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Ben Harper: 'We've come too far to still be here'

Ben Harper performs at the 2015 Clinton Global Citizen Awards in New York City.
Ben Harper performs at the 2015 Clinton Global Citizen Awards in New York City.
JP Yim/Getty Images
Ben Harper performs at the 2015 Clinton Global Citizen Awards in New York City.
Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals at the 2015 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

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Ben Harper came on the scene in the early ‘90s and reached commercial success in 2000 with the song “Steal My Kisses” from the album “Burn to Shine.”

It was the first album he recorded with his backing band, The Innocent Criminals. who also join him on his latest album, “Call It What It Is."

Pink Balloon

Harper’s lyrics on “Call It What It Is” reflect his personal and social activist roots. The songs on the album address past relationships on the one hand, and  police brutality against African Americans on the other. Harper’s music style — a loose mixture of reggae, blues, rock and folk music — is also highly personal. It reflects the sights and sounds of his childhood growing up in his family’s record store.

In fact he titled his 2014 album “Childhood Home,” and on that one he sang with his mother, Ellen Harper.

The Frame's John Horn spoke with Ben Harper about his new album (out on April 8), what inspires him to write political songs, and how his family's music shop in Claremont influenced his life and his music.


“Call It What It Is" is a song about the killing of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and essentially about police brutality against the black community. It's something everybody's been thinking and talking about. What compelled you to write a song about it?

Other than the lyrics themselves, and all of us experiencing living through this in this era, it's that pull inside of me that says, We've come too far to be here. I never want to undermine the progress made in any number of eras, but we've come too far to still be here. Where other areas can represent giant leaps of progress, this is an area that's representing stagnation.

Call It What It Is

So what is the artist's role in that conversation? This is clearly an incredibly important social issue, it's a political issue, it's something that a lot of candidates have been talking about. When the artist comes into this conversation, what can he or she do about the narrative, so that people start thinking about the issue in a different way?

Whether you're an artist or a mechanic, politician, nurse, crosswalk guard — everybody wants to, and has to, be counted. For me it's just about being counted. Of course there will be different perspectives and opinions. At the end of the day, you want to make a proclamation with your life. From my perspective, it's an important song and statement to make in the name of where we want to go as a culture. I feel that race, unlike anything else, can destabilize a democracy, if not tended to.

When you were growing up and listen to maybe Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, somebody singing about social issues, did music change the way you thought about the world? Do you hope that same thing that happened to you might happen to people who listen to your music?

Music has always directly informed me in a way that has chipped away at the stone that is my world and my life. True, I would love to be a link in the chain of that lineage and that tradition, and the ego even involved in that sentiment is massive and I want to recognize that. But I'd like to be in my era, my generation, my class of '90-whatever — I'd like to represent that in a way that is at least clear to me.

Do you find writing songs like this is a little bit curative? You can look at your own behavior and say, I'm gonna write this song. But I'm gonna listen to the words I'm writing. Can you take away from a song something that might change the way you yourself behave?

I think this record — more than any — is me actually trying to do that. I'm going, Okay, let's really call a spade a spade here.

It's almost a challenge to yourself.

It really is. And making music this far into a career is a challenge. It's me versus me. Meaning there are people that want to hear 10 specific songs, and to get them to hear me outside of those 10 songs is a specific challenge I wasn't aware I'd ever be confronted with. And I'm lucky to have the challenge to begin with. Because if you have anybody who cares the least bit about what you're singing, then you're in the lucky few. But I'm also trying to get people to hear me for the first time again. That's it's own thing. It's hard to compete with 20 years of being ... I just found out at Pandora Radio that some songs get a million plays a week. Wow! What does that look like? Which means that more people are consuming music than ever.

You've been performing with The Innocent Criminals since the 1990s. Let's talk about one of your earlier hits, "Steal My Kisses." It's an interesting question about revisiting your own music. You're about to go out on tour. There are people who probably want to hear this song.

I hope so.


When you start playing old material, and you're a different person [than the one] who wrote that song, do you start seeing your own work in a different light? Do you re-examine the motivations, the origin, and maybe the message of the song?

So far, no. Because there are certain songs, like "How Many Miles Must We March," where they mark a time for me. But for the most part they translate year-to-year, as far as emotionally being valid and relevant, at least within me. 

Meaning it doesn't change.

No, I mean a song about trying to sneak a kiss from your son or daughter when you have a beard and they won't let you, that just kind of stands out over time. I hope it stands out in time for the listener, too. Even more important to me is I can get up and mean it.

You made the 2014 album, "Childhood Home," with your mom, Ellen Harper, and your family owns a music store in Claremont, California. I want to know what was your musical upbringing growing up?

Out in Claremont, my family has — it's an institution at this point — a museum and it's called the Claremont Folk Music Center. It's been there since 1958 and the name is fitting. It's the center of folk music, art and culture and its community, and for miles wide, a special place. If you're listening to KPCC, you probably know, I've probably restrung your guitar growing up. 

I came up fixing instruments and making instruments, repairing instruments with my grandfather at the back of the shop by day, and then by night, I would be setting up the chairs for my grandmother's autoharp, dulcimer, guitar lessons. And that's my family — it's a family of music, singing, writing, words, poetry, social justice and social progress. 

It was a special place and somebody was gonna come out of that store and get a record contract, somebody was gonna stumble their way into Hollywood. I mean my mom writes songs, as a matter of fact, she's working on a record right now. Of course it would be my mom that comes along and trumps everything and is the next Adele. 

Born To Love You

When you were growing up and you're in this music store, it sounds like it could be almost a salon for political conversations. 

It is. 

It sounds like it truly shaped who you are in terms of your music and how you saw the world. 

It truly did. Imagine being a 10-year-old kid and there's a greeting card store a few doors up from the music store, and they had come up with a new way to display cards. They set this post that rotated -- about four or five feet high -- and they were just throwing it out. My grandfather saw it in the garbage and said, "Help me get this out." So I helped him pull the thing out of the trash, and we got all of the tomato sauce off of it, and we put it out in front of the store and we called it the Poet Post. You could come and post your poem and then it became a poet's institution. It was there for not 10 days and [then it was] gone. 

Somebody stole it? 

Somebody stole the Poet Post. So a kid comes in and drops dimes and says, "Hey, I loved that Poet Post and I think that somebody from a rival school" — cause the Claremont colleges are right there — "I think it's over at the fraternity house over in Pomona College." So somebody slipped an off-the-record tip. So my grandfather takes me by the hand, we get in the car and go over there, and as if he had a GPS in 1979, we went straight into this fraternity. He walked into every bedroom until there was this drunk kid cuddled up to this Poet Post. 

My grandfather shakes this kid and he says, "Leave my Poet Post alone!" He takes the post back and that post got stolen at least once a year for three years. My grandfather said, "Enough." He took the stand off of it. We put brackets on it and bolted it to the wall outside. It's still there.  

Words have a lot of value. 

Why did I start that story? I started that story to illustrate that the Claremont Folk Music Center ... you could come in and spend 30 minutes playing a jimbe or spend an hour on your soapbox about social justice and how you were gonna go about earning it. 

Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals new album "Call It What It Is" comes out on April 8. 

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