Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Saul Williams - Coded Language (African American Spoken word)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcases a video of Saul Williams sharing his spoken word poem "Coded Language". The lyrics to this spoken word poem are also included in this post. In addition, this post features excerpts from a 2008 interview with Saul Williams on the radio show "Fresh Air: The Alternative".

The Addendum of this post features an excerpt from a 2008 article about how White Republican candidates used coded language. The Addendum to this post also includes comments about what the term "code language" means, and comments about what I believe is the mistaken idea that African American Spirituals always contained coded language which indicated that someone was planning to flee slavery.

WARNING: Saul Williams' "Coded Language" contains two curse words. I've made an exception to this blog's policy by showcasing this video that includes profanity and by fully spelling those two curse words.

The content of this post is presented for cultural, motivational, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Saul Williams and Kirk Thompson for writing this poem. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to the publisher of this poem on YouTube.

Click for a pancocojams post that features another Saul Williams' poem entitled "This Type Of Love".

(Saul Williams, Kirk Thompson)

Whereas break beats have been the missing link
Connecting the Diasporic community to its drum woven past
Whereas the quantized drum has allowed the whirling
Mathematicians to calculate the ever changing distance
Between rock and stardom

Whereas the velocity of the spinning vinyl
Cross faded, spun backwards and re-released
At the same given moment of recorded history
Yet at a different moment in times continuum
Has allowed history, to catch up with the present

We do hereby declare reality unkempt by the changing
Standards of dialog, statements such as 'Keep it real'
Especially when punctuating or anticipating modes
Of ultra-violence inflicted psychologically or physically or depicting
An unchanging rule of events will hence forth be seen as retro-active
And not representative of the individually determined is

Furthermore, as determined by the collective consciousness
Of this state of being and the lessened distance
Between thought patterns and their secular manifestations
The role of men as listening receptacles is to be increased by a number
No less than 70 percent of the current enlisted as vocal aggressors

Motherfuckers better realize now is the time to self-actualize
We have found evidence that Hip Hops standard 85 RPM
When increased by a number as least half the rate of its standard
Or decreased at three quarters of it's speed
May be a determining factor in heightening consciousness

Studies show that when a given norm is changed in the face
Of the unchanging the remaining contradictions will parallel the truth
Equate rhyme with reason, sun with season, our cyclical relationship
To phenomenon has encouraged scholars
To erase the centers of periods thus symbolizing the non-linear
Character of 'cause and effect reject mediocrity

Your current frequencies of understanding outweigh that
Which as been given for you to understand
The current standard is the equivalent
Of an adolescent restricted to the diet of an infant
The rapidly changing body would acquire dysfunctional
And deformative symptoms and could not properly mature
On a diet of apple sauce and crushed pears

Light years are interchangeable with years of living in darkness
The role of darkness is not to be seen as or equated with ignorance
But with the unknown and the mysteries of the unseen
Thus, in the name of

Robeson, God's Son, Hurston, Ahkenaton
Hathsheput, Blackfoot, Helen, Lennon, Khalo
Kali, The Three Maria's, Tara, Lilithe, Lourde
Whitman, Baldwin, Ginsberg, Kaufman, Lumumba

Ghandi, Gibran, Shabazz, Shabazz, Siddhartha
Medusa, Guevara, Gurdsieff, Rand, Wright, Banneker
Tubman, Hamer, Holiday, Davis, Coltrane
Morrison, Joplin, Dubois, Clarke, Shakespeare

Rachmninov, Ellington, Carter, Gaye, Hathoway
Hendrix, Kutl, Dickerson, Ripperton, Mary, Isis
Theresa, Hensbury, Justlove, Plath, Rumi, Fellini
Michaux, Nostradamus, Nefertiti, La Rock, Shiva

Ganesha, Yemaja, Oshun, Obatala, Ogun, Kennedy
King, Four Little Girls, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Keller
Biko, Perone, Marley, Magalin, Cosby, Shakur
Those who burnt, those still aflamed and the countless unnamed

We claim the present as the pre-sent, as the hereafter
We are unraveling our navels so that we may ingest the sun
We are not afraid of the darkness, we trust that the moon shall guide us
We are determining the future at this very moment
We now know that the heart is the philosophers' stone

Our music is our alchemy, we stand as the manifested
Equivalent of three buckets of water and a hand full of minerals
Thus realizing that those very buckets turned upside down
Supply the percussion factor of forever, if you must count
To keep the beat then count

Find you mantra and awaken your subconscious
Curve you circles counterclockwise, use your cipher to decipher
Coded Language, man made laws, climb waterfalls and trees
Commune with nature, snakes and bees let your children
Name themselves and claim themselves as the new day, for today

We are determined to be the channelers of these changing
Frequencies into songs, paintings, writings, dance, drama
Photography, carpentry, crafts, love and love, we enlist every instrument
Acoustic, electronic every so called race, gender and sexual preference
Every person as beings of sound to acknowledge their responsibility
To uplift the consciousness of the entire fucking world

Any utterance unaimed will be disclaimed
Will be named Two Rappers Slain
Any utterance unaimed will be disclaimed
Will be named Two Rappers Slain


Def Poetry Jam - Saul Williams (Coded Language)

illwill718 Uploaded on Apr 6, 2007

No Copyright Infringement intended. I do not own this video.
Saul Williams performs his popular poetry piece Coded Language of Def Poetry Jam.

(on Fresh Air: The Alternative; Transcript by Korin McGinty, edited by DJ Matt Werner; April 17, 2009)
..."DJ MATT WERNER: Saul Williams, to continue with this discussion-I don’t mean to get too academic with it-but I really enjoy studying literature, and some of what you’re saying reminds me of this text I’ve been reading this semester: it’s Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, and it’s about this whole notion of deconstructing language. One thing that I think a lot of your poetry gets at is how words lack the ability to express the nature of true reality. In your track Release, you have some amazing lines like, “These words are not tools of communication, they are shards of metal dropped from eight-story windows.” ...

And it seems like in the decade I’ve been following your work, there’s this sort of struggle between reconciling language with how reality presents itself.

SAUL WILLIAMS: Yes, I think you have voiced it perfectly. There has been this struggle, although it’s not something that I seem to ponder too much nowadays. I think that being able to clearly articulate a thought, a feeling, an idea is possible. I believe that it’s possible. But within that, I think that there’s also a need to raise one’s ability to confront a topic, an issue, whether gracefully or ungracefully, but I think in that attempt to articulate something, there has to be a strong enough desire to want to articulate it because some things-well they say some things are left better unsaid-but truly I think there’s some things that we may be afraid of saying because of their resonant power, and so there are things that I’ve dodged and things that I haven’t wanted to say or haven’t felt ready to embody them or to hear them aloud, or what have you. But yeah, it’s certainly been a journey and that journey has included that struggle with wrestling with the [Saul gives a long exhale], just the ability of words, as you put it, to express truly what’s being felt. [pause] But I think that dance itself is poetry, you know?

DJ MATT WERNER: And in addition to your playing with language and your infusing with many different sort of linguistic and poetic traditions, another thing I’ve noticed is your interpretation and playing with many different religious and spiritual traditions...

SAUL WILLIAMS: Yeah, being born in this nation, I think that it’s been implicit that change is coming, and what have you, but at the same time there’s been a consistent need to express for many that we are so much more than how we are perceived. And you know that poem Sha-Clack-Clack is about that, it’s about realizing we’re so much more than the history that’s been taught us about ourselves, and I think it’s been necessary to crack that shell for people to begin to think outside of the box and imagine what sort of future or present is possible..

DJ MATT WERNER: Saul, thank you so much for your time. You have been listening to DJ Matt Werner’s exclusive interview with Saul Williams it was recorded over the phone on November 21, 2008."..

ADDENDUM: The Power of Words: Racially Coded Political Rhetoric by eeshap
..."With this [2008 campaign for Republican candidate for US President] contest, as in all past election years, we are subject to contortions of history and murky poetics of politically coded language.... I say “coded” because contrary to what the candidates are saying, we have to look to the way these words, words like “food-stamp president,” “socialist,” “entitlement” and many others are doing some heavy lifting in regards to race. They are imbued with meaning. If you don’t believe me just consider for a moment their “use.”

Consider the potential complicity with our racist legacies. [Audre] Lorde and [Ludwig] Wittgenstien, in each their own manner, asked us to assume responsibility for the act of listening to words for intent, for difference, and for the way they are used. Our competing parties and politicians give us competing aspirational narratives. Narratives that tell us a story about our history, and narratives that offer a vision of the future...

Racists, and those who stand by when racist things are said, or actively exploit racism themselves, do not do so with blatant pride (for the most part). Such are the victories of the civil/human/womens rights movements, of which we are proud and for which we are grateful. Open declarations of racism are out of vogue. Which means we must look closely for the deployment of coded language and its aims.

When candidates talk about race without actually talking about race they are acting in a subtle, yet powerful, way to make the discussion about policy and politics into one that is charged with race and racism. Language is power. It comes from history and walks through to the future. It creates and sustains meaning. It holds the past and forges the present. It matters, and its importance cannot be understated.

As Wittgenstein asserted, when investigating meaning, the philosopher must “look and see” the variety of uses to which the word is put. He said, in no uncertain terms, “Don’t think but look!”[iv] So when we look at this unyeilding use of clearly coded language, what do we see?

Here's my definition of "coded language" - words that have more than one meaning, words that say one thing but mean something else. "Dog whistles" are a negative example of "coded language".

"Dog-whistle politics is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. The phrase is used only as a pejorative, because of the inherently deceptive nature of the practice and because the dog-whistle messages are frequently themselves distasteful, for example by empathising with racist or revolutionary attitudes. The analogy is to a dog whistle, whose high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs but inaudible to humans.

The term can be distinguished from "code words" used by hospital staff or other specialist workers, in that dog-whistling is specific to the political realm. The messaging referred to as the dog-whistle has an understandable meaning for a general audience, rather than being incomprehensible."
One often repeated position is that most or all Spirituals that were sung by enslaved Black people in the United States always contained coded language. While some Spirituals (and some other songs) sung by enslaved Black people did include coded language sometimes, I think it's idiotic to believe that when enslaved Black people in the American South sung songs such as "Steal Away", "Get On Board", and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" it always meant that someone was planning to escape from slavery. Given the dangers of running away from slavery, it's unlikely that people would publicly announce that they planned to attempt that escape. Furthermore, if someone fled from the plantation every time those songs were sung, you would think that the overseers and owners of those enslaved people -not to mention the resident Black snitches- would get wise to the underground meaning of those songs.

Here are two comments about this point from a 2005 Mudcat folk music discussion thread that I started and participated: African American Secular Folk Songs

Subject: RE: African American Secular Folk Songs
From: GUEST,Allen
Date: 18 May 05 - 02:31 AM

"Pretty complacent, no make that stupid, slave-owner that just ignores 'hollering in the field'. Remember that there was a constant fear of slaves rising.
What I suspect they sometimes did was change a certain word or phrase.
I also don't think slaves would be too happy about someone with a big mouth singing songs that were about escape while planning just that."

Date: 18 May 05 - 06:09 AM

also FWIW, I agree with your comments on 18 May 05 - 02:31 AM.

I'm not sure if there is an old African proverb that says this, but here's a new African proverb that I just thought of that was inspired by your post:

"Big mouths can cause big trouble".

And when it came to slavery, that ain't no joke.

Severe whippings, mutilation, and being 'sold down the river' to the harshest form of slavery in the deep Southern states were the penalties for being caught trying to escape slavery.

Of course, even today "big mouths can cause big trouble".

Maybe it's just as well that this is a text only discussion forum.

I've read that some coded words in 19th century Southern Black secular songs announced a get together for the purpose of dancing or for religious purposes (Shout). Bessie Jones indicated that the song "Old Bill the rolling pin" was a coded referent to "paterollers" (White patrollers who rode around trying to catch Black people who were off their plantations without written passes). The words to that song are included in that Mudcat thread.

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