they invite me to parties. So privileges exist in every shape and form, and I've had to really sit with that and own that. But always, in the back of my head, ‘You're still Black and you could still be killed like George, you could still be killed like Breonna and Ahmaud.’ And that's traumatic.”
But he has hope too. “I went out to the protests, and I was looking at the marchers and I saw White, Black, Latin, Asian, gay, straight, old, young. I saw humanity. So when I wrote ‘God, Where You At?’, while I was questioning God's existence and God's place in all of this, when I look at humanity and I look at the diversity, not just in New York, not just major cities, but worldwide, it's like he's saying, ‘I'm everywhere, son, I'm everywhere.’ And that's a beautiful thing to see.”
Brooklyn born, Ben’s father was a welder, his mom a cashier at a hospital. But they worked hard to give their boy the best education.
“My dad is from Ghana, West Africa, and he grew up with education where everyone dressed the same – they had uniforms, things were organized, there was discipline, there was strictness. And schools in my neighborhood, in Red Hook, didn't have that. So my mom and he decided that Catholic school – private school – was the way for us.”
A highway ran between Red Hook and his school in Carroll Gardens. But that’s not all that separated the two neighborhoods; one predominately White, mostly Italian Irish, the other mainly Black and Hispanic. “So I had to learn code switching,” he says. “Because, growing up in the projects and going to private school, having that uniform, you're a target. People are looking at you like, ‘Oh, you think you're better because you don't go to school here?’”
It wasn’t much easier when he was at school. “If you didn't speak properly, if your shoes weren't shined, if your collars weren't down a certain way, if your clothes weren't neatly pressed, you got into trouble. And back then they had the paddle. I didn't want the paddle.”
So he kept his head down, worked hard, stayed focused and positive. “I think that comes from my dad,” he says. “I can give him credit for that now. Coming over to the States and not knowing anybody, meeting my mom and then having a family and being so far away from his family – that takes a lot of courage. So my risk taking and my adventurous side, my go-getting side, I get from my dad.
“My mom, she was popular. She was the person that everybody knew. There are parts of my personality from both of them.”
He studied marketing management – the high point of which was singing on stage with Wyclef Jean in front of 30,000 people. “I was on the concert board at my college, and the headliner for the show was Wyclef Jean. I remember asking him, ‘Listen, there's this is one song you're going to do. If you do it, can I sing with you?’ And he said OK.
“I'm thinking, ‘Whatever, he's not going to really follow through.’ Then he gets on stage, looks over at me, and he's like, ‘Come out.’ I go out, I sing with him, and the best part is, there are friends of mine who are in the audience, some are in the front row, some in the sides, and they recognize me, and you see their eyes get bigger and bigger, like, ‘Oh my god, Ben? That's Ben onstage with Wyclef?’ I’ll never forget it.
“I've known since I was 17 that I wanted to be in the music business,” he says. “But you hear all these stories about artists going broke or getting bad deals or bad contracts and short-lived careers – you're always taught to have something to fall back on.
“I realized that, if I'm not going to get a record deal, I need to be working in entertainment in some capacity. So I wound up getting a really cool internship at MTV News, working the 1999 VMAs at Lincoln Center. That was my first real job.
“A friend was going to Equinox, the gym downstairs. He said, ‘Ben, you're not making a lot of money as a production assistant. You love helping people. You love working out. I think you'd be a really good trainer, and you'd have more flexibility for your music.’ So it was a no-brainer. I crossed over into that world and it's kept me youthful, it's kept food on the table, it's afforded me access to my dream, and I met some great people.”
"When we broke up, friends asked why we didn't work out and I told them about my sexuality. I had so much fear. I thought they’d reject me, judge me, turn their back on me. One of my worst fears is being alone."
He identifies as queer. “I had a wife,” he says. “I remember when we broke up, friends asked why we didn't work out and I told them about my sexuality. I had so much fear. I thought they’d reject me, judge me, turn their back on me. One of my worst fears is being alone. Then when I told them, they looked at me and were like, ‘So what? You're still Ben.’"
His family found it harder to accept; his father in particular. “I had a boyfriend who I was living with, and my dad said to me, ‘I always thought I'd already have all these grandchildren … And you're living in an abomination with that man.’ I lost it.
“We don't talk about it now, and I'm OK with that. It’s cultural, it’s due to his generation, his age. But however you feel about me, I have to live my life. This is my life.”
And, right now, he feels like he’s witnessing a moment in history. “I’ve got this thing called the Titanic method,” he says. “There's that ship that's going down, right? I don't want to be on that ship. I want to be on the life raft that's getting away from the ship. There are going to be people who hold on to racism. They're going to go down with that ship. And you have me, who's getting further and further away. There will be people close to that life raft, and they'll reach in and call. They're the people I want to extend my hand to and pull into the raft, because you're willing to do the work. They're willing to learn.”
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