For October’s First Look Friday, we spent time with Spillage Village’s Benji. and the spiritual journey he went on creating his new album Smile, You’re Alive!
“I had a drug addiction to cocaine. I was an alcoholic. I almost had a baby. My life went from order to complete disorder.” This was Benji. Despite the solemn content of his confession, the words roll smoothly unaccompanied by misplaced shame or doubt. This was Benji. And over the next few hours, he talked me through the spiritual journey that led him away from an intense depression to claim a new mantra powerful enough to title a debut album with: Smile, You’re Alive!
Younger brother to Christo, a long-time producer for J.I.D and EARTHGANG, Benji. recently joined the above MCs as the newest member of the Atlanta hip-hop collective Spillage Village. His solo debut album, which was released this week, is in some ways a personal epilogue to the ways he’s grown since the group’s 2020 album. Joined together under pandemic lockdown to process the year’s never-ending catastrophes, Spilligion sounded just like it was recorded — a sanctified bonfire session blazing brightly amid the fires of a plague-stricken country confronting its escalating police brutality. But where Spilligion saw a choir of warriors turn their voices outward on the ills of the world, Smile, You’re Alive! sees Benji. turn his voice inward — to a battle he had to win for himself.
“What is the most important thing right now?” The question, featured on “Rain,” the opening track on Smile, You’re Alive!, is posed and answered by Sadhguru, an honored Indian yogi. “You’re alive right now, isn’t it so?… So many other things have become important only because you’re alive right now.” The speech broke an arcane silence one day in 2018 as Benji. returned home from a walk, despite leaving earlier with plans to the contrary.
“I don’t think anybody knew I was going to walk to a bridge and try to jump.” Benji. said. “When I got into my house and into my room, that [speech] was the very first video I saw… It sounded like he was following me the whole time. The very next day I started working on that album.”
The project is birthed from the artist’s ascent from the clutches of a sinister spirit. The wizardly psychedelic riffs and exultant vocals tell the story of the climb with an invitation to rise with him. The perspective he’s gained is elevated by looking back on the distance he’s gained from the demons, but he’s no less honest or more guarded because of them.
The second verse on the follow up track, “Zola Rose,” explains how an unplanned pregnancy led to months where Benji. thought he was preparing to be a father. While the song pokes a bit of fun at a situation not unfamiliar with a comic setting, he tells me he was deeply rattled by the rapid jolts to his life prospects. “It turned out not to be mine,” he said. “At 24 I was looking forward to being a dad, and then you’re not. Just like that. Damn, you know, you kind of put yourself in [a] mode and you kind of put yourself in a vein to receive that responsibility.”
The shift knocked the expectant father into a downward spiral.
Benji. details his demons on “Shake” with an honesty that becomes an exorcism of its own: “I can’t shake my addictions / I can’t fake my afflictions / I can’t feel no restraints, but I still feel restricted.” Where most of the album takes a triumphant tone, “Shake” seems expelled from a place nearest to the fog.
The chorus has a slight distortion and a monotone delivery that leaves it sounding like Benji., but not the exuberant Benji. found elsewhere on the project. Yet, despite the invisible bindings, he still finds clarity rapping, “Benji. been a piece of shit, but I’m still immaculate.” He champions unquestionable potential even under the weight of the world. He sees something precious about life that precursors our worst moments.
“All you ever need is a chance,” Benji. said. “I’m just thankful that I have the gift of life. I’m grateful that I have an opportunity to face my problems and make them better.”
No matter how low the moment feels, being alive means you always have the power to make the next moment an improvement on the last. Late 2018 also brought the accidental overdose of Mac Miller, a fellow Pittsburgh artist who Benji. was scheduled to open for on the hometown stop of Mac’s Swimming tour with J.I.D. “I feel like what was happening around me in my life was showing me if you don’t get your shit together, you’re next,” he said. “Dude, what are you really doing? You made an album called Smile, You’re Alive! and you’re not doing any of the shit that you’re talking about?” The death that cruelly confronted a generation with their mortality became a catalyst for Benji. to challenge his substance abuse.
In some way, accepting and understanding the grand temporariness of life can even calm anxieties about death. “Now I smile through the fog, cause I won’t be here long,” Benji. raps on “Zola Rose.” The occasional trip — including a life-changing DMT experience — eased his mind.
“[Psychedelics] widen your perspective, you see a lot more, you connect more dots… More so now than ever, I have a growing comfort with the afterlife,” he said. “It’s both about my own mortality, and it’s about like, the present moment doesn’t last long at all.” His perspective isn’t so bold as to assert an understanding, but an acceptance — a reflection of Sadhguru’s guidance.
The realization may come from an entheogen-spurred glimpse beyond the veil, but it’s grounded in science. Studies on psychedelic drugs show a measurable neurological change that leaves subjects feeling a decreased sense of ego and a heightened sense of oneness or belonging within the universe, but the effect also results from meditation, religious ceremonies, and music — especially practiced as a community.
Knowing this, it makes even more sense that Benji. would directly conflate music and performing with spiritual experience. When he sings on “Sanctuary,” his voice is filled with spirit:
“When life takes my control and I can’t find my way / there’s only one way to go for me to find my place / This my sanctuary.”
The “this” he’s referring to is literal. It’s the music. It’s the performance. It’s the community.
On several occasions he brings up how touring with EARTHGANG over the last three years has been an invaluable tool for regaining his mental footing. The sanctuary feels like a place he retreats to for protection from the outside, but as he describes it, the walls come down rather than up.
“[Sanctuary] is wherever you feel the most free to let yourself go and be in the moment with everything surrounding you,” Benji. said. “Some people call that a church, some people call that their room, some people call that their head, some people go to therapy for that. Kind of like meditation. You’re not conscious of what is around you, but you are, but you’re completely just at peace with what it is and you let it be.”
As the son of two pastors, Benji. is gracious of having a family history of directing that energy. “I’ve been in sanctuaries for 27 years, basically, with my parents and playing music — being able to experience people and their freedom.”
He himself has since unsubscribed from any singular practice out of appreciation for the connective tissue of all religions, but he still wants to channel that same kind of energy. “I wanted to be a preacher one time. I had that dream,” he said. “For a long time, as I was just listening to [my parents] do it, I was watching the reactions of people and that’s pretty damn cool. I kind of want to do that.” But as he describes the essence of performing his music for crowds, you get the feeling that he might still be following his parents’ footsteps in his own way.
“I’ve played shows where hundreds and thousands of people are there and we’re all on the same page,” he said. “Here’s a chance to release your own energy from your own lives. You give it to me, I’m gonna give it right back to you… To be in a position to kind of conduct that in a way for other people, that’s amazing.”
Community is a key factor in channeling the kind of spiritual energy that helped Benji. come into the outlook and guidance of Smile, You’re Alive!. In March of 2020, he headed to Atlanta for a weekend recording trip with his brother Christo. When COVID lockdown descended with the ding of a travel restricting push notification, Benji. found his weekend trip extended to the months-long quarantine recording camp that birthed Spilligion. With five fits and a suitcase, the resilient Pittsburgh musician was a little out of his comfort zone for what he calls his first album recording experience. Turning to each other as a community to process the turmoil of the pandemic and the summer’s surge of civil rights protests, gave the album its mystical bonfire aesthetic and, as Benji. says, “transformed his spirituality” when paired with Deepak Chopra abundance meditation.
“I really understood spirituality as an adult,” he told me. “More so than as a musician and as an artist — because humanity comes first. That’s what you are first and foremost: human. I really understood myself and my spirituality, my relationship with higher powers and people and how I look at the world and reality as it stands. That shit, man, opened me up so much to just being more at peace about where we are as humans — what I can do, and how much more I can grow… I could be anywhere in the world and make something beautiful out of nothing.”
Rejuvenated by the enlightening experience, he again focused his energy on Smile, You’re Alive!. It was at this time, while pouring over the masters for the billionth revision, that he rediscovered the Sadhguru speech buried in a hard drive — the mantra that galvanized his new angle on life.
“I got to work, (and) chopped it up,” he remembers. “Then I just sat there listening to it from start to finish and it just felt perfect. It really felt like me. It finally felt like what it needed to feel like… It made me feel like a first-time listener and I almost broke down. Honestly, that clip is the reason for it all.”
The speech reached him in a period of vulnerability, but genuine shifts of the spirit are never lightswitch moments. It took repetition of the mantra — to smile at the inherent value of living — even when, especially when, he least believed in it. He etched the sentiment into stone with song and explored its personal significance across 13 tracks that unravel the meaning for himself as much as for the listener.
Brandon is a young writer from Illinois. His love of storytelling draws him to hip hop and journalism.