Stylish and laid back, Ben Harper has an aura that sits perfectly with the chilled West coast vibe surrounding his Californian home. The 46-year-old son of an African-American father and Jewish mother, has enjoyed an accomplished and varied music career, winning three Grammy Awards. Unlike some performing artists, he has also shown he’s not afraid to put his head above the parapet and speak out about social issues, particularly those concerning African-Americans and their treatment by the police in the States.

After splitting with his band, the Innocent Criminals, in 2008, Harper was able to fulfil more personal projects; these included making blues album Get Up! with Charlie Musselwhite (which won the third of those Grammys) and folk record Childhood Home with his mother. There have been many highlights in his career — from his first tour alongside Taj Mahal aged just 20 to performing with John Lee Hooker, Pearl Jam and Natalie Maines — but singing alongside his mother was right up there on his bucket list.

“It was as emotional an experience as I’ve ever had while making music. And I learned a lot. Right when I first got a record deal and started gaining some traction in the business around the world, I knew I wanted to make that mark with my mom. She had the goods so it wasn’t anything gratuitous. I mean, she writes songs, is a fantastic guitar player and she sings amazing. So it was something that was on a professional level as exciting for me as it was on a family level. It just covered all the bases.”

Performing with the Innocent Criminals in 2015 after the band reunited following a break to pursue other projects

Performing with the Innocent Criminals in 2015 after the band reunited following a break to pursue other projects

As a versatile musician, Harper had several inspirations while growing up. He recalls hearing Jimi Hendrix at an early age, and attributes his love of rock music to the 1970s sounds of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers. Growing up with the sound of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Desmond Dekker and many more also brought out his love for reggae. It was also Harper’s very musical upbringing — being brought up in a folk music store in Claremont, now a well respected business known worldwide, with his grandparents — that fostered his growing curiosity and appetite for a wide variety of music.

“I was probably the only person that grew up being able, at any moment, to play a sitar, a 100-year-old viola, a hurdy-gurdy… or an African kora or a Dobro or a Weissenborn.” With an array of instruments at his disposal and a strong family influence, it is perhaps unsurprising that Harper now has music ingrained in his roots and practically eats, sleeps and breathes it. “Like people who love maths think in numbers, I think in melodies,” he says, and for this he is eternally grateful to his family.

“There’s certain songs where my upbringing is very evident, but I think you can hear it in all of my music. Even the rock stuff, I think you can hear my family’s influence. And even when it’s rock music that might be more pop-driven, like “Pink Balloon”, you can hear that the story telling of a little girl and her balloon is really just a folk tale. It’s all folk music for me. It’s just different productions. And that’s how informative that folk music store was to my upbringing. It gave me real roots and a tradition. I’ve expanded upon that tradition and I’ve experimented within my tradition, but at heart I’m still a traditionalist musically. It does start with the lyrics for the most part.”

With wife Jaclyn at the 2015 Global Citizen Awards in New York City

With wife Jaclyn at the 2015 Global Citizen Awards in New York City

Now back together after nearly 10 years, Harper and the Innocent Criminals have started a fresh chapter with their new album Call It What It Is, which shifts between a variation of blues, rock, punk, soul and folk. “I think it is a challenge because we were together so long. But it (splitting up) was the best thing to do, just for the discovery, creatively, of who we were outside of the band.”

Harper traces his love of rock’n’roll back to the master himself. “The first time I heard Jimi Hendrix on record when I was just a kid, I said ‘oh, I gotta get a little piece of that’. That brought it out. And then growing up with 1970s rock — Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and how they morphed blues into rock — it was all a part of what I was hearing as a kid that led me down a road where I felt like I’ve got to turn this up just a little bit louder.”

The first time I heard Jimi Hendrix I said 'I gotta get a piece of that'

Asides from musical talent, the Innocent Criminals is a band built on friendship that has lasted over the years. Harper calls them more of a “brotherhood” than a band, with all of them having a strong appreciation for each other’s creativity and talent. Hopefully the band’s reunion will lead to many more albums like this — musically innovative but also politically demonstrative.

Harper’s music is known for having tones of social protest, which is particularly relevant in the light of the issue of police brutality towards young African-Americans that has wracked the US this summer. It’s an issue that no less a leader than President Barack Obama has struggled to solve and the musician has his own thoughts on the way forward. “I think we need to work towards integrating racial awareness into policy, whether it’s in the education system or whether it’s in the police force. I just think racial awareness, racial sensitivity, racial sensibility and multiculturalism need to be more deeply ingrained in every aspect of American life.”

Performing with Juan Nelson in Louisville, Kentucky in 2015

Performing with Juan Nelson in Louisville, Kentucky in 2015

But he is unashamedly someone who sees the glass as half-full if at all possible. “I’m an idealist, maybe to a fault. Maybe that’s what it takes. But I’m an idealist and I’m optimistic and I’m very hopeful.”

Harper is also politically and socially active outside of his music career. Aside from joining many charitable organisations, Harper has made a huge impact working for the Tony Hawk Foundation, set up by the renowned skateboarder to help build skateparks in low-income areas in order to increase recreational activity and strengthen communities. A keen boarder himself, Harper spearheaded the Boards and Bands scheme, a music and skateboarder collaboration where artists write a boarder’s favourite lyrics on a board to be auctioned. Harper was teamed up with Rodney Mullen and Bob Burnquist for his board; other artists involved have included Paul McCartney, Ozzy Osbourne and Bob Dylan. Since its inception in 2002, the charity has awarded $5.5 million to 569 skatepark projects across all 50 states.

With skateboarder Tony Hawk, whose foundation builds skateparks in deprived areas

With skateboarder Tony Hawk, whose foundation builds skateparks in deprived areas

In the immediate future, Harper sees himself retiring to run the music store he grew up in. He jokes about the fact that he is almost going back on himself, as this would have been the job of his twenties had his knowing grandfather not pushed him into pursuing his career as a musician. These days, the store has become a flourishing business that offers music classes, has its own museum and holds an annual Folk Music Festival. For Harper, this business would be a simple way to mark the next milestone and a perfect way to continue his musical pursuits.

“I’m 46, but I can still skateboard better than some kids who are 16. I try to stay in shape, mentally, physically and spiritually — however you can stay in shape. But it is odd to be at an age that is looking at life’s transitions. When you’re young, you don’t see the transitions. They happen to you. The older we get, now I can see that I can get ahead of the transitions and kind of brace myself. And I’m bracing myself for that transition to being a shop owner! It’s probably the thing that I could have done when I was in my twenties, so it’s the ultimate circle really, coming back to the store. And I think it’s more graceful than being 70 years old on stage.”

I’m 46, but I can still skateboard better than some kids who are 16

“I’m 46, but I can still skateboard better than some kids who are 16. I try to stay in shape, mentally, physically and spiritually — however you can stay in shape. But it is odd to be at an age that is looking at life’s transitions. When you’re young, you don’t see the transitions. They happen to you. The older we get, now I can see that I can get ahead of the transitions and kind of brace myself. And I’m bracing myself for that transition to being a shop owner! It’s probably the thing that I could have done when I was in my twenties, so it’s the ultimate circle really, coming back to the store. And I think it’s more graceful than being 70 years old on stage.”

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