In 1998 I went to see the movie Slam and still remember a scene in the prison yard where Saul’s character is in a tense situation, but he gets out of it at the last second by breaking into an inspired rap. I was thinking about that at his show the other night at Slims, as I couldn’t understand the words to 90 percent of his songs. Maybe it was because they’re songs and not poems, or there is a tendency for some musicians to treat the vocalist as just another instrument in the mix, so the drums are getting equal volume but you can’t hear the words.
Not that the drummer didn’t deserve attention; his drumming was downright erudite. He was very good, and so was the guy on light percussion with trombone interludes, and CX Kidtronik in the background with the electronic sound-effects. There were times you could have gotten a concussion from the percussion, coming at you from three directions, or even four when Saul was banging on a square flat box with a stick. All fine and good when it comes to sonic intensities in a nightclub, but rather odd for a poet to be onstage and most of the words be a blur.
He’s also an actor, so maybe he is acting the part of a poet, going through the motions and who cares if you can’t understand the words. There were long stretches where it was just some guy yelling with a drumbeat, and I had no idea what he’s saying. Angry? Political? Quien sabe? A few phrases would slip through, like “it’s a new day”, which are underwhelming unless you’re screaming with all kinds of sound-effects.
I’ll admit I’m a little biased on this subject – with some of the best rock and roll songs you can understand every word. But there’s a lot of music where someone is screaming his brains out and you don’t know what he was saying, like he’s trying to communicate but his own band is getting in the way. You could be 20 feet away from a singer in a small club and not get a word of what he’s yelling. On the other hand, I remember seeing David Bowie at the Oakland Coliseum in the 1980’s and you could hear every word. (Not that his lyrics make much sense sometimes – I like “TVC 15” but I’m not sure what it refers to, and “Jean Genie” is supposedly about Iggy, but I didn’t get that from listening to the words.)
For that matter, I went to see Saul Williams in a bookstore some years ago. It was a low-key appearance and I could understand every word, but it didn’t do much for me. I think it was his second book, and it’s on the quiet side. Now he’s 40, lives in Paris, has a 16-year old daughter, and has a lot of energy onstage. His latest release is “VOLCANIC SUNLIGHT”. I respect him for having such good musicians and for being a nice guy. Not only did he launch into some spoken word routines when two of his musicians left the stage at the end of the show, he let someone in the audience read something that he (not Saul) wrote. He also offered the mic to a woman whose writing he complimented, but she didn’t have anything prepared.
When Saul was reciting one of his poems, the crowd in front started to join in – they knew his work. He said “… it’s the poetry crowd!” The place was maybe 2/3 full, and there were very few blacks in the audience. I’m not sure why that is.
I’ll end with some words from “List of Demands (Reparations)”:
I WANT MY MONEY BACK. I’M DOWN HERE DROWNING IN YOUR FAT. YOU GOT ME ON MY KNEES PRAYING FOR EVERYTHING YOU LACK. I AIN’T AFRAID OF YOU. I’M JUST A VICTIM OF YOUR FEARS. YOU COWER IN YOUR TOWER PRAYING THAT I’LL DISAPPEAR, I GOT ANOTHER PLAN, ONE THAT REQUIRES ME TO STAND. ON THE STAGE OR IN THE STREET, DON’T NEED NO MICROPHONE OR BEAT. AND WHEN YOU HEAR THIS SONG, IF YOU AIN’T DEAD THEN SING ALONG. BANG AND STRUM TO THESE HERE DRUMS TIL YOU GET WHERE YOU BELONG.
I GOT A LIST OF DEMANDS WRITTEN ON THE PALM OF MY HANDS. I BALL MY FIST AND YOU’RE GONNA KNOW WHERE I STAND. WE’RE LIVING HAND TO MOUTH! YOU WANNA BE SOMEBODY? SEE SOMEBODY? TRY AND FREE SOMEBODY? I GOTTA LIST OF DEMANDS WRITTEN ON THE PALM OF MY HANDS. I BALL MY FIST AND YOU’RE GONNA KNOW WHERE I STAND. WE’RE LIVING HAND TO MOUTH! HAND TO MOUTH!