Strike Up the Chorus
“Who wants to read a poem?” Saul Williams asked the audience.
The crowd gathered at the Brighton Music Hall in Allston, Mass., was small, just a couple hundred people, but it appeared to be made up of devout fans. Many people clutched dog-eared copies of Williams’ books of poetry to their chests.
The audience froze for the smallest fraction of a second; was that a rhetorical question? Suddenly, a man sprung three feet into the air from the front row, like the first popcorn kernel to break free from its casing, and landed in a squat on the stage. Quickly, as if Williams might withdraw the offer, more poets joined him; six at first, then more as a dozen or so young people popped onto the stage.
Saul Stacey Williams was born in 1972 when his mother was rushed to the hospital from a James Brown concert in upstate New York, as he tells it in his song “Elohim 1972.” The singer, musician, poet, and actor is known for esoteric rhymes, sharp social criticism, and deeply resonant voice. This was his second performance at Brighton Music Hall this year. This past winter, he came accompanied by a band to promote his album, Volcanic Sunlight. This time around, he came without instruments or entourage.
As the young poets lined up nervously along the back of the small stage, Williams explained to the audience that his latest project, a poetry anthology entitled Chorus, aimed to amplify the voices of rising poets. “This is the first book I’ve ever put out that I didn’t write,” he told the audience. He explained that the title refers to the Greek chorus, which answered and criticized the artist rather than the modern musical chorus, which supports and reiterates the performer. He put out a call for submissions on several social media websites. Williams received over 8000 entries, which he whittled down to 100 poems from 100 poets from all over the world. He wallpapered his home in Paris with those poems and spent six months rearranging them so that they flowed together, in what he calls, “a literary mix tape.”
Backstage, after the show, Williams discussed his motivations for the book. “I encounter so much amazing talent and so many well intentioned voices who don’t have the avenue of expression or the doors open to them that have been open for me.” He added that Chorus represented a chance to hold the door open behind him, however briefly. He felt that inviting members of the audience to recite their poetry during his shows was the next logical step. The crowd at Brighton Music Hall literally jumped on his offer.
As each poet recited a poem either from memory, a slip of wadded up paper, or a smart phone notepad, Williams listened thoughtfully, sitting on the floor the stage, his long arms draped around equally lanky legs. Most of the poets never mentioned their names, simply content to add their voices to the chorus. One young man, who did not have any of his own poetry ready, read from one of Williams’ books, just so he could share the stage with his idol.
Williams does not wear words like idol comfortably.
His first taste of fame came in 1998, after the release of the independent film Slam, produced by Trimark Pictures. He co-starred with Sonja Sohn, Bonz Malone and Lawrence Wilson. He played an incarcerated rapper that latched onto poetry as a means to reflect on the culture of violence in the housing project where he grew up in Washington DC. The film won a Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Williams soon developed a cult following among slam poets and a relatively obscure segment of the hip-hop community looking to counter the “gangsta rap” scene that had dominated the ‘80s and ‘90s.
After spending five years regularly participating in poetry slams, he said that, after the release of Slam, his presence became disruptive. “Suddenly people would change the poem they were going to read because they wanted to read something that I had inspired.” What’s more, he began to hear his own influence in the work of others, which he found surreal and bizarre.
He withdrew from the slam scene and focused on his music. Since, he has tried to find other ways to engage young poets and break that invisible fourth wall separating the artist from his audience. During spoken word shows, he frequently calls for houselights and opens the floor up for discussion in an effort to “break the mold of celebrity.” However, he feels that his fans continue to push him back onto a pedestal, expecting him to have the answers to the social ailments, such as racism, misogyny, and religious strife that he explores in his poetry and lyrics.
When a woman in the audience at the Brighton Music Hall asked him if the nation was ready for a post-race society, he blurted out. “No. I think America is obsessed with race.” He tried to go on, stammering for a moment before throwing up his hands. “Look, I really don’t have the answers. I just have the frustration, and the poems to prove it.” In the greenroom before the show, Williams vented some of that frustration with what he sees as an American fixation on race to a half dozen fellow poets, friends, and fans over a pre-show beer and pizza.
As he talked about moving to Paris with his girlfriend and two children, a friend asked him if he had connected with African-American expatriate community. He laughed, “I didn’t move to Paris to join a gang,” he said. He added that while Parisians are by no means color blind, they do not seem to have the same need to transpose it onto every discussion. However, he said that when his American friends come to visit, the conversation inevitably turns to race. “At first, my girlfriend and I thought it was the couch,” he joked.
Onstage, he approached the issue with solemnity. “Look, if a stick is bent in one direction, you can’t just push it towards the center. You have to push it all the way in the other direction before it can rest at the center.” He added the culture of racial injustice that permeated American history necessitated a violent reaction. The Black Panthers, the Harlem Renaissance, and the reclamation of the word “nigga” served a vital purpose in the evolution of the American perception of race, especially for African-Americans. “I think the phases are necessary, but I think it is also necessary to not rest in those phases and keep moving.” After a moment, he added, “We need to just get over ourselves.”
Several times before, during, and after the show, Williams returned to the idea that enforcement of free labor and control of women lie at the root of not just racial tension, but many of the world’s inequalities. Much of his work highlights the concept of the feminine, which he believes has been demonized by social convention, religion, and culture. As a child, he said he openly challenged his prominent Baptist preacher father’s cronies’ refusal to allow a woman to preach from their pulpits. What Williams saw as the subjugation of women in the church became a recurring discussion between him and Rev. Saul S. Williams.
Williams opened up that discussion publicly in his debut hip-hop album, Amethyst Rock Star, released in 2001 by American Recordings. In the album’s final track, Williams lay down a recording of his father’s sermon. Back in the greenroom, he recalled attending his father’s church one Father’s day when the minister gave a sermon on the importance of the father. “For me, it was ironic because the church was always filled with women and children.” Williams said he stole the recording of that sermon from his father’s office and added a subtle beat around it. At the end of the minister’s sermon, Williams calmly stepped in with his own response.
Our father which art in St. Frances Hospital for hypertension, Our father which art in jumpsuits and prisons, federal detention, Our father which art in dark bars and alleys, lethal injection, Our father which art in denial and delusion,
This cannot happen again.
The beat swelled to a crescendo as Williams chanted the chorus in a throbbing monotone.
We made this break beat just for you,
As an offering.
Can you hear us now?
We made this break beat just for you,
As an offering.
Can you hear us now?
When asked if this was a source of tension between him and his father, Williams replied that minister had called it beautiful. “I caught him listening to it more than once,” he said with a smile. While his father believed strongly in his convictions and his calling to be a minister, he said that the minister always encouraged rigorous discussion. Williams describes his upbringing as culturally middle class. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of books; and we had a lot of discussion.” He recalled challenging his father’s beliefs right up through his eulogy at his funeral.
Williams continued those discussions throughout his life, by participating on the speech team as a child, studying philosophy as an undergraduate student at Morehouse College, a predominantly black, men’s school in Atlanta, and for the past decade, he has shared his thoughts and opinions with his fans through spoken word and music. With Chorus, he reminds his fans that his voice does not stand alone. He has used the book and the accompanying tour to encourage his fans to take part in the discussion, and strike up the chorus.