Saul Williams Ponders Poverty, HIV, Music and Change After Swaziland Visit


One thing I love about summers, as a musician, are the many music festivals across the world that allow me to travel to countries and places I may have never taken the time to explore on my own. Last week I had an opportunity to travel to Swaziland, in southern Africa, and perform at the sixth installation of the Bushfire Festival.




Flying on a little plane from Johannesburg, South Africa, we flew only a short distance before landing at the airport of this green mountainous country, where the sign welcomed us to "The Kingdom of Swaziland." There I was reminded of the fact that Swaziland was officially a kingdom with a 48-year-old king, a descendant of a royal bloodline, and then the statistical facts that over 42 percent of the Swazi population was HIV positive, with a 33-year life expectancy rate, and over 12 percent of the population were AIDS orphans: Victims of a heinous bloodline.

What can I say? Yeah, I knew that is was said that 100 percent of the proceeds from the festival would go directly to AIDS orphans, that the fact of our being there, buying food, hotel rooms, gifts, was all a boost to the Swaziland economy, but I can't say that knowing that made me feel any better.

I was met at the airport by our driver, whose name was Psychology. "OK. I'll listen," I said. But aside from affirming the fact that Psychology was indeed his real name, given by his mother, Psychology didn't really have much to say. He was a driver, a tour guide, hired by the festival, while others volunteered and provided services for free. Psychology was proud of his homeland, its rich history and language, the Swazi king and his wives. We stopped him from playing Coldplay in the tour bus and he gladly obliged us with local music.

I always marvel at the sounds of indigenous African music, paying close attention to the distinctions that accompany the various regions: The vocal harmonies, the chants, the percussion and string instruments. I'm also a big fan of the modern electronic music, like kwaito, coming out of South Africa. As a descendant of the African diaspora through the trans-Atlantic slave trade, I have as much interest in the origin of sounds as I do in the origins of my family's bloodline. It's not so much a desire to trace the history of something, it's rather that I, more often than not, stumble upon something new, an articulation that helps me modernize my perspective and/or sound. Yet, here I am in this African country riddled by disease, poverty, a rich history, colonial independence and all those statistics, thinking about music. But that's what brought me here. And somehow, I am to believe that I can deliver something of worth, contribute some ease or inspiration through sound. Go figure.

Psychology likes music. Who doesn't? He thumbs the steering wheel, singing along as he drives. I ask questions that I think might possibly open portals of discussion for him to voice dissatisfaction with the condition of his country, government, position, but no, Psychology is tranquil, proud or maybe not so eager to share any private concerns with an outsider, a tourist. When I arrive at the festival, the grounds are naturally majestic, green, and the people, are beautiful, kind, smiling, open. I meet young poets, musicians dressed like P-Funk Allstars, American Peace Corps volunteers, immigrants from nearby African countries, students and all sorts of people, all interacting graciously and with warmth.




When I sit down to do interviews with the world media I am consistently asked by South African journalists whether I am aware of the cultural boycott of Swaziland by the SSN (Swaziland Solidarity Network, based in Johannesburg). "Um, no," I say, and ask for the lowdown. Turns out that some people believe that the way to bring about change in the statistical conditions of Swaziland, and the apparent corruption in the government, is by artists refusing to perform there. Yikes. Well, having seen the economic breakdown of how the Bushfire Festival effects the Swazi economy, employing about 700 people, and the proceeds going to AIDS orphans, I thought, well, the festival is not run by the king or his government, rather by a man named Jiggs and hopefully the financial report I read was legit. Later I found Jiggs and the festival's response.

It's no fun entering the shaky political zone of a region, obliviously. The simple act of agreeing to play at a festival where food, travel, lodging is provided could sometimes land you in a world of strange alliances. But one thing is clear, the people I met were beautiful and sincere. The dialogue I had with students, poets, activists, journalists, was smart, determined, forthright, strategic. I met wonderful people and then had the opportunity of sharing my perspective onstage.

To be honest, I was nervous. The people behind the programming handed me condoms before I went onstage asking me to hand them out and make an announcement about AIDS testing onsite during my performance. I couldn't escape the idea of being an American outsider coming to a foreign land, standing on a pedestal or stage and telling people, in their homeland, what they should be doing. If I feel comfortable giving instruction, it is more simply done in America with people whose culture and customs I share. Yet, the plight of Swaziland and other impoverished nations is something that we all share: The collective fate of humanity. It's a complex equation full of simple solutions, yet privilege and narcissism are blinding, airplane tickets are expensive, and we've all got our own problems.

The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said that poets often think they can change everything, but truly the only thing that poetry changes is the poet. Hmmm. It's true that I've seen a lot and have been affected greatly by what I've seen. What I'd like to see is more people visiting places like Swaziland where statistics paint pictures that do not speak of the warmth and generosity of the people. We may go to these places thinking we have something to teach, but more often than not we come back having realized that we have much to learn.


Written by Saul Williams

Originally published on Spinner.com

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