Saul Williams is a poet. He is an actor, an activist, a musician, a singer and an undeniably commanding and engaging performer. Last night, Saul Williams stopped by the Double Door in Chicago to support his self-titled sophomore album and turned the venue into one of the coolest classrooms on the planet. It was more than just a rock show, or a hip-hop show for that matter. It felt like the first meeting of the new revolution. The crowd was there to learn. They didn't just want to hear their favorite songs, they were there to hear Saul's ideas and opinions on issues that are important to them and central to their lives - politics, racism, religion, injustice. When Saul talks, people listen. Last night was no exception.
The rugged bar on Chicago's West side, situated right under the EL, was amazingly crowded for a Monday night. When I walked in, Saul was already on stage and performing a spoken word piece. Not a single person in the audience was talking, looking at their watch, asking for a beer, or scoping out the venue for cute girls or boys. All eyes were on Saul and every pair of ears were transfixed upon his words. The audience was without question, the most diverse I've seen at a Chicago club gig this year - probably ever. People of all races, socioeconomic backgrounds and musical tastes turned out and were all equally enthralled and engaged in the performance. In this spoken word piece, Saul spat words like a machine gun sprays bullets. They were powerful and quick. They leaped from his tongue without a second thought, a 10 minute barrage of insight and opinion wrapped in the persona of a def poetry jam or an impassioned monologue by one of America's truly original, intelligent and empowering voices. In that piece, called "Coded Language" from his debut album Amethyst Rock Star, Saul spoke to African-Americans, saying that the color of their skin should NOT and WILL not be associated with ignorance. His "Blackness" is not defined by bling or cars or money, but by the rich heritage of his people, their innumerable contributions to our society, knowledge, struggle, determination and hope. He shouted seemingly hundreds of names - Mandela, King, Kennedy, Hendrix, Morisson - black, white, red, yellow, that these young people should be aware of. He spoke to unity among all people, not militant separatism. He spoke about having the ability to change the world. Saul Williams was rallying his troops to battle, to activism, to self discovery and to a new fight we as young people need to step up and win. When he finished, the crowed erupted in applause as the rest of the band came to the stage.
The powerful language used in Saul's poetry and ideals of unity make their way effortlessly to his music. "Black Stacy", "Act III Scene 2 (Shakespeare)" and "Control Freak" combine the message with a genre-defying blend of hip-hop beats, electronica grooves, rock guitar and punk rock, in your face political activism. "List Of Demands (Reparations)" is the smash up hit and Saul closed the show with it to resounding applause, in fact, applause that continued for about five minutes until he came back on stage for another two songs.
Seeing Saul Williams live is as much about the music as it is the man, if not more so. People were there to see Saul and more importantly, to hear him. Between songs, Saul talked about the recent election and the shock he felt following its outcome. I, like most of the people in that room, felt the same way. I was convinced that Bush didn't stand a chance. I read and read and argued and wrote and researched during the year or so leading up to the election and I saw the hundreds of activist groups that were started and the protests and the plain and simple facts of the situation. Saying I was shocked watching Kerry's concession speech would be putting it lightly. The night of November 2, I literally had nightmares about Bush's reelection, so it's safe to say that when Saul, a leading voice in the movement for change, wanted to share his ideas about this topic, I was all ears.
Saul brought up an interesting analogy to help make sense of the shock we all (well half of us anyway) felt on November 3. He compared it to a relationship. Most of us, at least once in our life, have been involved in a relationship where one of the two people involved felt they were dating "out of their league". Rather than realizing that the couple are on equal standing, one party acts needy and jealous and insecure about the relationship until the other just can't take it anymore and ends it all together. This is typically when the needy person, the dumpee if you will, realizes their mistakes and learns from that situation. It makes them a better person and better equipped to handle a mature relationship the next time around.
That is what, Saul said, the election was like. We were the dumpee. We saw all of these people just like us and we truly believed that it would be that easy. We did our thing and the nation would rally behind us and change. When we saw that 51% of America didn't think things were so bad, it was that shock, that wake up call that we needed so desperately. Sure, we had a great start. We made some strides. We influenced some young people and made a difference, but it's not that easy. There is more to do. We need to keep up the good fight and look at the election of 2004 as a learning experience, one that will make us all stronger in the long run.
Saul, in his mastery of language portrayed these ideas in a much more eloquent and powerful way, but the underlying theme there, the one we really needed to hear, was that of hope. All is not lost.
Saul Williams is speaking to black America, white America, rich America and poor America. He provides a message of hope, not just in the political arena, but to young men and women in urban areas who feel like guns and violence or sports are the only way out, those who are trapped by their environments or disillusioned by racism within their own families. Saul Williams is our voice, our champion and our teacher. Through movies, music, poetry or protest, Saul Williams will get his message out and the faster that happens, the better off we all will be.
Photo by Evan Cohen