Peninsular Place

The Magazine

September 17, 2012

Saul Williams @ the Blind Pig


Click here for an introduction to Saul Williams through a recent interview. 

By the time I arrived at the Blind Pig this past Tuesday night, Dessa had already been on stage for a few minutes and had the crowd on her charming hook. With each segment – I call them segments because they weren’t songs, exactly – she drew everyone a little closer. College students were back for their first night of the fall season at the Pig. A slam poetry team from Michigan State huddled near the front. Flint, Detroit, Lansing, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor were among the city names I heard tossed around. Minors with the incriminating “M” sketched on their right hands in sharpie peppered the crowd. Middle-aged couples wondering what might be becoming of the poetry-meets-music-meets-artistic-integrity scene (I made that up) stuck closer to the bar. I was there to see Saul Williams and find out what a slam poetry concert might look like, and Dessa prepared the setting for Williams perfectly.

Tall and pale white, slender, with mid-length brown hair, kind eyes and a kinder voice, Dessa delivered an unpredictable mix of singing and slam poetry, traditional spoken word recitation, hip-hop and conversational dialogue. Her down-to-earth humor strung a sense of ease through her otherwise emotionally-heavy themes, such as her inability to deal with intimate relationships in a “normal” way, which is something everyone can relate to – yet the contrast with normality still somehow makes sense. Tearing down constructs and getting to feeling was at the core of her art, and would be intensified later when Saul Williams took her place.

There was about a twenty minute gap between Dessa’s performance and when Williams approached the stage. A couple dozen more people trickled in, filling the place enough so that getting to the front from the back took some effort. When the venue music over the speakers came to a sudden stop, arms were thrown skyward and voices were raised in warm welcome.

Williams exudes an uncommon mix of power and tranquility – a known master of words, even his movements are graceful and intentional. His piercing stare and dramatic pauses can be arresting, and his wide smile instantly relieves the tension. He was accompanied by three local poets who had contributed to his latest book, entitled “A Chorus.” The book is a compilation of poems submitted by 100 people from all over the world, carefully selected and arranged by Williams into a cohesive, thematically unified whole. There is another poem hidden within the book entitled “The Red Poem,” which Williams wrote by going back through the text and highlighting words – a similar method, stylistically, to Newspaper Blackout.

After a brief introduction, Williams handed the mic to his guest poets. Once they had performed – just a few minutes each – he opened up the stage for anyone who wanted to share their own poetry or spoken word creations. About a dozen people volunteered. I can’t be sure, but I think more wanted their moment on stage but time wouldn’t allow for it. There was a whole lot of talent in Ann Arbor on Tuesday night.

People rapped, sang, recited, shouted and acted in a brave and inspiring display of creativity. I could tell it took incredible nerve for some people to get up there in a moment’s notice, but the courage of the first few volunteers seemed to spread to others. After performing, each volunteer walked to the back of the stage to shake hands with Williams with a strong wave of affirming applause backing them up. It was an amazing experience to share with everyone that night, and Williams hadn’t even yet spoken more than a few words.

Williams did a brave thing by making it clear to all of us that he wanted this to be an interactive event, where no questions, comments or suggestions were taboo. The crowd took full advantage. Most of his performance wasn’t far off from what I expected – recitations of his brilliant poetry, told with confidence and wit, strength and vulnerability, accompanied by explanations that put the words into context. What I didn’t expect were the challenging – and at times attacking – questions from audience members who, and I could be wrong about this, seemed to have spent too much time at the bar.

But this is where Williams demonstrated why he is one of the most wise and respected voices on the touring circuit. As the questions pushed him deeper into tough issues about belief systems, race and religion, loyalty to fans and art, Williams gracefully explained where he was coming from without once sounding weak or ego-centric – easy traps to fall into when a crowd who has paid to see you begins challenging your work.

Towards the end, Williams read the entirety of “The Red Poem.” Between that and the performances by the accompanying poets, I left the concert excited to dig into the book – a work that, much like Tuesday night, finds the compelling voice of Saul Williams joining in with new voices of our generation that have a lot to say, but previously had no platform.


About the Author

Paul Kitti
Paul Kitti
Paul is another awesome member of the iSPY team.

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