It was Sunday afternoon, deep underground in the sub-basement studio of community radio WVVY, and they were having what one of the flustered on-air staff called “real extreme technical difficulties.”
The monitor outside the studio, an ancient Aiwa radio cassette, was not picking up any signal. Hurried phone calls were made and the suspicion was confirmed: the station was not broadcasting the program, although it was apparently going out okay to a small number of online listeners.
Others were frazzled. Ben Williams, however, who first noticed the technical problem and whose program was about to start, appeared unperturbed by either the technical glitch or the failure of some friends to turn up to perform with him.
A little late, at 3:15, he went on to present his hour of music, interspersed with some of his own freestyle rapping. The problems became material.
“When I’m trying to get the low power to WVVY, don’t think that this Tisbury sound will die,” he rhymed.
It was a remarkable thing to witness. Standing before the console, facing a concrete block wall, over a repetitive beat, he just pulled material out of his head, none of it pre-written, all rapid-fire and complex rhythm and rhyme schemes, for minutes at a time.
And the stuff the audience does not hear, his off-air, non-rhyming, rapid freestyle conversation, is equally amazing. In short order Ben Williams, a.k.a. Realize, will put down his views on philosophy, poetry, politics, religion, race, censorship, you name it, with reference to Martin Buber, Karl Jung, Friedrich Neitzsche, Martin Luther King, the Bible, the Koran, the Federal Communications Commission rules, various poets, you name it.
I mean, the guy’s only 17. How many 17-year-olds do you know who would try to explain the spiritual content of a rap song by citing Victor Hugo? “Religions come and go, but God goes on forever.”
He does it without obvious pretension. A heaping measure of idealism, perhaps, but not pretension.
It defies the understanding so many people have of rap — indeed the reality of much of what gets radio airplay — as an angry and visceral and coarse art form. So why would he choose it as his means of expression?
First point, said the poet, is that one has to separate the medium from the message.
“I am actually quite critical of gansta rap,” he said, speaking now at Che’s Lounge, Tisbury, not the studio.
“If you look at the culture of it, it’s so fascist and Orwellian. Like, ‘I’m tougher than you are.’ It’s based on threats and fear and this image of hard core.
“That’s not what I’m into. I don’t listen to rap on the radio. I don’t go round with a chain.
“But Rap just stands for rhythm and poetry. People are just given a beat to lay their thoughts out.
“Spoken word poetry is an art form like no other. The words aren’t written on a page. They’re not dead, they’re not dusty. You can make them so relevant,” he said.
“Spoken word poetry is this opportunity to express the deepest things, the most important things, to a crowd. That kind of expression is quintessential to a democracy, which is based on the people.”
It can be both political and personal, he said. And freestyling, where you essentially verbalize whatever pops into your head, can sometimes blend the two in surprising ways.
“Sometimes, there are things inside of you that you don’t really know are there, and sometimes you find yourself saying things you don’t really agree with at all.
“When you are trying to quickly associate words you might say things that are racist or homophobic, for example. Then you realize how deeply ingrained in your concscience (sic) they are,” he said.
Those are sobering and instructive moments. And, he said, there are other times of “immense freedom” or great catharsis.
“Times I’ve had terrible situations with my family or something else I can’t come to grips with, and it will just unravel itself, through words.”
Rap, he said, is something he can see himself always doing, and maybe even make a living from.
“Just this year I was teaching classes [to younger students at the Oak Bluffs School, as part of his senior independent project] and I got the feeling, “Wow, this is something I could be doing for the rest of my life.’
“At some point I’d like to take a year off from college and just travel poetry venues...”
As for college, he is still waiting to see. Most probably it will be Tufts. As for exactly what he would study, he’s not sure.
“I have a list of maybe a dozen possible majors,” he said.
But it will be something in the arts, and something which will lend itself to some kind of social activism.
“I’m a person who gets really into something when it’s going poorly. At the height of the Bush Administration, 2004-2005, I was really into politics. I felt the country was going in the wrong direction.”
Now he sees Barack Obama as a great hope, and has shifted his attention elsewhere. “I see the media conglomerates, Rupert Murdoch, and I see the FCC allowing a conglomerate to own newspapers and TV in the same city and I really want to be a journalist.”
Whatever it is, the important thing is not to slow down.
“That,” he said, “is the one thing I’m really proud of. I’m an idealist. I think belief in what you can achieve is so important.”
Back in the studio, he talked as another pre-recorded track was playing. Music to Slit Wrists By, it was called, which prompted the question of whether all this philosophy and knowledge of the world and this precocious engagement made him happy.
He took a rare pause, to consider.
“When you really get into art,” he said, “it’s all questions with very few answers. And if you really want to be an artist, you really shouldn’t be in it to be happy unless you’re going to hide from the truth. I think that the harshness of things is pretty intense.
“So, I wouldn’t say that I’m not happy, but I’m not content.”
Listen for freestyle rap from Ben Williams, aka Realize, and friends on Sundays at 4 p.m. on 93.7 FM, or online at wvvy.org or at occasional Island poetry slams.