Saul Williams: Songs As Weapons

Saul Williams
Karl Walter/Getty Images

Political music is most commonly thought of in terms of lyricism: artists saying something. Yet in my mind, the most powerful political voices are those with a different way of seeing and processing the world and the sounds that emanate from it. These artists pay particular attention to the soundscapes they shape to suit their words, in some cases even creating new categories of genre to describe the sound and the political fervor within it.

These are five of my favorite "political" songs; those in which the music that houses the lyrics excites me the most.

Saul Williams: Songs As Weapons

Cover for Fear of a Black Planet
Courtesy of the artist

Welcome to the Terrordome

  • Artist: Public Enemy
  • Song: Welcome to the Terrordome
  • From: Fear of a Black Planet

Public Enemy in my teens is what James Brown was for my mother in hers: the Motherlode. Like most of the truly revolutionary artists that have inspired me, Public Enemy proved that statements could be made in music itself, before the lyrics even begin. The group's production unit, The Bomb Squad, made magic of mayhem, just as Hendrix had done with feedback in his prime. It made sirens sound like horns and horns squeal like sirens. I could think of no better way to upset any establishment in the '80s than to turn on Public Enemy -- unless, of course, that establishment had a dance floor. "Welcome to the Terrordome" is PE at the height of the controversy that surrounded it, light years before Flavor of Love could ever be fathomed.

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Song
Welcome to the Terrordome
Album
Fear of a Black Planet
Artist
Public Enemy
Label
Def Jam
Released
1990

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Hendrix Star Spangled Banner

The Star Spangled Banner

  • Artist: Jimi Hendrix
  • Song: The Star Spangled Banner
  • From: The Essential Jimi Hendrix

There's only one point in history where I grow nostalgic and wish I'd been alive to experience the moment. That moment is when Jimi Hendrix re-interpreted "The Star-Spangled Banner" as an antiwar statement in Woodstock 1968. Soon afterward, he and his Band of Gypsies wrote "Machine Gun," which is what artists like Miles Davis say made them gain new appreciation for this rock god. For me, his version of the National Anthem became my anthem, as I grappled with the sort of statements I'd like to find the courage and inspiration to make in my lifetime. I'm sure you've heard it before, but it's always worth revisiting.

Watch the performance on YouTube.

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Song
The Star Spangled Banner
Album
The Essential Jimi Hendrix
Artist
Jimi Hendrix
Label
Warner Bros.

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Lou Bond Cover

To The Establishment

  • Artist: Lou Bond
  • From: Lou Bond

I first heard this song as a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Funny how we would have nothing better to do on a Friday afternoon than sit at a friend's house -- in this case a friend who was a DJ -- and let him dazzle us with his collection. Brett specialized in all forms of rare soul. His DJ sets were always as educational as they were celebratory. His mission seemed to be to prove that the best songs were the ones we'd never heard. Lou Bond was a perfect example: an artist who had seemingly only come out with one album and no hits. "To the Establishment" was an instant hit with me. His "cherry-flavored Chapstick" line tickled me like no other, as we all sat listening, twisting our dreads, chewing natural licorice sticks and, in our own way, honing our anti-establishment stances and perspectives. The build of the outro is my favorite.

Fela Kuti cover

Coffin for Head of State

  • Artist: Fela Kuti
  • From: Coffin for Head of State/Unknown Soldier [Wrasse]

No one could claim to be more anti-establishment than Fela Kuti. His 30-minute tirades against authority rule can only be overshadowed by the polyrhythmic force of his sound. When describing him to friends, I would usually say something along the lines of James Brown meets Bob Marley meets Steve Biko. Ironically, it was his music that caught my ear before I took note of his message. Always true to his cause, his music was his message as he defiantly proclaimed that "music is the weapon of the future." "Coffin for Head of State" is aimed at religious traditions and the hypocritical ties that connect religion to warfare, militancy and the "sorrow, tears and blood" of the poor. This song supposedly was written in direct response to the loss of his mother, who died of complications after the Nigerian Army raided his compound. Fela Kuti marched his mother's coffin to the Head of State, placing it on his doorstep, while his band played this processional.

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Song
Coffin for Head of State
Album
Coffin for Head of State/Unknown Soldier [Wrasse]
Artist
Fela Kuti
Label
Wrasse
Released
2006

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Tr(n)igger cover

Tr(n)igger [explicit]

  • Artist: Saul Williams
  • Song: Tr(n)igger [explicit]
  • From: Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust

In hip-hop, one of the ways we show respect to a source of inspiration is by sampling a masterpiece to create a new one. That's what Kanye West does in "Gold Digger," "Harder Stronger," and several of his other hits. Sampling is only a problem when it's unimaginative, brings nothing new to the table and cheapens the original product. When done right, and legally, the result is mixed media at its finest. "Tr(n)igger" (pronounced 'trigger') is one of my favorite songs to perform, and probably has my favorite lyric and moment from my latest album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust. I didn't plan on having any antiwar tirades on this album -- I felt I had stated my case in previous works -- but the music alone (which subsequently triggered the lyrics) raised a question that rings in my head still as I contemplate the number of innocent women, men and children killed by our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Would Jesus Christ come back American? What if he's Iraqi and here again?" I remember being frightened to release this song simply because of how long and hard it made me dance while working on it. I feared it might be too powerful. Well, as it turns out, it has helped me accomplish the same thing PE and Fela accomplished: thinking while dancing. Lets hope nobody makes that against the law any time soon. Note: This song contains explicit language.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Tr(n)igger [explicit]
Album
Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust
Artist
Saul Williams
Label
One Label
Released
2007

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