The appreciation of Vaughn Benjamin-led Midnite, later Akae Beka, can be attributed to these bands very, distinctive and unique sound, setting it largely apart from contemporary Reggae from Jamaica, harkening – according to many – back to the Golden Era of Classic Roots Reggae of the 1970s, including the general “mystical vibe”. As with all matters of taste and art: opinions differed, as some loved that sound, and others – also within reggae - disliked it. Overall, however, there were many specific Midnite fans among general Reggae fans in several countries in the Caribbean, in the US, and Europe.
I would like to pay tribute to the - in any case - unique artist that Vaughn Benjamin was from the perspective of Amsterdam, Netherlands. I live there, and am part of the Reggae scene in Amsterdam, so that seemed appropriate to me. Moreover, besides speaking for myself as just one person, with my own tastes and opinions, I decided to ask others I know in the Amsterdam - and Netherlands - Reggae scenes their opinions on Vaughn Benjamin and Midnite’s contribution.
AS FOR ME
Admittedly, I may not have been the biggest fan of Midnite in the Netherlands. On an online social forum, a Dutch Reggae fan commented to me, a few years ago: “Midnite: you either love them or hate them”..
I knew what he meant, but would not go that far: I actually found a middle ground: some days I was in the mood for Midnite, other days I was not. Their mystical, intense sound, was a bit “empty” and sober, which lends itself to certain moods. Moods of a reflective, “purifying” nature. I did not always need that, as playfulness, humour, and, well, “riddim” could teach and “purify” me just as much.
Jamaican Reggae, also of the Rastafari-inspired New Roots, was in my opinion overall more playful, richer in instrumentation, and more varied than Midnite’s style, as to a lesser degree others in the St Croix school. This is no disrespect to St Croix Reggae. That is how musical art and culture works. The best Flamenco, with all knowledge and nuances, is still made in Spain, the best Samba in Brazil, the best Soukous in DR Congo, the best Calypso in Trinidad and Tobago, the best Blues in the US. And the best Reggae in Jamaica. “Best” in this case meaning also “authentic” from a cultural viewpoint. A culturally defined quality norm, so to speak.
Other uses from outsiders can still be artistically nice and creative (pure or fused with other genres), of course, as music is free and internationalizes. Even some white, European or US people can play or make Reggae reasonably well: there are nice Reggae songs by Gentleman, Alborosie, or Soldiers of Jah Army. It can even be the case that practitioners from ”outside” approach the authentic level, more often the case when the cultural distance is not so far to begin with.
The latter is certainly the case with St Croix: just like Jamaica, a Caribbean island with a mainly Black, African-descended population, a history of plantation slavery, and with once a Protestant, North European colonizer. And in time a local Rastafari community.
St Croix and the now called US Virgin Islands (besides St Croix, also including St Thomas and St John) were once a Danish colony, bought – yes: bought – for a sum by the US in 1916. The Danish government apparently wanted or needed that money. Nearby Puerto Rico also became part of the US before, but in another way: after a war with Spain. The Virgin Islands further have an historical connection to the British Empire (it was also a period French), and an English-based Creole is spoken there, as in Jamaica. Maybe at one point in history even Africans spoke Danish, but an English Creole developed over time.
In addition, similarities in the history of slavery, colour distinctions, poverty, ghetto life, emigration, etcetera, between St Croix and Jamaica, are certainly there. Even the slave population had once some cultural similarities: enslaved Africans came in both places from different parts of Africa, but both in Jamaica and St Croix, slaves with a Akan/Ghana background were relatively numerous.
Still, St Croix Reggae artists created an own sound and style, representing an unique sound, to differing degrees distinct also from Jamaican contemporaries (still: the “benchmark”).
While other St Croix artists like Pressure Busspipe, or (Ras) Batch, connect in their “feel” well to Jamaican New Roots, Midnite seemed more unique, even incomparable.
Vaughn Benjamin’s distinct singing style shaped in part that uniqueness, plus the somewhat sober, yet steady, bass-focussed instrumentation.
SINGING AND INSTRUMENTS
Vaughn Benjamin had undoubtedly a songwriting talent, and a knack for writing catchy melodies. To be honest, though, personally I did not fall in love immediately with Vaughn’s singing voice, as I did for instance with those of Bushman, Junior Kelly, Richie Spice, Iba Mahr, Dezarie, or - earlier - Ijahman Levi, Mykal Rose, Hugh Mundell, Alton Ellis, or the Mighty Diamonds’ Tabby.
While not outstanding, I found Vaughn’s singing still okay and pleasant enough, but at times somewhat monotonous and “flat”, at least on some songs. His wavering with his voice creates a mystical vibration, aided further by his extensive, “deep reasoning” lyrics, synthesizing Rastafari spirituality broadly with world history, global affairs, and philosophy. This created a very intense, spiritual mood, that many Reggae fans appreciated. I only some of the time, but still could easily understand its appeal. I did on the other hand appreciate the wisdom in Benjamin’s lyrics, though finding them at times hard to get at once: Vaughn Benjamin tended to tell a lot in each song, haha.
As a percussionist, I missed percussion in Midnite’s music, that could – besides my personal focus - also be fuller instrument-wise, in general, with also for example more use of horns or flutes. It sounds a bit too sober and guitar-oriented, I find sometimes. The drumming on Midnite could also be better, in my opinion, making me myself prefer Jamaican Reggae more, having – thank Jah! – mostly high and maintained standards of drumming, alongside room for percussion. On some songs of Midnite I liked the drumming better, and even heard some percussion here and there (though relatively limited and soft in the mix, but still audible). They used relatively often “fresh”, original riddims, that is on the plus side, but these have to be of high quality too.
Sometimes I also felt in the mood for Midnite/Akae Beka’s “mystical”, deep style for a while, appreciating especially its “hypnotic” effect. I noticed this during some concerts of Midnite I visited, where the sober band sound, and Vaughn’s singing, during the best moments, seemed truly spiritual and engaging, taking me somewhere else, as if enchanted. Not the best concerts I ever saw, but great and engaging enough.
As far as I recall, I have seen Midnite and Akae Beka live a total of 4 times: once in Amsterdam, once in Amstelveen, and – earlier in time - during the Garance Reggae festival in Bagnols, the South of France (2011), and during Reggae Sundance near Eindhoven (South Netherlands) in 2014. Especially that last one left a big impression on me, leaving me almost “hypnotized” or mesmerized (in a good way).
In conclusion, I am not the biggest fan in the Netherlands of Midnite/Akae Beka, but neither do I hate or dislike them, and can/could appreciate them partly and on occasion. But that’s personal.
AS FOR OTHERS
On Facebook and other online social fora, I noticed how Dutch and Amsterdam Reggae fans responded to the death of Vaughn Benjamin. Shocked by the news and sorry for the loss, but in many cases also far beyond mere humane courtesy. Some in the Amsterdam and Netherlands were sincerely sad and deeply shocked, since they considered themselves big Midnite fans, and knew many of their (many) albums and songs. They loved Midnite as band and Vaughn Benjamin as artist and personality. He touched their heart and soul. That is a beautiful, positive thing by itself. Others had a love for Midnite and Benjamin that was perhaps less strong, but still present, Midnite being often among their favourite artists in the genre.
Since this is a tribute, I will further focus in this post on such positive opinions I encountered, while I am fully aware that there are probably many among Dutch reggae fans disliking them, or more neutrally “sensing no special connection” to Midnite.
No manipulation of truth will follow now, however: I just report why other people in the Amsterdam reggae scene appreciate Midnite/Akae Beka/Vaugh Benjamin, including specific songs or lyrics they liked most.
I heard several in the Amsterdam Reggae scene praise the deep, insightful lyrics of Midnite/Akae Beka, even according to some (like my selecta/dj friend Bill) able to get people out of depression and away from suicidal thoughts; that much of a life-saving effect. Some named especially certain songs for their lyrics, containing good and educational, even life-changing lyrics, aside from their musical qualities. Loddy Culture (Lorenzo), another more vinyl reggae selecta, said to me, regarding this: ”He (Vaughn Benjamin) left us so much knowledge. If u study his lyrics u understand..”
Specific songs named, with regard to lyrics were: Midnite – No Blanco (“pure lava”, said Loddy Culture, a Reggae selecta in Amsterdam), the track Bless (by Midnite), named as such by musician Rootzlion (quoting the lyric: “Babylon a curse, when they could have blessed”). Ras Tariq, a selecta and organizer in Amsterdam, named specifically Midnite’s song Propaganda, describing it as the “Irieginal message..”.
Loddy Culture further named the songs by Midnite: Bombs Away and Mr Joy, but as much for their musical qualities. Specifically, Bombs Away was musically in the Steppers mode, as not many of Midnite (preferring basic One Drop riddims, mostly), but to good effect according to Loddy Culture. Loddy has a liking for this Steppers style within Reggae.
Another one I know from the scene, also a selecta in Amsterdam, mentioned particularly the song Due Reward, by Midnite (from the 1997 album Unpolished), because of its lyrics regarding each one getting what one deserves, finding this text relevant in relation to the “call for unity”. Musically, he also likes the song because it is engaging and relatively groovy.
Another one I know from the Amsterdam Reggae scene, Dimitris (selecta Smoking Salmon), said he liked Midnite’s song named Drifters.
Carol, also known under her selectress name Sound Cista, mentioned a few songs she likes: Batter Ram Sound, Lianess, Live The Life You Love, and Rasta To The Bone. She also said, however, that she in fact likes all of his (Midnite’s) songs..
Interestingly, different people still name different “favourite” songs, showing different preferences also by what they choose to upload on Facebook. Each person has an own taste, of course.
Midnite and Akae Beka have a quite extensive album list, so there are much songs to choose from. Interestingly, some are named or uploaded more than others, though it still consists of a varied list, of both “faster” and slower”, and “fuller” and “emptier” songs. Songs uploaded relatively often included the already mentioned Drifters, Midnite’s biggest “hit” Live The Life You Love, Kaaba Stone, and Drought. Kaaba Stone I like too, because of its interesting lyrics. Roll Call was also uploaded by some.
Personally, I can add that I also like the song Due Reward, and further Bazra (relatively “fuller”), Babylon Dem Copy, and Great Zimbabwe Walls, combining content and groove.
Besides his “uplifting” lyrics that could help you out of a depression, as my man Bill said, others in the scene attributed more qualities and meanings to Vaughn Benjamin’s role in Reggae music.
Midnite and Akae Beka (since 2015) left many albums between 1997 and 2019. The debut being Unpolished from 1997. Up to more than 60 (!) albums followed since then. These are appreciated by many reggae fans globally, leaving an important legacy that can never be taken away. In that sense, Vaughn Benjamin was an important artist.
These are just numbers, though. Culturally or intellectually he also left a legacy and influence.
Strictly musically, it is difficult to say, because the instrumentation follows the quite basic, dubby One Drop St Croix patterns, that seem only partly innovative, in my opinion: a bit more sober and bass-oriented than the Jamaican contemporary or earlier models, but still nice and groovy. Midnite might have helped shape this St Croix feel of Reggae. Further, Vaughn Benjamin’s distinct singing style might have influenced other singers like Dezarie, or even outside the St Croix scene. Dezarie has a “prettier” voice than Vaughn, but has something of the same mystical vibe.
Benjamin’s Rastafari spirituality is shared with many of his bredren and sistren within Reggae, but he has an own touch regarding his relatively extensive, “scholarly” lyrics, including “connecting” references to world and African history and socioeconomic and philosophical currents, even at a times quite abstract level. Some deem his lyrics even “cryptic” at times. Spirituality as connected to daily reality, but also somehow “above” it.
Some in the Amsterdam reggae scene seemed to appreciate such deep lyrics. I myself too, to a point, although I became in time weary of “too much information at once” (also learned that when I tried to write lyrics myself). An advantage with recorded music is however that you can always listen a song again, to get other parts of the lyrics: it helps to make it more enduring. This was one of Vaughn Benjamin’s undeniable strengths.
Besides many songs with perhaps “too much information at once”, you still hear soon some wise sentences by Vaughn Benjamin like “The paradox is in the ugliness of vanity” (from song Kaaba Stone) or similar wise, insightful phrases in several songs. I noticed that different people in the Amsterdam reggae scene appreciated different lyrics of Vaughn Benjamin, for their own spiritual or personal reasons, which is okay and even good: art remains a personal experience. It further shows how Vaughn appealed to many different people.
Ras Tariq, selecta in Amsterdam, called Vaughn the “Carbon Messenjah”, and the “original black messiah who come to teach humanity on Iniversal principles and inner and overstandings”.
Another selecta I know from the scene (who liked the song Due Reward), said that Vaughn Benjamin "had a unique, almost mystical charisma, that he could also hear and feel in his music". In addition, he describes how Midnite’s live sessions helped him find “inner peace”, something few other bands/artists achieve with him.
Carol, selectress Sound Cista, commented to me that Vaughn Benjamin’s singing/chanting has a “meditative” effect on her. She has seen him 3 times live, and noted that he was really a strong, charismatic personality, standing there on stage.
Carol also mentioned having prepared his dressing room for a concert, and noticing his strict diet, compared to other artist rooms: no candy and chips, but instead fruit, water and organic tea.
Mau Kappar, owner of Reggae-minded Café the Zen in Amsterdam (where Carol and other people mentioned here also play), confirmed this strict Rastafarian stance, having met and worked with Vaughn Benjamin. Café the Zen helped organize Midnite/Akae Beka concerts in Amsterdam and around (e.g. Amstelveen). Mau of Café the Zen – in a radio interview – also indicated how Vaughn continued to work hard for his music, inspiring him in this regard.
Another one, Ronald, I know from the Amsterdam Reggae scene, told me that he had become the last years an avid Midnite/Akae Beka fan, starting to visit as much concerts of them as possible, and considering Vaughn Benjamin’s bands as one of his favourites. Consequently, he really felt the recent loss of Vaughn strongly, as if a family member died.
He enjoyed his songs and albums, and moreover found Vaughn Benjamin’s live concerts magical and enthralling, hypnotizing experiences, of an unique kind. I knew what he meant. He even saw other audience members around him being intensely moved with closed eyes, like happens in what is called Classical Music. Vaught did during such concerts not talk directly with or to the audiences, as other artists do (“can you say: “yeah!”). Rather, Ronald argues, “Vaughn communicated with the audience through the magical bond created by the music”.