The name of my next poem is…‘I Actually Don’t Mind That They Keep Casting White Actors in Old Testament Flicks.’ ” Saul Williams’s irreverent laughter at his own joke plants itself in his gut and radiates throughout his body, as his thin white tunic and jade necklaces jump. He flashes a toothy grin and we are all inclined to laugh, soothed by the percussive experimental hip-hop we heard entering the space.
Williams pursues this bit for a while, flipping through his 2015 paperback US (a.) at the microphone. “The more attention you give me, the less I want to perform,” he spits out at one point amidst more fake poem names, and is met with more laughter from an enraptured audience.
Two weeks ago, Saul Williams performed several sold-out shows at the Stony Island Arts Bank and Hyde Park comedy club The Revival as part of RIOTcon 2016, a conference sponsored by the Chicago Theological Seminary. The conference, aimed at addressing social change head-on, invited artists, activists, and community members to bring complicated issues of identity, interaction, and oppression into a greater discussion about the future.
Saul Williams is a name many may know from his lead roles in the Tupac-inspired Broadway musical, Holler If Ya Hear Me and the 1998 film Slam, but he’s also a jack-of-alltrades actor, rapper, musician, poet, and writer. At these performances, he dons every one of those hats. Williams’s performances are meant to stimulate conversation about how social movements are organized across mediums in the modern world—a perfect fit for him, considering his talent for the articulation of the complex emotions that accompany experiences of oppression and the trials of social action.
His show at The Revival kicks off with music. A woman with a guitar and a suave upright bass player in a funky scarf materialize, quieting the bustling crowd. The guitarist’s name is Koku Gonza, a Tanzanian-Kihaya name that means lovely, which she cements in our memories through one of her signature mashed-up R&B, folk, and hip-hop tunes.
This night’s event, as two hosts from the Chicago Theological Seminary inform us, serves as a dialogue between audience and performer, in attempts to achieve an aura of healing amidst the tumult of social movements. In this way, poetry and the power of the spoken word become a bridge between the said and the unsayable. The hosts ask the large mass of bobbing heads in the audience to close their eyes for a second and engage in some collective inhaling and exhaling, to set the tone for a night of open-minded thinking and connectivity. After a few breaths, most of the leftover electricity settled, leaving behind a palate cleansed for what would occur throughout the rest of the evening.
As Williams is introduced, a man in the back shouts “Yeaaaaaahhh, Saul!” amidst eager applause. “That guy’s always in the audience,” says Saul to laughter and a collective inchingforward. What he is about to say is of the utmost importance—or at least that’s the sense one gets as he stands there, glowing under the club’s bright spotlights, book in hand.
He reads a poem from his new collection, MartyrLoserKing, called “Coltan as Cotton,” which is part tirade, part manifesto, part prayer, and which ruminates on themes of interpersonal isolation, exploitation, and accessibility, rooted in a discussion of the abuse in Burundi’s mining industry. Still swaying from his whirlwind jolt up to the stage, he births words from his mouth and tugs at the air with clear sound. No one dares look away. His words tumble on a long and continuous loop, traveling across continents, racial divides, languages, and eras.
Yet even after he’s read a few of his poems, Williams stands in front of the audience, appearing unsure of how to proceed, seemingly hesitant to put on a show. While a performer with the same notoriety and skill set as Williams would normally come at a soldout event like this with a carefully thought-out set list or at least a vague idea of the thematic expectations, Williams seemed surprisingly loose. “I don’t know…what would you guys like to hear tonight?” he offers.
Though a commanding presence in a pitch-dark theater full of resident poetry geeks and savvy social activists, Williams is reluctant to perform any sort of grand gesture, perhaps out of a noble rejection of fame attained conventionally, or out of genuine insecurity. For a second, the audience is confused. In a split-second desire to break the expectant silence, he asks a man in the front row for a sip of his beer and remarks on the apparent lack of people drinking in the audience. The pressure is now on, but after a few gulps from a cold one and a re-adjusting of the microphone, Williams starts to unwind.
His mind works in thematic tangents as he closes his eyes and says, “let’s go…here,” before reciting a poem about technological connectivity. We are along for the ride, here at the heels of his feet and ready to jet as he jumps through time and space, letting words unfold. We are front-loaded with emotion and ideology, color and distance, and an undeniable knack for the sonic. The room is a new sort of buzzing.
At the end, Williams takes questions. He dodges inquiries about his future projects with, “The play has been turned into a movie, and everything else remains as is.” There is a nonchalance to his brilliance, which somehow feels humble, not ungrateful. Another audience member asks, “Why is silence indigo?” in reference to his earlier piece about Burundi. Williams answers, “The name of my next poem is…‘Why is Silence Indigo?’”