Victory in the Monk Competition rerouted Williams’ career. Included in the prize was a contract with Concord Records; for that purpose, he put together the six-piece Sound Effect, then got to work providing something for them to play. “That was really when the beginning of my career as a bandleader started,” he says. “And it definitely got me into writing a lot more, which is something I always wanted to do. Getting that opportunity allowed me to explore.”
The resulting State of Art, released in 2011, was the work of a musician still unsure of himself as a composer and leader. But it did have the beginnings of a concept. A child of the ’80s and ’90s, Williams brought an intuitive grasp of that era’s R&B and nascent hip-hop to his music. That vision would mature and deepen on his second album, 2015’s Coming of Age, becoming a full-fledged jazz fusion that also incorporated rock, funk, and go-go, the cousin of funk that is D.C.’s indigenous genre.
Along the way, Williams kept developing both his musicianship and his reputation. He continued collaborating with Strickland, who also played on Williams’ aforementioned albums; worked with pianist Eric Reed and trumpeter Marcus Printup; and accompanied vocalists Gretchen Parlato, Somi, and José James. When bassist Christian McBride couldn’t make some trio dates with Pat Metheny, he recommended Williams as a substitute; that led to his joining Metheny’s new Unity band in 2012.
“Anyone that has worked extensively in one of my bands would likely tell you that it is a pretty challenging gig,” Metheny says. “Folks have to be ready and able to play at a high level two-and-a-half to three hours every night, for sometimes 100 or 200 nights in a row, in a different city every day. No matter what, Ben was really able to hang with me every step of the way.”
As his experience broadened, so did his perspective. Williams, an African American who’s lived his whole life in cosmopolitan settings, was keenly aware of racial and other social-justice issues; he began orienting his own music—overtly, at least—in that direction on Coming of Age, with tunes like “Voice of Freedom (for Mandela)” and “Black Villain Music.” (The album came out in the wake of racial unrest surrounding the killing by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; its release was coincident with similar unrest in Baltimore.) In subsequent years, as societal problems became both more visible and more acute, it became clear to Williams that his art would have to engage with them full-on.
The project that became I Am a Man began germinating in the late summer of 2017, when Williams headlined the annual jazz concert at the Congressional Black Caucus’ Legislative Conference. “I did this program called ‘Protest Anthology,’ and it was the first project I did that had political and social commentary as the primary focus. So that got the wheels rolling.” Not long afterward, with politics still at the forefront of his thoughts, he saw 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary about race relations and incarceration.
“At the end of the film was an iconic photo from the Memphis sanitation protest, the one Dr. [Martin Luther] King had come to support when he was killed,” he says. “All these sanitation workers were holding up signs that said, ‘I am a man.’ A lot of times you see a protest where people have different signs saying different things, but in this case seeing everyone with the same sign … it was a powerful image. So that phrase just got stuck in my head.”
He began developing the idea, thinking about the nuances of that phrase. On the one hand, it affirmed his humanity and rights as a black man; on the other, it was a reminder that he was a complete human being, not easily reduced to outrage, a movement, or a slogan. The simple four-word sentence, “I am a man,” carried a tremendous load.
“I decided to make a presentation of my humanity and explore the complexities of being a black man in America—what it feels like day to day just to be that,” Williams says. “I just wanted to show that even though we’ve had this very complex experience in this country, we’ve always had to prove that we’re just human beings. But I wanted to do it in a way that was not clearly from a place of anger: We deal with the same things that every human deals with. Life, death, love, spirituality, addiction—all these struggles that are just innately human. But I wanted to explore how being black and being male adds to that complexity.”
Initially he conceived of it as an instrumental project; he would articulate the themes in his titles, then express them abstractly. It soon became apparent, however, that what he had to say was too specific for that. He was going to need to write songs: new territory for him.
The revamped concept would put his songs in the hands of various vocalists. One would be Kendra Foster, a singer/songwriter who’d worked with Parliament-Funkadelic and D’Angelo, winning a Grammy for her co-writing with the latter—which focused heavily on social-justice themes. “It was absolutely in my wheelhouse,” she says of the opportunity Williams offered. “He explained to me what the whole album was about and what he was trying to say, and I loved that it went completely direct, with no ifs, ands or buts: you know what we’re singing about. We also have this shared love of Prince, so we were on that vibe.” Foster became Williams’ co-writer on two songs; they duet on one of them, “Come Home,” which is both highly topical (about a mother’s all-too-frequent fear of her black son never coming home) and highly accessible—a stylistic homage to Prince, a pop song.
I Am a Man would ultimately feature a few other guest vocalists, including R&B singers Wes Felton and Muhsinah. Williams had hoped that José James, with whom he was touring heavily, would be the album’s big vocal star; that’s not how it worked out. “I played José a couple of the demos, and I was singing on them,” he says. “And he said, ‘That’s you singing? That sounds good. You should do that, bro.’ And I was like, ‘Sure, yeah.’ But once he put this idea into my head that I could sing these songs on my own, I started to write more with me singing in mind. I started to actually sing them on the shows, and I was just like, ‘Oh, wow. I guess I’m just gonna sing these songs now.’”
To his longtime associates, it was both surprising and unsurprising. “He called us in for this rehearsal, didn’t even tell us he was gonna sing, and then just got on the mike,” recalls Strickland, who plays on I Am a Man. “I couldn’t believe it at first, but then I was like, ‘Why not?’ Every now and then when I hear him singing along with songs in the car, when we’re on the way to a gig, I’m like, ‘Yo! He has a good voice!’ Him being out front like that, singing, is going to be an incredible adventure for him.”
“He’s evolving, just like he always has,” Yarborough says. “He still has no fear; he’s taking calculated risks, but he’s not afraid to step out. Introducing the singing thing, it’s going to brighten his stage persona. He’s still got a whole lot more to give to us.”