Saul Williams hearkens me back to a class I took in college; I’ll just call it “How To Say Politically Correct Things All The Time Without Changing Anything About Your Ugly, Intolerant Thoughts 101.” It was a required course, or I’d never have gotten within spitting distance of it, but in that class — a class offered by a major, private university, offering education to adults — the professor and the TA’s would never say “nigger,” they would always demure with “The N-Word” instead, as if the actual word were just too filthy to be allowed to stain their pristine tongues.
I can’t tell you how much it rubbed me raw, back then, to be paying the big money for a university education only to be met with the kind of infantilizing squeamishness that simultaneously acknowledged, denied and euphemized an ongoing history of social injustice, first by refusing a word its life, and then by giving it the enormous power of unsayableness. It seemed to me that the thoughtlessly PC occlusion of the word did more to perpetuate its evil than any amount of saying it — it was a relationship to the word fraught with denial and fear.
Saul Williams, thank God, is not squeamish about words, though wisely, knowing their power well, he’s got a healthy respect for them. The son of a preacher and a school teacher, with three published books of poetry and an acclaimed screenplay to his name, Williams knows that words can be powerful and even dangerous, but he also knows they can bring worlds into being — that they can be weapons in the hands of a warrior.
In 2001, responding to a discussion of his first CD Amethyst Rock Star, on I Love Music he wrote: “I am not aiming to be any more than myself: a being influenced greatly by hip hop who has learned the power of words and music and believes in the power of art to redefine a culture, globally… We need life-changing music.”
Speaking for myself, I’ve always preferred the courage of an artist with big intentions, and Saul Williams does credit to his. His records are nothing if not sharp-minded and acrobatically literate, and his words are afforded their full power by his fervent and fully conscious delivery. In fact, Williams represents the absolute antithesis of that college course that rubbed me raw: everything about him exhorts you to think, and I applaud his absolute willingness to be dead freaking serious.
Saul Williams at the Brixton Academy, London
Photo © Jaime Nichols, 2005
Even so, it’s a brave move for Williams to accept the opening slot in front of Nine Inch Nails’ obsessively devoted faithful.
It would seem that very little could be more disparate from Trent Reznor’s thunderously introspective passion play than a politically charged hip hop act, but aesthetically speaking, I’d say there’s more common ground between the two than not. Both Reznor and Williams are true artists who take their work very seriously, believe in its power, and are wholeheartedly dedicated performers, so even as thematic content and style diverge, there is a similarity in tone and intensity. More than that, though, there is a not at all disparate kind of intention: both Nine Inch Nails and Saul Williams look to challenge their audiences, taking their more thoughtful listeners down roads they might not have traveled alone.
Hand-picked for the slot, Williams did have Reznor’s full and enthusiastic endorsement, which counts for plenty with his crowd. Posted all over the venue were fliers quoting Reznor’s proclamation that “Saul Williams is a breath of fresh air in a genre that is dying from just replicating itself, being a copy of a copy of a copy,” and he’s right – both about hip hop and the fact that Williams is truly unique voice. He doesn’t sound like anyone else, and when Williams says “this ain’t no hip hop no more, son, it’s bigger than that” it’s truly thrilling that his political statements are backed by such an authentically individual aesthetic one.
Listening to Williams, with his super-charged words, and almost industrial back-up, one truly feels how sadly homogenized and empty so much hip hop has become. Whether he’s taking on the state of black America with “African Student Movement”, the way power feeds on poverty and powerlessness with “Act III Scene 2 (Shakespeare)”, or the way hip hop has sold it’s promise and soul down the river for a boatload of bitches and bling in “Telegram”, Williams’ style defamiliarizes the entire notion of what we’ve come to expect from hip hop, while his words cut through the crap, exhorting his listeners to attend to what’s real and true, and do something about it.
Williams won the crowd over with a mixture of spoken word and his own brand rock ‘n’ rap, stalking back and forth with rabble-rousing energy, and his best numbers, things like “Grippo”, “Coded Language” and “List of Demands” were positively thrilling. It’s a rare pleasure to see a concert where the opening act stands shoulder to shoulder with the headliner, without a single minute of marked time waiting for the show to begin already, but that’s what we were treated to in London: double barreled “Hell yeah!” material.
Trent Reznor emotes, Brixton Academy, London
Photo © Jaime Nichols, 2005
As for Nine Inch Nails, I’ve been lucky: I’ve seen a few shows on this tour, separated by a month or two each time, and Reznor’s rock show just keeps on getting better, deeper, juicier and sexier. Nine Inch Nails felt distressingly lukewarm to this reviewer at Coachella, but Reznor restored my faith this May in San Diego with a performance that felt like pure, joyful, resurgence.
In London, after a European summer festival tour, Reznor was cranked up to 11, and nearly burned down the Brixton Academy.
In years past, Reznor has been the originating vortex of the only truly frightening rock performance I’ve ever seen, and while he’s not that raving lunatic anymore, there’s a new power in his performance that’s rooted in his very conscious commitment to it. Looking simultaneously controlled, and as if he was finally starting to revive some of the dangerous abandon of the Nine Inch Nails of yore, Reznor ripped through an athletic set, living with absolute conviction in every word and note. Fantastic.
All in all, a concert experience worth ever penny.
All photos © Jaime Nichols, 2005.
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