The conversation we had with Vaughn Benjamin (lead vocalist with Midnite, the most important reggae band from the US Virgin Islands, red.) after their set at the Pole Pole festival in Ghent, was no lightweight stuff, but to paraphrase Vaughn: "I never set out to create music to spoon-feed my listeners." Enter the mystical world of Midnite and judge for yourself!
Vaughn, Midnite are the frontrunners of Virgin Islands roots, but a lot of people over here in Europe don't really know all that much about these islands. Could you enlighten us a bit about your homeland?
Vaughn Benjamin: "The Virgin Islands are situated off the coast of Puerto Rico and are US territory. It's more or less the same story of African slaves taken abroad to diverse places that you see all over the Caribbean. The Virgin Islands are three beautiful islands, Saint Thomas, Saint Croix and Saint John and through the evolution of technology it's now possible for us to bring our sound to a worldwide audience."
How American would you say the Virgin Islands are?
Vaughn Benjamin: "Culture is not so easily diluted, especially when it is stratified and put into ghetto surroundings where it can maintain its identity and grow larger. I think that is what has happened on the Virgin Islands as well; the African identity of the people there was not broken down as much as the US wants to believe! (laughs)"
Slowly but surely, Virgin Islands roots is making its way into Europe, with Midnite acting as a spearhead for the movement. The more Virgin Islands reggae we get to hear, the more it becomes clear that there's something that makes that music immediately identifiable. What's that secret ingredient you guys put into your version of roots reggae?
Vaughn Benjamin: "Well, I can't speak for all musicians on the Virgin Islands, but I can say that most of the music coming from the Virgin Islands is an outcry. The focus in Virgin Islands music does not lie on stardom or image, but on the message of Jah Rastafari, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, ruler of the earth."
That being said, do you still feel connected to the roots reggae that's coming out of Jamaica these days?
Vaughn Benjamin: "Jamaica set the foundation as Isaiah prophesized in the Bible when he said: "From the islands in the sea shall awake a cry!" (Isaiah 24:14, They shall lift up their voice, they shall sing for the majesty of the Lord, they shall cry aloud from the sea. Wherefore glorify ye the Lord in the fires, even the name of the Lord God of Israel in the isles of the sea, red.). Now out of the sea came this island called Jah-Mek-Ya and from this island came a dreadful foundation which cannot be removed (laughs). Whatever new technologies or trends will bring, this music will always be there as if it were set in stone to conquer the ages. I don't really buy into the whole story of the music having become materialistic and hollow. That might well be the case, but one has to realize that in the Caribbean we're dealing with economic poverty and there are people who know how to squeeze the strings of poverty and make you sing a strange song in a strange land (Psalm 137, By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?, red.) that exalts not the King of Kings and that speaks not of integrity nor truth!"
What does the name "Midnite" stand for exactly?
Vaughn Benjamin: "Midnite is the split second between yesterday and tomorrow. As soon as the clock ticks away that second, another day dawns and so it is written: "The evening and the morning was the first day, the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end." (Genesis 1:5, And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. Revelation 1:8, I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty, red.). It's dark in the morning and it gets dark when it's night again. As it is in the beginning so shall it be in the end (Matthew 24:36, red.)."
As a poet, a man of the word, what's your take on youths who see reggae music as nothing more than entertainment, music to dance to?
Vaughn Benjamin: "As an Ethiopian - and when I say Ethiopian, I'm not referring to the country, but to the way in which ancient writer and historians like Pythagoras, Pliny or Plutarch described the continent - I have an oral tradition of chanting or Vedas (According to Hindu tradition, the Vedas are apauruseya or "not of human agency", being supposed to have been directly revealed, and thus are called śruti or "what is heard". Vedic mantras are recited at Hindu prayers, religious functions and other auspicious occasions, red.) as the Hindus know it. Now some are trying to use the same form without the substance (for example goa and trance music, which go back on traditional trance inducing religious dances, red.), but I&I try to bring the unity of substance and form."
Do you think it's important the people who buy your music or come to your concerts also read your lyrics?
Vaughn Benjamin: "Well, I think it's important that the ones who are inclined to do so search, because if you spoon-feed people and give them a false sense of security, then they will still not learn to stand or think independently. I never set out to create music to spoon-feed my listeners; those who are inclined will lean towards it and will get to know the deeper meaning, because it's like giving a sharp knife to a small child that ‘s not yet able to mantrol it (Rastafarian patois for "control it", red.). The word and the truth have been distorted throughout the world, but that also was written: "We will pervert them in their straight paths!" (Proverbs 2:11, Discretion shall preserve thee, understanding shall keep thee: To deliver thee from the way of the evil man, from the man that speaketh froward things; who leave the paths of uprightness, to walk in the ways of darkness; who rejoice to do evil, and delight in the frowardness of the wicked; whose ways are crooked, and they froward in their paths, red.)."
Do you think there still enough interest in things like religion and spirituality among today's youths?
Vaughn Benjamin: "If you study anything from astrology to astrophysics, or science as they call it, you will find that things that were already mentioned in Biblical times, like the Arc of the Covenant for example are still being studied in universities across the globe today. Do you know that one of the oldest versions of the Book of Enoch (The Book of Enoch is any of several works that attribute themselves to Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah and son of Jared, Genesis 5:18. These works are reputedly a product of ancient Jewish literature. Most commonly, the phrase Book of Enoch refers to 1 Enoch, which is wholly extant only in the Ethiopic language, with Aramaic fragments from Qumran and Medieval Greek fragments. There are two other books named Enoch: 2 Enoch, surviving only in Old Slavonic, and 3 Enoch, surviving in Hebrew. While this book today does not form part of the Canon of Scripture for most of the Christian Churches, it was quoted as a prophetic text in the New Testament and by many of the early Church Fathers, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church regards it to be inspired Scripture, red.) is being kept in Europe? The evolution of technology is causing an immense fusion of ideas now!"
What exactly is your take on Rastafari?
Vaughn Benjamin: "To me, before anything else, Ras Tafari was a man. The Bible states in genesis 49:8: "Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father's children shall bow down before thee. Judah is a lion's whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be." Genesis is the first book in the Bible, but again in the last book, Revelation, we find the following (Revelation 5:4 "And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon. And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof." If we then look at physical pragmatic history and analyze the things that actually happened, we find that there actually was such a thing as the Roman power rising up against the Ethiopian empire in our modern age (Vaughn refers here to the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini's troops in 1935, also known as the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, red.). I have read Winston Churchill's address to the Italian people (December 23, 1940 - Winston Churchill, in a broadcast address to the people of Italy, squarely blames Benito Mussolini for leading his nation to war against the British contrary to Italy's historic friendship with them: "...that he is a great man I do not deny, but that after 18 years of unbridled power he has led your country to the horrid verge of ruin can be denied by none", red.) and still Emperor Haile Selassie I is marginalized in all the documentaries about that period (Vaugh refers here to the speech H.I.M. gave at the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, concerning the invasion of Ethiopia by the Italians, where he already stated the following in 1936: "Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord there is not on this earth any nation that is superior to any other. Should it happen that a strong Government finds it may with impunity destroy a weak people, then the hour strikes for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give its judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment.", red.). The way to exclude something is not to focus on it at all. When we say: "Haile Selassie I, world savior!" this is simple truth, because if the other parties had won the war we would have been looking at a totally different world today. It's like the story of David and Goliath. They were greatly unequal in stature, but David spoke to Goliath saying: "Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord!" (1 Samuel 17:45, red.). With faith and just cause, the House of David shall still prevail as it was said in Zechariah 12:8: "In that day shall the Lord defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and he that is feeble among them at that day shall be as David; and the house of David shall be as God, as the angel of the Lord before them." I believe that we as Rastafarians are very relevant in these times. We talk about the kingdoms of the earth, the evolution of man and the atrocities he has caused. The Bible is our record keeper; it shows us why not to do certain things and why not is because they've already been done before. Isiah 30:25: "And there shall be upon every high mountain and upon every high hill, rivers and streams of waters in the day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall." What towers are they talking about? In those days there was only one Babylon tower no? (laughs) Amoz 9:7: "Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel?" You can find that in every Bible! Psalm 68:4: "Sing unto God, sing praises to his name: extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his name JAH, and rejoice before him." Isiah 18:4: "For so the LORD said unto me, I will take my rest, and I will consider in my dwelling place like a clear heat upon herbs..." (laughs and takes a whiff of his spliff) That's the Bible speaking there!"
Any final words of wisdom to end the interview?
Vaughn Benjamin: "I&I know the power of Haile Selassie I, yet still I must say it's a pleasant surprise to come and see that the people know already. I was under the wrong impression that not many people were exposed to I&I music and message yet. Our music is more about the energy, about something new awakening, then about the singularity of a certain artist on stage. We're now in a the time know as Kali Yuga (Kali Yuga, is one of the four stages of development that the world goes through as part of the cycle of Yugas, as described in Indian scriptures, the others being Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga and Dvapara Yuga. Hindus believe that human civilization degenerates spiritually throughout the Kali Yuga: it is mostly referred to as the Dark Age, mainly because people are the furthest possible from God. Hinduism generally considers morality to be comparable to a bull known as Dharma. In Satya Yuga, the first stage of development, the bull had four legs, and in each age morality is reduced by a quarter. By the age of Kali, morality will be reduced to only a quarter of that of the golden age. Thus, the bull will only have one leg: morality will wait on men. Kali Yuga is associated with the apocalypse demon Kali, not be confused with the goddess Kālī, as these are unrelated words in the Sanskrit language. The "Kali" of Kali Yuga means "strife, discord, quarrel, or contention", red.); I'm talking about 2012. A dread time Jah is putting upon the earth right now! It's word, sound and power. John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.", and a bit further you read: "He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God..." (John 1:10, red.). It's this vision of Jah Bob Marley already sang about and made it known to the world. Haile Selassie I himself said: "That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned; that until there are no longer first-class and second class citizens of any nation; that until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; that until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; that until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained." (excerpt from H.I.M. Haile Selassie I's speech to the United Nations, October 1963, red.) and is that not what international relationships are all about? I&I is just a workman doing some labor on the frontline you know. Jah never came to blame no sheep, but he said: "Woe to the shepherd!" meaning you can't really blame the ignorant, those who know not, but you should point the finger at those who keep them from finding out the truth. The Book says: "For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." (Luke 14:11, red.). It's all very simple you know; I didn't come to invent nothing new, I just came to testify to what I Father set in place. Rastafari!"
Keep on doing your works brother Vaughn!
Vaughn Benjamin: "Give thanks and praise! I'm pleased to hear you got some interesting things to ask me at least! (laughs) Ises onto Jah! Rastafari!"