“Chop my neck a million times, I still burn bright and stand, yo“
“I’M inspired by people, you all have your own stories and thankyou for being part of mine,” is how poet and performer Saul Williams thanks a sold out Friday night crowd in Cardiff.
The story Williams, whose music is perhaps best described as alternative hip hop, has come to tell is that of Martyr Loser King – a hacker in Burundi using the west’s easily discarded technology to spread chaos through the internet; “Hacker, I’m a hacker, I’m a hacker in your hard drive… I’m a virus in your system”.
Williams wears a black cardboard crown throughout most of the hour-long performance and stands alone on stage in-front of a video screen. Images, ranging from photographs of a princely Nelson Mandela, a casually dressed Martin Luther King, a young Michael Jackson, Bernie Sanders – whose presidential campaign the New Yorker supports, Donald Trump and computer hard drives, flash behind him with snippets of his lyrics.
‘Martyr Loser King’, the album released just ahead of this current world tour, has been described by Williams as a multi-media project and without prior explanation it would probably be difficult to grasp the story he is telling. But Williams’ constant questioning of authority, convention and Orthodoxy is apparent.
Having come to prominence in the late 90s through the slam poetry scene Williams is known for the complexity and depth of his work. His only accompaniment is a backing track, controlled from the back of the room, and early on Williams steps away from the mic to deliver ‘Coded Language’ unaided by music or even microphone to amplify his powerful voice.
The classic from ‘Amethyst Rock Star’, Williams’ first LP released in 2001, name-checks the Black American actor and civil rights activist and socialist Paul Robeson. A brief and probably over enthusiastic chat with Williams about Robeson is my story to tell from Friday night.
As Williams left the stage I took the chance to thank him for recognising the singer, who from the 1920s enjoyed a long association and solidarity with the mine workers of south Wales. When Williams returned for his encore he mentioned how “a dude just reminded me of Paul Robeson and his support for the south Wales miners.” I was pleased Robeson’s name and Welsh association got a little cheer, just like Tupac’s name did during ‘Coded Language’.Others will have their own stories to tell from Friday, such as those who had earlier found themselves surrounding Williams as he casually stepped off stage and strode into the centre of the crowd, who soon encircled him, to perform two songs, including ‘Burundi’.
In a press release Williams has acknowledged the coincidence he should release the song at the same time as democratic unrest in the east African state. Williams hopes his words of burning bright like a candle can give fuel to those fighting “over militarized police and power-hungry politicians” including in the country he’d visited before recording Martyr Loser King.
It is another strand in the album and of Williams’ performance that was simply too much to digest in just an hour. If ever a gig needed a reload button, or the ability to refresh like an internet page, this was it.