The Sweet Mother Concert, hosted by Columbia University's African Students Association (ASA) on April 30th, featured spoken word artist Saul Williams and the funk/reggae/hip-hop band SoulfÃƒÂ¨ge. Proceeds from the event benefited the Twenty-First Century Foundation, the African Services Committee in Harlem, and the World Vision Children of War Center in Uganda.
For one night only, Columbia's Miller Theater was transformed into a welcoming space of African love. ASA President Adoma Adjei-Brenyah, wearing a stylish batik dress, greeted patrons at the door while concert organizer and emcee Ishmael Osekre got the show started. In addition to the main acts, several student groups performed, including African dance troupe Dole.
But most folks were there for Saul Williams. He has been called "a dreadlocked dervish of words" and, though his locks are now shaved, his verbal vigor is no less impressive.
Saul's energy and passion were affecting. He walked out on stage and asked the tech guy to turn down the spotlight so he could see the audience. Finding the dimmed lights unsatisfactory, he jumped down offstage.
"I can't hear you," said an audience member. Saul replied, smartly, "You will," and launched into a poem, his voice echoing off the walls.
"I'm falling up flights of stairs, scraping myself from the sidewalk, jumping from rivers to bridges, drowning in pure air. Hip Hop is lying on the side of the road, half dead to itself. Blood scrawled over its mangled flesh, like jazz, stuffed into an over-sized record bag.
He wore a thin, blue V-neck tee over a pair of white jeans, his afro, clean-shaven on the sides, in a bushy mohawk. The slenderness of his frame belied the weight of his message.
"Now everyone's singing the wrong song. Dissonant chords find necks like nooses. That nig@a kicked the chair from under my feet. Harlem shaking from a rope, but still on beat. 'Damn that loop is tight.' Nig@a, found a way to sample the way the truth the light. Can't wait to play myself at the party tonight. Nig#@s are gonna die. Cop car swerves to the side of the road. Hip Hop takes its last breath. The cop scrawls vernacular manslaughter onto a yellow pad, then balls the paper into his hand, deciding he'd rather free-style. 'You have the right to remain silent.' You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to remain silent. And maybe you should have before your bullshit manifested."
Saul said that he wrote "Telegram" after Notorious B.I.G. died, noting that Biggie's last album, before getting shot, was "Ready to Die." As a preacher's son, he believes in the power of the word; not the bible, per se, but our utterances and intentionality.
And watching him was kind or like watching a preacher or an emcee. When he really got going- lips flapping, spit flying, hands circling the air before him- it was mesmerizing.
"Because every emcee is pitted against each other, they have to act like they know. Whereas the poet realizes that admitting to the fact that they don't know is where their power is. A person who shows no sign of vulnerability shows no sign of humanity."
Much like this, Saul interspersed his lyrics with his own personal philosophy.
He sang a song, Black Stacey (that's his middle name), about how he used to slather on cream to make his skin lighter, noting that Madame C. J. Walker, the first black millionaire, made her fortune selling fade cream and hair-straightening products. But his commentary was far more than skin deep.
"In my mind, the holiest of trinities would be mother, father, and child," he said. "Not father, son, and ghost."
"Awareness brings the burden of responsibility. To know and not act accordingly is to really be stupid...and lacks courage. So many of us feel like we have no power to change things. But we believe that we have the power to make money."
And that is the real purpose of his poetry: to inspire people with a message of change.
This came through in a touching letter that Saul wrote to his father after his death. In it he talks about his father's calling to the church and whether each of us is called to do something -regardless of its attachment to faith- and, if so, whether we are all indeed holy.
It was heavy food for thought during the five-minute intermission before the next act.
Saul was a tough act to follow, but SoulfÃƒÂ¨ge -composed of Derrick N. Ashong, Jonathan Mark Gramling, and Kelley Nicole Johnson- was up to the challenge.
Derrick, or DNA as he's called, captivated the audience with his rhymes about growing up in Africa and other parts of the world, while Kelley's smooth voice and Jon's reggae vibe produced a funky, Afro-hip fusion that got the audience grooving. A saxophone, bass guitar, lead guitar, and percussionist backed the vocalists, most famous for their Sweet Mother remix, that ended the show.
SoulfÃƒÂ¨ge approached the performance like a music lesson, conversing with the audience about the origins of hip-hop, funk, and other musical genres. One got the sense that they were clear about the message and importance of their role as cultural stewards. It comes as no surprise since the group spun off into a collective, Sweet Mother Interactive, uniting African artists around the globe.
DNA is passionate about his mission to use music as a tool for Pan-African unity and progress.
In addition to recording their sophomore album, SoulfÃƒÂ¨ge is launching the international Sweet Mother Tour, with performances slated for Lagos, Nigeria; Accra, Ghana; and Brazil. Find out more by visiting: www.sweetmother.org.
Buy Saul William's work here.