There was a definitive hush in the room on arrival at The Fleece last Friday as the crowd listened to the local spoken word support acts preceding Saul Williams’ set, even the bar staff were whispering.
National poetry slam champion, Solomon O.B’s poem about growing up in foster care was heartfelt and moving, his presence magnetic. The Fleece made the perfectly intimate venue for spoken word with just the right capacity and the low level stage bringing the artists closer to the audience.
After a short break the crowd were ready for the main man himself, wordsmith, rapper, poet, producer – a man who refuses to fit into one category, the legendary Saul Williams.
Williams emerged from New York’s 90s poetry slam scene and is here to promote his sixth album Martyr Loser King, a multi-media project released in January last year. Written and recorded between Senegal, Reunion Island, Paris, Haiti, New Orleans and New York, and produced by Justin Warfield, the album’s sound encompasses influences ranging from hip hop, techno, synth pop and afrobeat.
Strobing visuals above the stage featured phrases such as ‘beliefs are the police of the mind’, ‘black lives matter’ and ‘what are you ignoring?’
Tackling global subjects such as hacking, activism and social justice, the album explores how these play out between the first and third world from the point of view of the eponymous character Martyn Loser King, a miner turned hacker who starts a revolution from his laptop as the album unfolds.
Strobing visuals above the stage featured phrases such as ‘beliefs are the police of the mind’, ‘black lives matter’ and ‘what are you ignoring?’ Williams has huge presence on stage and by his second song Horn of the Clock Bike, with its mesmerising piano loop, the crowd were bouncing about, Williams’ energy infectious.
This was no ordinary poetry reading – he was joined by long-time collaborator, the talented producer and rapper Thavius Beck. Williams prompted the audience to live in the moment asking them, ‘Are you here? Then be here!’
Williams walked off the stage and into the crowd like a preacher going into his congregation during his performance of Burundi
Williams, who has always tried to be voice for the people, walked off the stage and into the crowd like a preacher going into his congregation during his performance of Burundi. Williams has previously said of the song: ‘My hope is that this song and songs like it give the protesters the fuel they need to overcome over-militarised police and power hungry politicians. I want the politicians, police and all who stand in the face of democracy with overzealous self interest to know that their candle is burning at both ends and that the collective WE will never be silenced, and the more they try, the more our voices will be heard.’
Next was The Noise Came From Here with its Rwandan melody overlaid with synthesisers about police brutality in America, particularly the shootings in Ferguson, Missouri. Audience members were delighted and encircled him for some up close and personal meditations on life. Williams had removed his t-shirt and was soaked with sweat, he was giving us his all.
Williams returned to the stage for No Different, as well as Ashes with its poignant lyrics about the ever widening divide between the rich and poor – ‘Dancing on the corpses ashes-history, tries its best, to keep us kneeling in the fields of bankers dung, extinguishing the fires of the young.’
There were also a few hits from his back catalogue, with Williams reinvoking his powerful Niggy Tardust character
There were also a few hits from his back catalogue, with Williams reinvoking his powerful Niggy Tardust character. The set ended with a passionate rendition of Coded Language from his first album, Amethyst Rockstar with producer Rick Rubin back in 2001. Williams delivered some beautiful lines and left us on a high.
Fame hasn’t gone to Williams’ head and he has continued to remain socially relevant over the years. Although this album is a brave call to activism, it offers no clear solutions to the world’s problems or how humans can evolve beyond the inherent narcissism that technology enables – but it gets us talking about it. And with black oppression in America ever present, Trump as president and Brexit looming ahead, it’s nice to know that Williams is on the people’s side.
Words by Charise Clarke