If this is the sound of protest in the internet age then it’s rather dated. The slogans that are projected on screen (‘Workshop of the gods!’; ‘To imagine hell is poverty!’) are reminiscent of U2’s Zoo TV stage show. The fusion of industrial rock and dance, meanwhile, is nothing that hasn’t been tried by The Prodigy.
Yet despite this Saul Williams has a righteous fire and conviction that makes his protest a powerful call to arms. The rapper and performance poet’s fifth album, MartyrLoserKing, is a meditation on social justice and activism, and as he pogoes in the midst of the audience his command as an orator is undeniable.
The vibe is electric as the New Yorker rattles out rhymes about, “Whitney Houston’s crack pipe / The greatest love of all” (‘Burundi’). At their incisive best these lines emulate the Beat poets in their use of repetition and stark imagery (Allen Ginsberg coincidentally flashing up on screen at one point).
His occasional improvisation also creates a deeper audience connection, with Jo Cox MP added to a roll call of those who died too young during a spoken word interlude on ‘Ashes’. The way in which the music drops out, allowing his voice to gunfire around the hall, offers a welcome interlude to the beats mixed by his off-stage DJ.
There’s a similar effect when he stops using heavy bass-lines as a weapon and adopts a less is more approach, be that the simple piano motif on ‘Horn Of The Clock-Bike’ or the tribal chants that are woven into the fabric of ‘The Noise Came From Here’.
These tracks offer the perfect bed for Williams’ word play, sound less anachronistic than his post-industrial arrangements, and suggest that he may yet be the man to give a voice to the politically disempowered.