In the winter of 2013 Beni Uthman, otherwise known as Benga, experienced his first complete breakdown, brought upon by mental illness. He lost complete control of his body; getting all his jewellery and handing it out to the public as they shopped.
He explained to The Guardian “During that period, I cleared out my entire house, not knowing what I was doing. I lost everything within the space of about four months.”
The Croydon producer is best known for his pioneering dubstep movement alongside childhood friend Oliver Jones (Skream) and for his work as one third of Magnetic Man, alongside Jones and Artwork (Arthur Smith).
His first album, Newstep, dropped in 2006 and was closely followed by Diary of an Afro Warrior in 2008.
In 2014, Uthman explained he was going into retirement for ‘family reasons’, only now we know the truth. Benga took to Twitter to explain that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, due to drug use, and schizophrenia, due to “excessive touring”.
Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that brings on euphoric highs and severe lows, while schizophrenia (effects 1 in 100 people) causes a breakdown in relation to thought, emotions and behaviour.
Speaking about mental illness is something that is relatively uncommon in the electronic music clique. The causes of mental illness are what you would expect from a DJ, extremely easy access to drugs and alcohol.
Combine that with constant touring and the persona that comes along with being a ‘cool’ DJ and you have a recipe for disaster. Benga admits to heavy drug use from the age of 17, explaining that ecstasy was the usual weapon of choice, though he did discover ketamine at 25.
Luke Solomon opened up about United States house producer Spencer Kincy and the impact of mental illness in a Resident Advisor podcast.
He stated that Kincy decided “to opt out of society, to not have a fixed abode, not to be a part of the music industry anymore and he doesn’t want to be a part of this world anymore.” These are the extremes mental illness can lead to if not tackled correctly.
Dutch DJ Joost Van Bellen spoke to DJ Broadcast about his thoughts on anxiety. He explained that “most of them will be waving their hands in the air when they’re back in the booth like nothing is wrong.”
This is exactly where the problem lies. Society’s perception of mental illness is what causes sufferers to react to anxity attacks the way they do. When anxiety strikes, you don’t know what to do. You’re still unsure if what’s happening is real or if it’s all in your head, so why would you bother someone with something that is just your imagination? So you say nothing, behaving as normal when in reality your brain is completely tearing itself apart.
However, constant repression is not healthy and sooner or later a major attack will ensure which you will not be able to hide. Benga further explained to The Guardian about the perception of mental illness in the music industry: “This industry is all about perception: a lot of people wouldn’t want anybody to think they were weak, or that they couldn’t do what they do, or that they’re not cool. Nobody wants to come clean, let alone an artist.”
An arrest was the wakeup call Uthman needed, and he was soon consulted by a doctor which led to him being sectioned. He describes the sectioning as something that was critical to his recovery.
He went on to create a track with Artwork, a track Benga describes as ‘Future Funk’. He describes the sound as being “inextricably linked” to his illness, so much so that it is the name of his next EP.
The EP itself is inspired by a sound that quite literally saved Benga’s life. He spoke about his expectations from an audience perspective. “Maybe it’s crazy music and everyone will go: yeah, he was ill when the made this, or maybe people will be into it, but if I hadn’t had that, I could see myself drowning.”
Benga treated the public to a track from the forthcoming EP, which drops 26th February, called Make Moves and it truly displays the progression of his mind and sound. He has indulged in electro, combining tantalising keys and a hard hitting baseline alongside eerie, mechanised sounds. He explains “I’m back and I think my sound is the most ‘me’ it’s been since Diary of an Afro Warrior, and I’m super excited to play it and reconnect with all the people who supported me, let’s have a good year!”
There is a beautiful sadness in Bengas story. Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are life altering illnesses, yet the afro warrior remains positive about the future. There will no doubt be days when the darkness is too powerful to overcome, but his determination to keep going is something that would be completely disrespectful to undermine.
It is absolutely necessary that we stop overlooking mental illness. It can have just as much effect on a life as a physical injury, and it’s only worsened by the thought that you’re the only one going through it. It’s in your head, not visible to anybody else, and it’s your very own brain that has betrayed you. It’s terrifying.
While Benga admits he’ll be dealing with this for the rest of his life it is truly inspiring to see someone return to what they love doing, despite it being the home of torment and despair for so long.