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SAULT's 5-album drop deepens its long-standing communal values

SAULT's work reinforces the sonic connections between global Black communities — from Africa to the Americas — and brings in a multitude of voices to tell an undivided story.
Courtesy of the Artist
SAULT's work reinforces the sonic connections between global Black communities — from Africa to the Americas — and brings in a multitude of voices to tell an undivided story.

Across 12 releases over three years, the London ensemble SAULT has posed a number of increasingly existential questions: "Why do fools always have something to say?" (7, 2019), "Can you forgive your people?" (Untitled (Black Is), 2020), "Can't you see the light's in your hands?" (Nine, 2021), "How do you fight for love?" (11, 2022). On Nov. 1, the group released five albums for free as a .zip file (the password was 'godislove'): Today & Tomorrow, AIIR, Earth, 11 and Untitled (God). (The albums have since been officially added to streaming platforms.) It's a trove of music depicting an unidentified group of artists constantly in process, but the release also feels defiant in a culture of marketing concessions and tidy narratives. And so SAULT's questions are more than lyrical musings from inquisitive minds, emerging as signposts on the path to making your own meaning, of the music, and of life beyond it.

SAULT is a constellation of musicians connected to rapper Little Simz, producer Inflo and singer/songwriter Cleo Sol. Uncertainty is typically the atmosphere of their sound — reflecting the weather outside — but within that tension there's always uplift, and because of its capacity to hold both the music gives comfort.

Study, citation and synthesis is their methodology. Listeners often describe SAULT's fast-growing body of work as cross-genre, but the approach isn't anthropological or didactic. Instead it feels practical, like tradition, which acknowledges that "soul" and "hip-hop" and "gospel" and "reggae" have social and spiritual application, too. God is in the history of pop music. With that unique perspective, SAULT's work reinforces the sonic connections between global Black communities — from Africa to the Americas — and brings in a multitude of voices to tell an undivided story.

Repetition is key to this approach, and who could better demonstrate that kind of discipline than musicians? SAULT's discography, including the new five, is bound by that motion, a ritual groove that offers an aesthetic cohesion — but also a feeling of clarity. Repetition stretches the imagination and makes a message like "dancing together / marching together / fighting together / the strength is in us," enchanting and persuasive. It reveals human complexity, like when Cleo Sol's refrain dissolves into the machine and the voices of others at the beginning of "Glory." The pattering hand drums and sweet harmonies that repeat on "God Is In Control" call you close, into a circle of people that span age, history, musical ability, language, from across the ocean in Brazil.

Repetition is a tool of devotion, and also survival. This is the political commitment embedded in SAULT's genre studies across these five new albums: From prog to neo-soul, dub to trip-hop, gospel to soul and funk, it's an archive of Black musicians breathing. Though the classical orchestra on AIIR — a companion to April's AIR — might seem like a vibe shift, the sighing precision of its soaring choirs and rustling pit fits that mandate.

In 1961, pianist and bandleader Horace Tapscott founded the Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra, a community ensemble that is still in existence. It was formed in the absence of union membership for working Black musicians in Los Angeles, and as a way to preserve and share the music of Black composers. In a 1968 article for The Cricket, a four-issue magazine founded by Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal and AB Spellman, the critic Stanley Crouch praised Tapscott as, "[O]ne of the Black Artists who understand what the Black Renaissance is really about: A structural reordering of Black community's [sic] along heavier standards, purer ways of living, changes of values."

Contemporary neoliberalism loomed on the horizon. So, too, did Crouch's cultural conservatism, but in The Cricket his idealism still resonated: "For Art is for everybody, not some way of establishing one's self as a 'star.' The Artist is talking about ways to live, and living, the way of breathing and touching, loving and moving Godward, has nothing to do with competition," he wrote, then noting, "and as we know, no one competes or creates a whole system of competing with God but the white man." SAULT clocks this corrupt impulse by situating the practice of art — and the labor of music production — within the collective. The communal approach isn't simply an aesthetic goal: It situates art within the community.

When you study history in school you're told to think, and not feel. Like Tapscott, the revolving members of SAULT have used their gifts to solve for that trick: They've played music together. In these offerings, listeners are invited to hear an articulation of values and feelings, to shake loose our own questions, and consider, amongst the chorus, conditions that go beyond the individual. On "Free," from Untitled (God), Little Simz mirrors the cadence of a kid named Rafael flexing his devotion on an earlier interlude: "I pray in the morning, I pray before I go to the cinemas, I even pray when I'm sleeping!" He giggles and flows. Simz picks it up with prayers weighed by adult anxieties: "I pray they free up my brothers in cuffs, I pray for those feeling down on they luck, I pray you realize you are enough." Cleo Sol also repeats the motif on the breakdown of "I Surrender," singing "I pray in the morning, pray before I sleep at night." These echoes between a schoolkid and artists signal that everyone has something to contribute to the story of being alive.

SAULT brings us these voices, from beyond the studio: an orchestra rehearsing, a living room jam session, church service, a schoolroom, inside a prayer. It's here, in the quietest space, where SAULT offers up the questions that live inside another's heart.

This communalism isn't just an artistic approach, it's a statement of labor. Withdrawing from the work of music is a way of worshiping art, and practicing other ways of being. Fans and critics call the group enigmatic because they don't tour, do press or post that much about anything, really, all while giving music, made with discipline and clarity, away for free. In this technological epoch 'anonymity' is unfashionable because, materially, it doesn't really exist. It is also protection, a safeguard against ego and credit-seeking — and competition. And the musicians of SAULT advocate for cooperation by yielding to the solace, and solidarity, in an ensemble. This music is meticulous and raw, and vibrates with the contradicting energies of all those people, creating shoulder-to-shoulder.

SAULT's music suggests divinity void of control or coercion, in order to contemplate our common human needs: love, creation, a space to express fear and rage and faith. Five albums isn't a sermon; it's a vista and a refusal, abundance and fun. Modernity tries to confine spirituality to institutions, which is why we need art — to preserve humanity's relationship to faith. And the group of people who made this music are showing up with respect for the value of our attention. This is the potency of gospel music — all music — even for non-believers of all traditions. Listen close and you might ask yourself: What do I have faith in? Hope for? How do I fight for love?

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Anupa Mistry