Golden Revelations: an Interview with Rhian Benson

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By Felicia Pride

“In my favorite book, The Alchemist”, reveals Ghanaian-born Rhian Benson, “there is a quote that basically says that the universe conspires with you when you are on the path to your dreams to help you achieve your goals.” For Rhian, the fable of the shepherd boy Santiago and his serendipitous journey encouraged her determined spirit and shaped the powerful message that pervades her full-length debut, Gold Coast. “It’s simple,” she replies with an air of wisdom, “the answers lie within us all.”

Aptly titled, Gold Coast chronicles Rhian’s journey from a young girl in Ghana, the West African country previously known as the gold coast, to the young woman pursuing her dreams in the former gold rush haven, and city of dream catchers, Los Angeles, California.

So far, Rhian’s quest has been a dance between destiny and ambition. Growing up as the daughter of a Ghanaian dignitary and British singer, she always had a fascination with music, playing the piano and writing songs since she was nine years old. When the time came to choose a career, however, her pragmatic side kicked in; she graduated from the London School of Economics and moved onto Harvard to pursue a career in banking.

When tragedy hit and Rhian had to abruptly leave Harvard to become a full time caregiver for her sick mother in London, she began searching for her own answers. “Seeing someone close to you go through such a terrible thing and realizing that you might lose them makes you reexamine your life,” she admits. “I was going though a process of reevaluating exactly what I wanted to do, what my dreams were and just thinking hard about the pros and cons of pursuing my music. I realized that I should just give it a go.”

Rejecting what Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, pegged as the world’s greatest lie—at a certain point in our lives we lose control of what’s happening to us—Rhian took control of her own fate. It only took a few months of performing at open mic venues around London before she was introduced to executives at her label, the fledgling DKG Music.

She picked up and moved to Los Angeles and has been riding the wave of her EP, released earlier this year, which prompted critics to compare her to everyone from Jill Scott to Enya. Some critics have gone as far as to extol her arrival the second coming of Sade, which is partly conceivable with her alluring appearance, multicultural upbringing, and distinguishing voice.

But even with such flattering comparisons, Rhian maintains a fluid attitude towards her sound. “I came to professional singing quite late in life, so my sound just kind of came. I had never thought about what the style would be. Maybe in two years time I’ll have a completely different sound.”

And this might be the most compelling reason why her debut is so exciting. By pop princess industry standards, she is a latecomer at age 25, but thankfully, she hasn’t been adulterated by the hit-o-matic machine. Her sound isn’t studio concocted, but embodies that raw expression of boundless art, delves beyond superficial desires, and poetically taps into a diverse pool of life observations.

At any moment on the album, the aura switches from jazz, folk, to world beat and R&B, a purposeful yet natural execution by Rhian, whose musical influences include Fela Kuti, Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, and Anita Baker. Even through progressive instrumentation with the divine help of James Poyser (Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu), Bob Power (Meshell N’degeocello, India.Arie), and Roy Hargrove, it’s her graceful songwriting that possesses the emotive spirit of the album. “In my writing it works best for me to be completely open and to use my experience as a frame of reference for whatever I am trying to communicate,” Rhian admits. “The most important thing for me is that the messages are communicated and people feel what I am trying to say.”

As a young girl, during the Harmattan season in Ghana when the sand blows down from the Sahara Desert, Rhian thought the sky was made of gold. Now as a young woman defining her own horizon, she urges others to reach towards the gold sky and grab a nugget or two. “As simple as it sounds,” she adds, “it is about reaching up, visualizing where you want to be, and it becomes easier to figure out how to get there.”

Little Santiago would be proud.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/benson-rhian-031112/