Play It Forward: Lakecia Benjamin Sings Through Her Saxophone

Jun 11, 2020

Last time on Play It Forward, our musical chain of gratitude, R&B singer and producer Georgia Anne Muldrow raved about the saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. They share a few things in common: Both studied together at The New School's School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, both tap a similar spiritual vein in their music and as Muldrow sees it, both are "sangin' " even if it's through different mediums. Benjamin extends the connection in this episode, sharing a song they recorded together off her new album Pursuance: The Coltranes. Ari Shapiro talked to her at length about the record, which reinterprets the work of John and Alice Coltrane with the help of a staggering ensemble cast, and about an artist she is grateful for: James Blake. Listen in the audio player above and read on for highlights from the interview.

Interview Highlights

On her new album Pursuance: The Coltranes

The whole project was a long-coming thing, but long story short, I really have always admired John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane. I always felt they were the perfect dynamic of what a complete musician should be in terms of technically proficient, spiritually proficient, good human beings out here trying to heal and help people. For me, they were the highest level, especially in jazz, that you could achieve as a musician so I wanted to do a project that could somehow pay honor to what they've done for the whole music and art form and just also remember the legends that are still living now and pay homage to them before they pass on.

When I say long time coming, I mean I've always had that affinity for them two. But in terms of the logistics, I got the idea to start reaching out some of my peers and also people that I didn't know that were legends that I possibly wanted to work with. I wasn't sure if they'd work with me or not. Bottom line is no one really knew who I was, so I was just calling them cold turkey, finding their numbers on the Internet. I did that top of July [2019].

Meshell Ndegeocello I didn't know at all. She's on the track with Georgia [Anne Muldrow], "Om Shanti." So Meshell's playing bass. That person actually speaking, that's a recording of Alice Coltrane talking. We wanted to have Alice Coltrane on the track with us in some way.


Looking back at those busy recording sessions amid the pandemic

I think in the music world at least, things are very grim. None of us know what our future is: Are we gonna play again, are we gonna congregate again? Some people are sad about it, some people [have] a little bit of hopelessness. So for me, I can kind of hold onto the fact that my last major recording and memory was a whole dream project that I did.

On her choice for Play It Forward: James Blake

The first time I heard James Blake, I felt like somebody jumped inside of my body and hugged my soul, and I just knew it was gonna be OK after that.

He has such a haunting quality. It's rare that you find an artist that their musicianship and caliber are so high on so many different instruments: producing, singing, piano playing. And he's not afraid to embrace the darkness, either. I feel like sometimes when things go mainstream, we feel like they have to be really exciting and poppy and sugarcoated, and he's not afraid to bare his soul to the world and let you see that there's beauty on the other side as well.


On seeing James Blake live

I've only actually seen him one time in person. I was in Tennessee playing at Bonnaroo, and someone came and ran to me and said, "James Blake is playing!" I was on stage packing up. I just left my sax there and ran over to where he was. I'll never forget that show. Because I was an artist performing there, I had the VIP pass. I could be backstage, so I kinda ran past everybody. It was probably like 10,000 people [in the] crowd. It was so thick. This festival was out in the woods, like rural, mud. And I kinda ran past everybody, showed my badge, jumped the gate and I went straight to the stage right in front of him. He had a drummer and a guitar player and him, and he was just kind of sitting there playing little things on the keys. It was not that much sound going, like a sample was happening. And next thing you know he dropped the beat, and I just fell to my knees, I was like "Yes! I've made it!" I stayed there in that place for probably the whole hour and a half or whatever it was.

Parting words for Blake

James Blake, thank you so much for all you do for the community, for music. Thank you for being born, brother. Thank you for embracing the darkness, thank you for embracing the light and thank you for inspiring me and so many other people to do what we do. Keep striving to be the best self you can be.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis less than a month ago, on May 25. And in that short time, the question of how to change policing has eclipsed almost every other topic of debate in this country. Some of the loudest voices opposing dramatic change are from police officers' unions. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti wants to cut the police budget by as much as $150 million dollars. He referred to police as killers. And in response, union directors questioned the mayor's mental health. One of those directors, Robert Harris, joins us now.

Thanks for taking the time.

ROBERT HARRIS: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: As you know, LA police are often called on to deal with homelessness, addiction, mental illness. That's something your own police chief has complained about. So why not redirect funding from the police to agencies with expertise in those areas?

HARRIS: Yeah. I think it's a valid conversation for city leaders to say, hey, let's look at what our global city budget is and let's identify things that we have stereotypically put at the feet of law enforcement and see if we can address those better. And let's see what that impact would be in our communities, specifically our higher-crime areas or our minority communities.

In Los Angeles - and what I'm seeing across the country, that's not what's happening. What's happening is a philosophy that says police are harming minority communities, therefore, we're going to punish them by taking money away from them. Every dollar you take away from the department has a real consequence in our neighborhoods and in our communities.

SHAPIRO: You and other union leaders criticized Mayor Garcetti by questioning his mental health. When you fall back on that specific insult, does it undermine your ability to earn the trust of people with real mental illness who officers encounter in the course of police work?

HARRIS: No, I don't think so. I think it highlights just how absurd his lack of leadership and his political posturing was in that moment.

SHAPIRO: You just don't think it's offensive to people with real mental illness?

HARRIS: No, I don't. I think the comment to Mayor Garcetti was a tongue in cheek. I don't think it should be taken seriously. I think it was meant to highlight just how irrational his proposal was. It borders on not thinking clearly.

SHAPIRO: Earlier this week, I spoke with Georgetown law professor and former prosecutor Paul Butler about the role of police unions in the U.S. And he told me they often stand in the way of reform. Here's what he said.


PAUL BUTLER: Police reform is about transparency and accountability, and police unions resist those important goals. They fight to keep disciplinary records of cops secret.

SHAPIRO: As you know, California changed state law, over union objections, to open records of officer misconduct to the public. That law took effect last year. What kind of impact has it had?

HARRIS: Well, it's generated an immense amount of administrative work on two police departments. With every new reform - you know, something like body cameras being introduced to your departments - all of those things come with administrative functions that then require funding, which is the irony here. Every time we ask for something new, it requires funding to do that. I would disagree that rank-and-file unions stand in the way of reform. I think that makes for a great clip. I don't think it's rooted in reality if you actually look at what rank-and-file unions can do.

SHAPIRO: Well - but on that specific state law, the union did oppose that particular effort for transparency and accountability. And when I ask you how it's gone, you say it's created a lot more work. So you can understand why people would have that perception.

HARRIS: Yeah, again - and it comes down to when you reduce some of these issues that are nuanced and have unintended consequences - when you reduce them down to, well, the police just don't want to release their personnel records, that's just not true. And it's not fair.

SHAPIRO: I hear you saying that in principle, the union supports changes. In practice, so often the union opposes specific changes that are put forth. Can you just explain to listeners why unions have so often opposed rules such as clearly prescribed use of force continuums, civilian oversight with subpoena power - things that give unions a reputation for fighting changes in American policing?

HARRIS: Yeah, look - some rank-and-file unions have gotten it wrong. I think having minimum use of force policy standards is important. I think there should be a national minimum use of force policy standard. I think all agencies should have something that ingrains reverence for life in their officers' minds. I think that they should include policies that address de-escalation techniques, tactics and training. I think training itself needs to be better at a national level for police.

And these are all things that Los Angeles has implemented over the last two decades, and it has served us very well. I think it is very important for people to have the proper perspective and perceptions when it comes to, how do we move forward towards the shared goal of building trust and respect between communities and the officers that serve them?

SHAPIRO: That's Robert Harris, a director with the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing LA's police.

Thank you for speaking with us today.

HARRIS: Absolutely. I appreciate the opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.