The Very Hypnotic Soul Band Group forms after Emanuel AME tragedy to inspire change

Benjamin Starr and the Very Hipnotic Soul Band first got together as part of the Charleston Music Hall's Hi Harmony concert, which was held after the Emanuel AME shooting last year to encourage musicians of different backgrounds to collaborate. The group enjoyed playing together so much, they decided to write original music as a band and are now working on a new album to release later this summer. (Chris Hanclosky/Staff)

When the five members of the Very Hypnotic Soul Band first got together last year, it was only supposed to be for one performance.

After the shooting at Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015, Mckenzie Eddy, a local singer, and her keys player boyfriend, Elliott Smith, got a call from Lindsay Holler, another singer in Charleston’s music community.

She wanted their help putting together groups of musicians with different racial and musical backgrounds to collaborate for a free concert, called Hi Harmony, at the Charleston Music Hall.

They didn’t need to ask why.

“Music is the most powerful thing in the world to me,” Eddy said. “That’s what the community of Charleston needed after something so horrific. They needed to see unity.”

The concert became one of many efforts aimed at unifying the community in the tragedy’s aftermath. Thousands of people walked the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge to make a human chain across the Cooper River, for instance. Banners and murals with the phrase “Charleston Strong” went up on prominent buildings around the city.

It’s hard to say whether those demonstrations had lasting effects on Charleston’s overall culture. There’s no final tally of how many connections were made, or how many hearts and minds were opened to new perspectives.

But the members of the Very Hypnotic Soul Band haven’t abandoned what brought them together a year ago. They still want to show audiences that racial diversity and collaboration is a beautiful thing. They still want to use their music as a platform to speak out against racism and call for social justice.

With a debut album now in the works, they hope their message will reach a wider audience in Charleston and other cities with ingrained racial division.

“I hope that we can start having more conversations about our society here and the ways in which it needs to change,” Eddy said. “Not talking about it isn’t going to fix it.”

The Hi Harmony concert was basically a showcase of all the different genres or “scenes” in town, and Smith and Eddy were put in charge of the soul/R&B set. At the show, they led a huge group of backup singers, rappers, a horns section and even spoken-word poet Marcus Amaker.

It was a racially mixed group, with some performers who had mostly been in the gospel or wedding band scenes.

Some members, including drummer Quentin Ravenel and guitarist Jimmie Choate, had performed with Smith and Eddy. But it was Benjamin Starr, whose real name is Fitzgerald Wiggins, who became the key ingredient to the future Very Hypnotic Soul Band.

For the Hi Harmony concert, Eddy said they decided to ask Wiggins to write a hip-hop-infused version of “Carolina In My Mind” by James Taylor, which was sung by Eddy and the background vocalists.

“We were like, whatever this means right now, write about that,” Eddy said.

Wiggins said he wrote the song to make sure that the performance “was as powerful as it could be, so that really ... people in that concert would leave with just a small bit of ... light. So, when they go back, they’ll say ‘Man, I’m looking up on that stage and it’s not just a prop or just a show, it’s really a community thing.’”

In the song, he rapped:

“I’m all in, I need to know whether you’re down,

If you are, let me know, we got work to do,

I’ll struggle, I’ll fight, and I’ll hurt for you because,

... I see you on surface levels, and I also see just what’s real.”

“We were all like, ‘That was incredible,’ ” Mckenzie said.

The core members of that performance — Eddy, Wiggins, Smith, Ravenel and Choate — reconvened at the Charleston Music Hall months later to perform at a predebate rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

“We all went backstage and we were like, ‘We have to just make a record with this group,’ ” Eddy said.

They decided to go by the name The Very Hypnotic Soul Band, and have been writing original material for an album to be released July 29 at a record release show at the Charleston Pour House. They also recently performed at the Piccolo Spoleto finale concert in Hampton Park.

Smith and Choate mostly grew up in Orlando, while the rest of the group spent their childhoods in various parts of the Lowcountry.

Wiggins has been living in Greenville for several years and records solo as Benjamin Starr. Eddy has been playing with Ravenel (the drummer) for about 10 years, even when she was performing and working in the hip-hop industry in New York.

While all the members had different backgrounds, culturally and otherwise, they all seemed to connect in one area: music. Wiggins was more of a rapper than anybody, but he said the band’s soulful vibe worked well for his style.

“My style is groove, soulful, bassline heavy,” he said.

“I think we’re open-minded to progressing our individual sounds, and that’s where we connect too, because all of us want that,” Eddy said.

Most importantly, they all have a common interest in making the vision of a more unified Charleston “more than just an idea,” Smith said.

“We’ve got to be spending time with each other on a daily basis, sharing our experiences with each other on a daily basis,” he added. “We’re just trying to tell honest stories, and spend time with each other doing it.”

Eddy said the shooting at Emanuel AME shook her into realizing that she needed to use her music as a way to get through to people.

“Even though I never in my own mind would have thought that I was ignoring things, I was. And it made me realize that I really needed to ... set aside time for the gift that I’ve been given to be used for change,” she said.

Wiggins said writing lyrics about racism and his experience growing up black in rural South Carolina always has been therapeutic. Now that he’s fronting a racially and stylistically diverse group, he hopes he can reach a broad audience, and like Smith said, just to speak the truth.

“We have to be real now. It’s a time to be real because we don’t need any more lives to be needlessly taken,” he said. “A lot of the hubris has to go away. We have to strip things down to, ‘This hurts me, or affects me, or puts me in a position that makes things harder for me and this is why.’ We really have to sit down and listen to people.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906.

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