If the most common complaint against popular music is its formulaic structure and cheesy content, then Saul Williams does not do popular music. Too fluid to be contained into a single category or defined by just one genre, the work of this actor, singer, poet and spoken word artist defies pop cultural conventions, including the most widespread one of all – that music is merely entertainment and leisure. Towards the end of his performance in Glasgow, Williams asks the audience – can music be a path to something new, a change? A silence falls over the crowd.
And with a silence it begins. Four young Scots – Louie and the Lochbacks – open the show with a combination of a cappella songs and spoken word pieces, swooning the audience into a playful, but melancholic mood.
An atmosphere dissonant from the one on MartyrLoserKing (2016), Williams’ most recent album. Without a drop of complacency, the clear and constant tone of restlessness and discontent permeates the album. Williams sings on topics ranging from free expression of gender and sexuality, like in Think Like They Book Say, to resistance to police violence in The Noise Came from Here. MartyrLoserKing is unapologetically political, replete with allusions to current global issues, inextricable from its specific social reality. And yet, Williams uses words not to describe that reality, but to call the audience to action. He speaks to people directly, tearing down the distance between the artists and the consumers.
And during the concert, he eliminates the space between himself and the audience by climbing over the fence surrounding the stage. He strides to the centre of the floor, and sings to the encircling listeners. By the time he starts performing Burundi, boundaries are dissolved.
He returns to the stage which is now no longer empty. The spoken word champion singly carries the one-and-a-half hour show on his shoulders, with only a DJ hidden away from the audience playing the music. Performing mostly tracks from the new album, he electrifies the audience, managing to maintain a strong connection until the end. And to close the show, instead of the cliched “you-have-been-a-great audience”, Williams comments on Scotland’s recent political turmoils, leaving us with an ambiguous conclusion: ‘It is an interesting time to be here.’ He breaks into radiant laughter, spiked with just a hint of irony.