American Tunes: “Witness”

[Editor’s Note: American Tunes is a series of posts dedicated to songs that address America’s social and political challenges. For more information on the series, click here.]

Now’s a time for questioning assumptions, biases, and conventional wisdom, and I’m always drawn to songs that make me rethink language that I’ve taken for granted. The beautiful title track to Benjamin Booker’s new album does just that by shining a bright light on that word — witness — from every possible angle.

The electrified gospel tune features Mavis Staples, who repeatedly asks “Am I gonna be a witness?” between verses that describe oppression, injustice, and violence. (“Everybody that’s brown can get the fuck on the ground.”) The repetition of Staples’ question actually reads “Am I/Am I/Gonna be a witness/Gonna be a witness,” which echoes like rumination when you type it out, and it invites you to consider all the ways you can be a witness to something.

A quick list of relevant definitions:

  1. You see something illegal happening that has little or no impact on you.
  2. Something illegal happens, you’re impacted, and you’re able to give an account. (You don’t die.)
  3. You know something illegal is happening but don’t do anything to prevent the situation from continuing.
  4. You’re present during an exceptional time or event and can give an account.
  5. You can validate someone else’s experience.

5 connects beautifully to the gospel tradition the song draws on (“Can I get a witness?”), and I think we can agree we’re all experiencing 4. They all invite and warrant serious rumination. Which have you experienced? Why or why not? Which might you be experiencing without knowing? Now is a time for questioning.

Benjamin Booker — “Witness” [Spotify/iTunes]

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