1010benja, Eternal Student

1010benja, Eternal Student

Mar 29, 2024

Although 1010benja was a self-proclaimed slacker in high school, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t studied. Throughout our conversation, the musician cites a slew of academic sources, such as his three years as a teen learning the Chinese language, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (and other required reading that stuck with him during his time at the historic Booker T. Washington High School) and classical musical compositions.

“I might have been smart, but you could have fooled me because nothing made sense to me,” he tells PAPER. “When you’re a kid, it's hard to get how dope school is. Then I'll find myself on flights going to sessions or to take meetings and my heart is just longing to be studying.”

The Tulsa-bred, Kansas City-based musician has since created his own lexicon of sound, a sonic universe wholly informed by his strict upbringing in the church. Since releasing “Boofiness” in 2017 to massive critical acclaim, the mysterious musician has become known for his forward-thinking, soul-soothing songs. His voice harkens back to the R&B pop crooners of the early 2000s but with a raw church influence that strikes straight to the heart. These are undeniable pop hooks with an experimental edge all his own, tied up in a bow with his distinct tenor vocals.

His debut album, Ten Total, features 1010benja in a way fans have yet to hear — and see — him. “Waterworks” is sentimental and sweet, showcasing the artist’s aching vocals over simple, organ-like chords. At other spots on the album, like “Peacekeeper,” he shows off his bravado, rapping about getting road head and reading literature. There are onomatopoetic exhales and trap beats that open up the artist to a new sound that all still feels distinctly him. With the album and the forthcoming live shows to go along with it, there’s a newness that only adds to the compelling caricature of 1010benja, cementing him as an artist who is here to stay.

Below, he discusses with PAPER the ephemerality of existence, the meaning of the number 10 and never accepting no as an answer.

What led you to Kansas City?

I had some friends going to the Art Institute a few years back. At this time, I had never really heard much about the art world or academic art. I became pretty inspired to hang out around this place from time to time, intermittently between my trips to New York and LA. I had a baby here and just ended up sticking around for a minute.

That’ll do it.

Yeah. We have three here. We’re definitely looking to move. But there are pros and cons to living in the middle of the country.

I didn't even know that you had kids. You've been sort of mysterious. Was this always a conscious choice?

I don't hide that I have children. I talk about them and post them occasionally. I just think they should be kept private. I have big plans. And I just don't want people having a bunch of images of my kids all the time if they don't need to.

Do you think having kids affects the way you approach making music at all?

It affects it all, for sure. Anyone who has kids will tell you, it affects everything. I think the temperature of the day affects the way you approach your work. The type of night you had before. Every little thing affects your work. As an artist, you're there to document the conditions. And document your emotional state, and that creates the snapshot of a piece of artwork and its time. When it comes to kids, anyone who’s had kids will tell you, it'll change your whole life. Having kids has just made things more serious. In a way, it's led me to want to make sure that what I'm releasing and what I'm sharing with people strikes honestly. I suppose I have a shorter attention span for bullshit than before I had kids. When I do something, I want it to be real. I want it to be meaningful. [Since having kids], I have a greater value for classic literature and classic plays and traditions. A lot of that comes from taking part in this human tradition of bringing forth life.

What do they think of your music?

They like it. They're charmed by it. It depends on their mood. I'm daddy. All day I record at home, so they hear it. They really like the videos I've been coming out with. That's new for them. I've kind of had my head down figuring out how to make videos for a little while.

I feel like no one really sings in the soulful way you do anymore. Do you ever get compared to other artists?

No, not really. The only time I notice comparisons happening is in the press and it's always very out of left field.

Yeah, you don’t really sound like anyone else.

I mean, I mimic everybody. I just mimic everything. I love music, art, films and books. In many ways, I feel like most of the fulfilling conversations I'm having are with artwork and books and all types of music from all eras. When I hear something, I usually try to make it not to the tee, but I'll try to make it how I felt. Sort of how Basquiat will copy works of art. I'm always mimicking, but based on first impression, if that makes sense. Based on my memory of the thing. In that way, it brings you into it.

You grew up in the church. Are you still religious today?

I wouldn't call myself religious, as in bound to any dogma. I do feel very spiritually about the world. I feel like there's something clearly deeply miraculous about existing. I view the world this way, in this very dreamlike and spiritual way.

Do you have any takeaways from your religious upbringing?

I'm a pastor's son, so I grew up in church around the clock. Almost every day, I was going to the church. My grandfather had a church, too. A little tucked-away church in White Cloud, Michigan. Every summer, I was there. My mother comes from a Methodist background. Her father is a pastor, and they grew up in parsonages. So that was my whole universe until about 16, 17 when I left the house. I would say the benefits far outweigh whatever drawbacks there were. I definitely felt a stifling of freedom in terms of creativity and expression, but that only served to make me impossibly tenacious as an artist now. I just do not accept no. I do not accept opinions that I don't feel are founded. I don't back down. I think it's because growing up in church, I had to be a little secretive or strategic about my attraction to various artworks and music, because if it wasn't sanctioned within the church context, it generally wasn't allowed. So that's really the only negative for me. It served to make me a motherfucker.

As far as the positives, I mean, the music. The way my head pastor at church who recently died, rest in peace Carlton Pearson, the way he preached and went into Greek and Latin etymology, the way that my father led music and played on the Hammond B-3 and conducted choirs and mass choirs, the church convention that would happen at the Mabee Center, all these things are very romantic for me now. The power, the sheer volume of music I was experiencing all the time, shaped me. The first music that I made myself was punk music. When you complimented my voice earlier, you know, I really didn't start singing until some years later. I feel like I already kind of had that soulful voice ingrained in me because of growing up in that type of music.

That’s interesting. I feel like artists who grew up in church are always focused on the negatives and how they rebelled.

I was, but I matured. There's an incredibly boring perspective, albeit not wholly unjustified, about religion in contemporary society that's kind of set in, I think, as a blowback from some of the more greedy and hypocritical elements within the structure of the church, mega-churches, things like that. I think it's just incredibly boring the way people lump all religious experience into restriction. I think that there's something incredibly important when it comes to the church, and especially the Black church, when it comes to music. This is where our American sound comes from. This is ground zero. I could never throw that out. It's profoundly important. For whatever things I disagree with, even in the contemporary church… you know, everyone's becoming an influencer. In that respect, I still think that there's something of value embedded.

At the core of all of these religions, there is something very meaningful, very worthwhile and intrinsic to our existential process on this planet as human beings. We really don't know where we're coming from. We don't know where we're going. We don't know what this life is. And so those questions about what purpose our life may have, I think are questions we shouldn't get rid of. We may not be able to answer, but we are forced to grapple with these things. We can pretend that we have it all figured out. We can pretend that we've reached the logical conclusion that there is nothing and life is meaningless, but that's still just another religion. We have to continue to ask. There's a lot of catharsis in the continued asking. I feel that life for me, innately, is a spiritual place. A miraculous, mysterious place.

Music is like a religion, too. I think it’s mine.

I would say similar for me. I find that religion in music and just sincere artwork and in great films and blockbusters, and in platinum songs and classical compositions. I find that religion in the gallery, I find that religion on the runway, in showrooms. Because it's so embedded in us, whenever a person really applies themselves in a sincere way, even in good or bad, the voice of God tends to manifest itself. We have a tremendous power when we create and we can wield it in different ways. This experience of making the music and having that sense of communion with something on the other side … You know, you say things in songs that end up meaning something the next day. It's very miraculous. It's very illogical. This is like a religion to me. I forgot to mention comedy as well. I probably have the highest viewpoint of comedy as an art form in terms of its ability to connect with that other side, that liminality as people like to call it these days. That in-between-ness.

When you make a song, and then the song is done, it's like it's this thing that didn't exist in the world a day ago. That's a very magical, religious concept.

There's the sheer act of creation, and then there's the fact that these things tend to speak back to you in meaningful ways. That's the bizarre sort of ecstasy of it. I'll make songs that sometimes detail what feels like events in the future. I won't realize it till I cross that bridge. But also, things that helped me understand myself emotionally helped me understand emotions in general and humanity. This is the really profound thing about art and music. We should always be careful to maintain that quality. Art and music is designed to open up a portal to ask a question. It's not always just meant to detail a preconceived idea. The propaganda is, but art has a different purpose. I feel like we have to keep that alive in our ever-changing, rapidly accelerating human society. That’s the manifestation of that need within us to go deeper. And I think that's really important.

I know you like the number 10. Why do you think you gravitated toward 10?

10 came to me. Ten over time, I fell in love with 10, as a lot of my romances. 10 is an ancient, profound number. It represents that rebirth of the count, right? You get to nine and you just can't go any further until you add this unnecessary bit of nothing, the zero. And once you have that zero, you can start back over again at one. It's a number that represents God in a lot of systems, but it also represents this pregnant new beginning. This completeness, and then one. You know, you get to the end and then you get to go further, go deeper. The meaning of 10 for me is nothing distinct or special or overly personal. I just think it's a very complete and Godly number when I say it. I feel like it gives me power.

Yeah, even in math class, like multiplication and division, when you add that zero, it changes everything. Did you have a favorite subject in school?

I didn't think I liked school. I became more studious later on in my life. Probably Chinese. I took Chinese for a few years.

Oh, same.

Yeah, I didn't retain much. How about you?

Me neither. I remember the numbers and how to say, “My name is Ivan.”

Yeah, it was really hard. I took three years in high school. But like I said, I was fucking off. I remember the national anthem. I was thinking of maybe TikToking it soon. Unless they close TikTok.

Writing the Chinese characters is so meditative and spiritual, in a way.

Yeah, I need to get back into it. I was definitely a slacker, so I was Pinyin’d out. Pinyin all the way. But if I could go back and do it again, I would for sure be studying super hard. There's something weird about school for some reason, where when you’re a kid, it's hard to get how dope it is. Then I'll find myself on flights going to sessions or to take meetings and my heart is just longing to be studying.

I miss taking tests sometimes.

I think I miss the structured, clean study spaces. Socially, things were fine in high school. They weren’t the best years of my life like it is for some people. It was just okay. And then things just got better and better. I went to a great historic high school called Booker T. Washington in Tulsa. We studied Plato's Republic and Allegory of the Cave freshman year. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison was required reading. I would say the biggest benefit of my high school years was all the literature that I was forced to read. I didn't have to be forced too hard because the books are so great. When I first started reading again after high school, I think the first books I went back to were books I read in high school, like Hermann Hesse. Just incredibly deep stuff.

I feel like those are more intellectual books. I went to a public high school and we just had the required reading of, like, Catcher in the Rye and Maya Angelou, which I loved. But it was more mainstream.

Well, to be clear, I went to public high school, too. I'm not a man of particularly high breeding. But the high school I went to was just a very lucky experience. You tested in. It was a magnet school, a historic Black school and one of the first schools to integrate. Iit's still located in what's considered to be the hood of Tulsa that's still there to this day. My sisters recently graduated. It also has some negatives going back to our racial history in Tulsa. Black people in Tulsa, historically, were very stalwart. I don't know if you've heard about Black Wall Street, but there were a lot of very intelligent, hard working Black people in Tulsa. Booker T. [high school] has been there since the time of Black Wall Street, I believe. And it seemed that they maintained that standard and kept pushing. The way that that school was integrated was amazing. You would go to school with kids from the hood, and the mayor's daughter also went to our school. It was a great little micro-society because it was so multi-class and quite multi-racial. There was a high percentage that needed to be Black. I'm sure that rule has changed by now. But in terms of class and status, you were really rubbing elbows with people a lot of different backgrounds and somehow we all got along. It’s quite beautiful. But yeah, public school, man.

I feel like public school shapes you in a different way than private school. The socialization is extremely different.

It's complicated to know these days. My kids are homeschooled. That’s what their mother chooses for them. But yeah, it's hard to know these days what you're going to get. Like I said, I really lucked out. I had friends that went to other public schools in Tulsa and they were pretty much just put on the fast track to meth. I just really lucked out.

Well, it’s because you were smart. I feel like you were one of those kids who didn’t study but still did really well on tests.

I feel like I was a slacker, and I was lucky enough that I had people who saw potential in me because I didn't see myself as smart. I didn't get great grades. I felt that I was pretty much dumb, most likely. The reason I wanted to go to Booker T. was because there was a girl that I had a crush on in our middle school, and she was going there. I didn't care. So I was lucky that I had people looking out for me. I think I had people really vying for me and putting in good words for me to get into that. I was always in trouble. I might have been smart, but you could have fooled me because nothing made sense to me. I never had my work in on time. I barely got through high school.

Too much of an artist?

I think so. An artist without a lexicon. I didn't know that art and intellect went hand in hand. All of my education about art came from TV marketing. It was all like, ‘Art is about freedom and doing whatever the fuck you want.’ If I feel it right now, I do it. That's art. It's not necessarily what makes art, which I learned by degrees. But back then I was fully indoctrinated in that way.

What do you notice about your fans in particular? Is there anything specific or special that stands out in a 1010Benja fan?

I don't know. I'm kind of new to people. What do you think?

Yeah, I have no idea. How often do you play shows? I know you're going on tour for this album.

I think when I meet people, they’re usually kind of weird like me. They maybe feel out of place like me. They’re outliers. But there are all types of people who show me support behind the scenes. It seems like the people who are drawn toward my music also aren't overly happy with everything else that's going on, in a way. There's something special they get from me. But it's still quite a mystery to me. Talk to me in a year or so.

Photography: Jada Hester

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