Saul Williams came to Berea College tonight & put on an incredible show as always. Equal parts poetry slam and Q&A, Saul undoubtedly opened the eyes of countless members of the crowd. Regardless of having been a fan some 10 years now, Saul’s words continue to inspire me so much so that on the drive back home, Jeffrey Smith, Sean Canon (Buzzgrinder) and I quickly launched into a surprising and somewhat heated and exhaustive religious discussion based upon the words we’d just experienced. Beyond his ability to craft beautiful poetry, one of Saul’s greatest strengths is inspiring people to think and to want to be a better person.
Seeing Saul perform at a religious institution was particularly interesting considering the effect that religion has had on the son of a Baptist minister. Saul speaks with a view towards religion similar to the view that I personally hold in that it is a way to connect yourself with God rather than being the way one must communicate with Him. In fact, I was afraid Saul might have gone too far by calling religion a crutch, however he explained that it wasn’t intended to mean that religion is for the weak, but rather it is a tool that one uses to bring themselves to God. That religion is something that we own, rather than being something that owns us. I have felt the futility for many years of identifying with only one religion while condemning all others, and Saul exemplified this dilemma perfectly. He recounted a conversation with his father from his youth about a young Jewish girl being the tops and sharing a cookie with him everyday at lunch. He asked his father if she was going to go to hell since she was Jewish even though she lived a life of love. Whether the story is true or not, this simple story goes to show that Saul understands the power of his words. I believe (and hope) that you would be hard pressed to find a member of the audience who would have been able to tell young Saul ‘yes’.
In addition to religion, the night’s stories covered several topics. Just as it had been a few years ago when I last caught Saul, hip hop was another of the focal points of the Q&A. In Lexington, Saul had explained a great deal about his musical influences from battle rapping on the neighborhood court to first hearing the Beastie Boys rap over break beats. This time, the points of conversation addressed the current state of hip hop and its effects on society. Saul responded to a question regarding the effects of the misogynistic and violent lyrics in today’s “hip hop” and he first mentioned that “it wasn’t always like that”. The theme of his response however closely followed the religious issue, asking that hip hop heads own the music rather than letting it own them. Always the masterful wordsmith, Saul suggested that rap artists take note of the power of the word in a day and age where so many are serving a sentence. He noted Tupac’s words that he never had a record until he said he did on his album, that Tupac and Biggie each named their finals albums properly in light of their deaths which would closely follow, that C-Murder was convicted of the same, and that so many musicians fall prey to the lifestyle and the image that they wish to project rather than projecting themselves. In a time when people are so quick to blame others, it was refreshing to hear Saul asking that we all begin to be responsible for ourselves.
With regard to the actual poetry being read, several of my favorites made the grade with 1987 being the only one I really wanted to hear that I didn’t. The session started with Coded Language, which is, in truth, probably his greatest piece. I know the poem far too well & noticed that he left out a tiny fraction of a verse (if I recall it was “or depicting an unchanging rule of events“). Next up was Telegram (“Give my regards to Brooklyn”), then Untimely Meditations. Next was Black Stacey, and I really appreciated his explanation of this poem. Unlike most musicians and performers, poets can really open up on stage, and Saul did exactly that, explaining that this poem came out of an insecurity about just exactly how black his skin is, having once been told as a kid that he was “kinda cute…to be so black” and said that he’d go home on those nights and just look at his Michael Jackson poster and say “You do it for the rest of us Michael…you keep getting whiter”.
After reading Black Stacey and addressing a few more crowd questions, he said he was trying to think of what he should read next, at which point I took the opportunity to request one of my all-time favorites, Gypsy Girl. Although he couldn’t recall all of it, he agreed to literally read it for us. I have been a fan of words for a very very long time, and the word play within Gypsy Girl has always intrigued me. Tonight however, we were fortunate enough to get the liner notes to the poem. Saul explained that he’d written this poem after a relative of his had gone out with some guys and had a little too much to drink and woke up only to realize she was being sexually abused. The story has never been difficult to understand, but to know that it is an experience taken from his life makes the poem a bit heavier.
All around, as anticipated, the performance was mind blowing. Everyone in the crowd surely felt as though they were a student in his classroom. As a trained actor and son of a Baptist preacher, Saul commands the stage and your attention, and I strongly encourage all of you to read him, listen to him and take the next opportunity to see him. These opportunities are rare (a few girls came from Cleveland for the performance, because it was the closest stop), so make the most of them.
For more photos & a video,
Setlist (I may be forgetting a few towards the end):
- Coded Language
List of Demands (Interlude)
…Said the Shotgun to the Head