For Rhian Benson, music has always been an inextricable aspect of her life, but it wasn’t until the precious nature of life was underscored by her mother’s illness that she realized it was to be her calling. Her debut album, Gold Coast (a reference to her Ghanaian heritage), is part contemporary jazz, part soul, but all earnest. Written entirely by Benson and featuring compositions by soul alchemists James Poyser and Bob James, Gold Coast is a soothing expression of honesty, vulnerability, and empowerment. Ms. Benson spoke a minute with Allhiphop.com Alternatives about her journey to music and her thoughts on US-African relations.
AllHipHop.com Alternatives: Give us a little on your background.
Rhian Benson: I was born and raised in Africa, West Ghana, my father is Ghanaian, growing up there was just amazing, I think I took a lot of it for granted as a kid, as you do, ya know every kid kind of takes their environment for granted.
AHHA: How did your background shape you musically?
Rhian Benson: Hugely because my family was so musical, my grand dad started the tradition, he taught himself how to read and write music through correspondence courses back in the forties, and he learned to play several instruments. So he passed that on to his kids and they passed it on to me, and I just kind of feel like I’m carrying on the tradition in a way – even though it wasn’t something that I was encouraged to do by my parents. My parents wanted us to have an awareness of music, but deep down inside they wanted us all to be professionals in normal careers. I was headed down that path for quite a while before I had an epiphany of sorts and decided that I wanted to pursue my dream of becoming an artist.
AHHA: What event sparked the epiphany?
Rhian Benson: At college I went down a different path. I got a degree in economics and ended up working in the investment banking industry for about a year, and that’s as long as it took for me to realize that I was in the wrong place. So going back to school was kind of my taking time out to figure out what plan B would be. I had started my program at Harvard when I had gotten a call from London and my mother was in the hospital, she was very ill. So of course I jump on the next plane to London, and after a series of test they found out she had cancer and they thought she had about nine months to live. Obviously I stayed and I became her caretaker… it was a very difficult time and she was going through various treatments and wasn’t well at all.
All of this made me start to think about how short life is, and what could be worse than coming to the end and never having done what you really want to your whole life, so I decided to start singing. My mother is doing very well now, but it was during that time that I decided to start making music.
AHHA: The album is pretty nice. How did you go from London to working with Bob Power and James Poyser?
Rhian Benson: They actually came on board towards the end of the process, I had already written all the songs for the album. I had actually produced some demos myself that the label actually kind of liked. The feedback was pretty good, but this was the first time I was producing stuff and I felt that the quality just wasn’t there yet, so I begged my label to contact James and Bob on my behalf because I just a big fan of their work. It took a little hunting down to find them ‘cause they’re both very busy, but when they heard the music they were interested.
AHHA: With you being from Africa and having been in the United States for a while, what are your thoughts on the U.S.’s relationship with Africa?
Rhian Benson: Well, I can only speak about the relationship the U.S. has with Ghana. It gets hot and cold a lot, a little bit too frequently. Having said that, Ghana was never occupied by the States, it was a British colony so Ghana’s relationship is with Britain first and foremost. I think there are a lot of opportunities for American companies to come and invest in Ghana and I think they’ve been a little bit slow to do so. It’s not really given a fair ground to play on, when I think about all the natural resources Ghana has, but it’s gotta compete with the big boys and they get screwed every time – gold prices for example. This fair trade is really a nice concept, but it’s still not really applied. The U.S. is very selective ya know, they have to be getting something in return, but I just can’t blame them for that, a lot of the European super powers are guilty of doing the same thing themselves – it’s unfortunate.
AHHA: Do have any planed trips back to Ghana?
Rhian Benson: Oh yeah, ya know my parents still live in Ghana. Last year I went there three times. In fact, I’m hosting a show for BET called “Gold Coast” and the first season aired late last year and we actually went out to Ghana and filmed.
AHHA: Do you have any last words for those who may not know your music?
Rhian Benson: First of all check it out, it’s my first album and I’m very proud of it – it’s definitely a sit back and chill album. It’s an album I think you could put on at the end of a stressful day and you just wanna lie in a bathtub with candles. It’s a soothing and positive and uplifting album.
AHHA: Is there a website people can go to?
Rhian Benson: www.rhianbenson.com.