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The Next Sade Banks On Her Singing Skills

By Stephen M. Fee, Contributing Writer

Financial maven turned overnight singing sensation Rhian Benson is proof that a degree in economics does not always mean following the path of Baker Professor of Economics Martin S. Feldstein ’61.

Benson, 26, was born in Ghana, but studied at the London School of Economics and at Harvard. She says she never thought that her disciplined, academic background would lead to a now-blossoming singing career.

“I had a pretty traditional upbringing,” Benson says on the phone from Los Angeles, where she is currently on tour with Brian McKnight.

Even before her debut album, Gold Coast, hits stores on October 7, The Los Angeles Times has already compared her to Jill Scott, Anita Baker, Sade and Des’ree.

Before signing any kind of recording contract, though, the up-and-coming crooner studied econometrics and mathematical economics at some of the world’s most prestigious universities. She went on to work as a broker and investment banker.

“The trading floor was very aggressive,” says Benson. She eventually decided to abandon her brokerage career.

“I thought to myself, ‘What’s plan B?  What’s plan B?  Back to school!’”

And so it was that in 1999, Benson began studying economics through Harvard’s extension certificate program while taking a few classes at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

But her academic career in Cambridge was cut short when her mother fell ill. She spent a year and a half in London helping her mother recover.

It was then that Benson rediscovered her passion for music. After her mother’s full recovery, Benson went to Los Angeles to cut demos and play clubs, hoping for a recording contract. Finally, she clicked with China Danforth, head honcho of DKG Music, a budding California-based label that was willing to put its money on Benson’s ethereal, hip hop sound.

Influenced by everyone from Dinah Washington to D’Angelo, Benson is marketing a sassy brand of alt-soul, and hopes to make it to Boston on her own tour.

In the meantime, the Harvard name isn’t out of Benson’s life quite yet. Danforth left Harvard Business School in 2001 to start his record label, which is distributed by Warner/Elektra/Atlantic Records, and staffed by Harvard alums Ngozi Mba ’96 and Adam Sexton ’90.

“It’s basically like Harvard music school,” Benson says. “It was clearly meant to be.”

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