Pillbox

Performer, writer, power artist

It may not occur to us that something exists someplace in between performance and the page. That one can be neither actor nor writer, but an amalgam of both of these labels. When we look at Keanu Reeves’ deadpan face we may forget that performance should imply the power and command of words and actions. When we read the introduction to Heart of Redness, we may forget that words and actions on the page can be brought to life.

Saul Williams brings words to life. He is half performer, half writer, all power. No more than three feet from the front row of seats in Rangos Hall Wednesday night he was positively booming. No mic was on, but his power was turned up.

Never mind his words for a moment. We’ll get to them. Focus on, instead, the sound of Saul Williams. He shoots his words like a Gatling gun, and they drop off his lips so quick you almost miss them. In “Telegram,” from his self-titled album, he pierces your ears with the sounds of the “stops” between phrases of his letter to hip-hop. “Perhaps we should not have encouraged them to use cordless microphones, for they have walked too far from the source and are emitting a lesser frequency,” he said at the top of his voice, then he punctuated it once more with “stop.” If you focused on his lips, you got dizzy from the movement. The man can fly.

Yet the words are impressive too. They’re so fast you wish you had the lyrics in front of you, to look over and go back to. You wish Williams had a rewind button so you could capture it all again. Luckily, a lot of his stuff may be downloaded from the iTunes Music Store. He dives into what’s wrong with hip-hop, yet during the constant flow of questions between poems he said he’d rather not tune out to music. “I’ll take it verse by verse, even line by line,” he said of his process in deciding whether he could like something of an artist’s work. He’s part philosopher in his subject matter too, in speaking of a female Messiah. He’s part eulogizer as well, ending his piece “Coded Language” with the words, “Any utterance will be un-aimed, will be disclaimed — two rappers slain.”

After hearing him one time, you can read his lyrics and remember clearly how he punched them out, where he stopped to breathe, and where you could not believe he did not.

Williams brought Carnegie Mellon something it simply does not have in high supply. Williams occupies a particular voice, a combination of rhythm and word choice, emphasis and eloquence. It is doubtful that the talented music majors here will get their hip-hop education in the classroom. And slam poetry is an outlier in creative writing.

We have a whole center named after collaborative innovation, and this man/poet/performer epitomizes it. Williams combines the force of poetry with acting and with protesting. He has practiced in various media forms, from his lead role in the film Slam to his recurring appearance on the show Girlfriends to his music and poetry CDs to his books, such as The Seventh Octave.

Williams is working currently on a CD with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, in which Reznor may sing some of the lyrics and they will work to create the music behind it. In Rangos Hall last Wednesday, though, no music played behind Williams. It was just the audience, the room, and the electricity of his voice.

Williams creates in his various forms and fashions something unique to a performance medium. You cannot describe what he says, only listen to it. You cannot tell how the sounds drop with a cadence or a clatter from his lips.

Though his performance was powerful, his answers to questions were human and hard to follow through his talk of “self-actualizing” (which is what Williams professes life is all about). And he admitted to not knowing the answers, then ironically followed this statement with 10-minute responses. He started as an actor and didn’t write until his early 20s, he said. And when asked to explain how he balanced the two, he struggled. Perhaps because for Williams, the performance and the lyrics have become inseparable. Though it’s hard to knock him, it’s also hard to see his words having such magic on the page. He describes his book The Dead Emcee Scrolls as “the dopest hip-hop album never recorded.” But in truth, it’s in the very listening that it comes alive. Maybe it was never recorded, but it cannot be real without Saul Williams’ sound.