The high ceilings and carpeted grandeur of The Lantern inside Colston Hall create a theatrical setting for tonight’s show. The irony of the venue being named after a man at the fore of the slave trade in Bristol’s history is not lost on Saul Williams, who quips: “a lot of my heroes came from Bristol, and not just the ones who profited from slavery”. The tone is set perfectly for a performer whose poetry transcends genre and actively confronts the establishment whilst dealing with social and political issues surrounding human subjugation and war. The rebellion blazes loud and unafraid, here.
Support tonight comes in the form of former Bristol Poetry Slam champion and Essex-born poet Nadinne Dyen; a woman whose delight and gratitude fills the stage with grace. She speaks her truth passionately with a playful hip hop flow – her final poem having been written to the legendary beats of A Tribe Called Quest – and her openly nervous joy at supporting one of her heroes makes her all the more human and wonderful to watch.
Saul Williams arrives onstage to widespread loud cheers and doesn’t waste any time in launching into ‘Groundwork’ from the new album. Microphone in hand and a black cardboard crown adorning his head, he strides purposefully into the audience; like the biblical sea, the crowd parts as he moves forward until he reaches the deep centre and is surrounded by his mesmerised fans.
Martyr. Loser. King.
He is joined tonight by long-time friend and collaborator Thavius Beck, who upon request turns the bass up as loud as is coherently possible so that the whole room is vibrating with sound. Combined with Williams’ skilful scansion and producer Justin Warfield’s minimalistic, industrial polyrhythmic beats, the effect is powerfully hypnotic and we find ourselves pulled further and further into a meditative, trance-like state. Williams experiments with switching between acoustic and electronic vocals as he delivers his words; moving and dancing with a raw, infectious energy; building the tension with intensely driven spoken word pieces such as the vivid ‘Saturn’s Rivers’ before launching into the next musical number.
He is never on stage long before diving back into the crowd, determined to get amongst people and connect on that level. It’s what we’ve come to know and love about Saul Williams – he is direct in his confrontational style, but with a compassion and sincerity that is intensely charismatic. During songs ‘The Bear/Coltan as Cotton’ and ‘Burundi’ the conscious vibe in the room is almost tangible as it peaks with excitement. It’s intensely powerful. While the majority of the set is built around the new album, previous album favourites such as the incendiary ‘List of Demands’ and ‘Untimely Meditations’ are included for good measure – this is archaic Saul Williams at his best, ever evolving.
The hacker as artist. The artist as hacker.
Onstage, in amongst the continually projected visuals, the garbled image of Donald Trump is seen for a fleeting moment alongside the lyric ‘red stain on the concrete’ (from the tune ‘Horn of the Clock-Bike’). Someone beside me notices and laughs. There’s dark truths permeating on subliminal and conscious levels throughout tonight’s performance and it’s impossible for any member of tonight’s audience to leave unchanged.
Drawing on a widening spectrum of inspiration, Williams riffs on a lyric he took directly from Christopher Columbus’ journal after stumbling upon it - the fanatical Christian explorer responsible for spearheading the transatlantic slave trade - as well as speaking out about the resilience of the people of Haiti in particular (Haitian field recordings were a major influence for the new album) and freeing the prisoners of modern-day slavery, whether that be war, politics, social apathy or the conformity of gender.
I’m gripped with a feeling of restlessness as I leave. If music is the drug, then play on. Watching Saul Williams kneel at the front of stage post-performance to greet his fans and chat is a reassuring and beautiful thing – he is a man who majestically embodies the principles he is determined to rouse in the people his words and music resonate with.
With the inner fire stirred inside us all, we are left to ponder the messages conveyed by the eponymous character of the new album; the fictional coltan miner-turned-hacker ‘MartyrLoserKing’: how do you break the cycle? The answers come from the shared experience; the pulse; the heartbeat; the technology we each hold in our hands. The music as key to unlocking these feelings and ideas should be a subversive revelation. The rest is up to us.
Check out ‘The Noise Came From Here’ right here: