The first time I saw Sage Francis in the flesh was in 2001 and he was pressing himself against a window yelling: "Perform for me!" I was sitting inside, behind a typewriter, for reasons too secondary to this review to recount. Sadly enough I did not perform for him, which would have made for a better story. Francis was fresh out of a radio interview where he had shocked Iceland's shlockiest shock jocks by giving shout outs to "all my inner child molesters." This was in 2001. I did not know who he was at the time, beyond him being a rapper that friends of mine really liked. He started his show last Saturday by introducing himself: "I'm Sage Francis, I'm in Iceland to fuck your kids." Some things never change.
Sage Francis' music did not enter my consciousness until October that same year when ‘Makeshift Patriot’ hit the internet. It was the first time I had heard someone articulate my own response to the destruction of the World Trade Center. Shock and sorrow at the horror and tragedy, mixed with a growing fear that the world was turning towards a period war and repression. I downloaded as much as I could and procured a copy of his ‘Sick Of Waging War’ album.
He came back to Iceland in 2002. But I did not see Sage Francis perform. His show was on the same night as a Godspeed You! Black Emperor concert, my other overriding musical obsession of the time. For me it was like having to pick between The Beatles and Elvis. I went with Godspeed reasoning that it was more likely that I would have an opportunity to see Sage Francis in the near future. I ended up seeing them three times in the next calendar year. Last Saturday's gig, a decade later, was the first time I saw Sage Francis rap. It lived up to the wait. A show of beauty and power. Every head nodding in rhythm, facing Sage. Watching the crowd was like seeing a heart valve contract and open.
This was my first time seeing Sage Francis rap, but not the first time I saw him perform. In 2002 I went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts as an exchange student. That fall there was a huge spoken word poetry festival at the school and Sage Francis performed. The stage was out on a huge lawn in front of the library and the whole festival remains a beautiful, diamond-cut memory in my head. I lived in Providence, Rhode Island for five years, where he is from, and I saw him perform poetry a few times. The spoken word style sometimes comes through in Sage Francis’ hip hop, and he has even put some poems on his records. He did ‘Hopeless’ off ‘Personal Journals’ and the second to last thing he did was a new spoken word poem about his recent experience of working with HIV infected kids in South Africa.
I should take a moment to mention B. Dolan, who opened up for Sage Francis. I would mention first act Ha Why too, but sadly I did not arrive early enough. B. Dolan, also from Rhode Island, also making a name for himself in the spoken word scene around the turn of the century, put on a great show. He wore a hangman's noose like a tie and American flag sunglasses while rapping about topics ranging from the death of Ol' Dirty Bastard to Joan of Arc (who had a dildo named Jesus and wondered why Christ never came). He was not the headline attraction but he won the crowd over quickly, which formed into a semicircle with him at the centre, everyone waving in rhythmic unison like a time-lapse flower.
Sage Francis had no need to win the crowd over. Two thirds of the audience rapped along with him on every song (excepting the new ones). The rest, those who were not already true believers, fell in with majority. People listened with reverence. Those unfamiliar appreciating a new voice. The true believers feeling like they were at the source of the words they had been listening to for years. A decade ago Sage Francis had a reputation for being a wild man. Now he's calmed down. During last Saturday's show he talked about how he used to fizzing with energy. Hip hop, breakdancing, graffiti coursing through his veins. But then he said: "Do you know what I think is more beautiful than graffiti? Nature." Some things do change.
After Sage Francis had performed the track ‘Makeshift Patriot’, my friend leaned over to me and said: "Every single word on that song is just right. They just are right where they should be." Throughout his career Sage Francis has made a habit of putting words right where they should be. He did not put a word wrong at Saturday's concert.
Sage Francis ended his show at Sódóma Reykjavík last Saturday rapping while he surfed the crowd, lying on his back, supported by dozens of arms, with a motionless Sage suspended in the air, words emanating from his unseen mouth. It was a triumphant end to a wonderful show. Every line he said hit the target, every beat moved through the crowd like a wave on the ocean surface.