Saul Williams Speaks About New Album and How to Remain Subversive

Socially-conscious hip-hop has been an important theme since the genre's infant years, but actor/poet/rapper Saul William's industrial slam poet's approach to social injustice has the ability to rise above mere proselytizing.

His third full-length, 2007's The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! (produced by NIN's Trent Reznor) was a messianic concept album that presented a "ghetto gothic millionaire, a super duper star," who calls a new generation up to fight the powers that be. But even earlier, "Black Stacey," from Saul's self-titled sophomore release, was a call to action that came well before the melodrama of Drake and the brutal honesty of Kendrick Lamar. If you want to help rewrite the way hip-hop is dedicated, it helps to have a list of demands.

But given Williams' lead roles in the film Slam and Holler If Ya Hear Me, (a Broadway musical featuring music by Tupac), or all the poetry Saul writes, it's obvious the man has many talents. We called him up in New York to discuss everything from Alan Turing, the role of the arts, police brutality and Williams' upcoming fourth album, Martyr Loser King, about a hacker from Burundi.

New Times: I read that you lived in Brazil for a while. What was that like?

Saul Williams: I did, I lived there when I was 16. I was an exchange student. But actually, I didn't go to school when I was there because the teachers were on strike. And also, in this small city that I lived in, I learned that high school was only night school because students were expected to work in the fields during the day. I was in a farm community so they only had night school.

What city were you in?

I was in a city called Goioerê.

I also read that you performed alongside Allen Ginsberg.

I performed with Allen Ginsberg at New York University. I want to say it was 1996, although I'm not certain of the year, but it was the year that he died. It was just a few months before he died. [Editor's note: Allen Ginsberg died in 1997.]

Was he a big influence on you?

He continues to be a big influence on me. In fact, right now, I'm reading a book called Spontaneous Mind, which is a collection of interviews which he did over the course of his lifetime. And I would say his perspective on language, on poetry, on subversiveness, on the role of the poet, on the role of art itself is something that I meditate on and am inspired by to this day, for sure. More and more. More and more. His influence has grown on me over the years.

I like that word "subversiveness." Why is that an important theme?

It's the same thing you hear in the tech world, you know. They talk about disruption. How Uber disrupted taxi service, how Google Maps or the iPhone disrupted reality to a point where we no longer feel like we can live without that thing. It also breaks us away from our habits and creates new habits and what-have-you. I think that the role of the artist right now could really be used to disrupt cycles of forgetfulness in society. We buy into so much that is fed us by media and corporations; it sucks when you feel it in art.

When you get groups that you feel like were put together by record companies, that sing songs that all share a sort of content that's absent of everything that's happening in the streets and reality, songs that don't necessarily uplift, that say no more than what a soap or a laundry detergent commercial might say. It's disheartening at times to realize the disconnect that some artists have or develop in order to achieve this Western ideal of success.

When I think of the artists I love over the years, I would say they were there to disrupt. For example, Bad Brains, or The Dead Kennedys, or The Ramones were there to disrupt what the fuck was going on. Jimi Hendrix was there to disrupt. There's so many groups that were there to disrupt the nonsense and the bullshit, from Nina Simone to Bob Marley to Bob Dylan. They were there to disrupt the bullshit and to feed the minds of youth and people into realizing their power, to overthrow the powers that be, and to conquer that 1 percent through a collective sense of mobilization. Art conserves that purpose. Art doesn't have to have the boundaries that corporations have.

And so, I like that word subversiveness as well just because I feel like that's what missing right now. You know, I listen to a lot of stuff and I feel like a lot of, for example, a lot of what I hear in hip hop has the same values, in terms of girls, fast cars and money. As like anything else. Sometimes I turn to that stuff because I want to hear something different, not because I want to hear the same stuff allocated through a different medium.

This reminds me of your song "Black Stacey," which if I had to pick one, I would say is my favorite song by you. In the song, you have a call-to-action for people in hip hop to be more completely honest with themselves. And since that song came out several years ago, I wonder if you feel like there's been more of a shift in hip-hop or music in general towards that kind of attitude.

I mean, I think that things go in cycles. There may be moments where I address hip-hop or I address musicians, but in most senses I'm trying to speak to a bigger picture of humanity at large. To see us overcome our neuroses and puritan hypocrisies, which I think is a huge issue in America. We know the way we talk in real life, but the FCC bans us from speaking a particular way on the airwaves. And I just want to see an even playing field. I want to see life reflected as opposed to life being subverted to these minor forms where entertainment just becomes simply that -- entertainment and escape, rather than something that feeds and builds.

And people try to act like you can't dance to something that feeds and builds. I grew up on that music, from Public Enemy on up. There's so many ways in which art can play a huge role.

In terms of have I seen that in hip-hop, yes, of course I have. And at times, I haven't. Like I said, it's cyclical. I think we're at a big point in the cycle right now. An artist like myself can be nothing but inspired by the success of someone like Kendrick Lamar, for example. You can go, OK, OK. It's nice to see someone digging in and to see a response from the community that says, yo, that's dope. I get it.

I feel like it's really inspiring as well. It's more important to me to ignore the examples of when people aren't being stimulating.


I wanted to talk to you about [your upcoming album] Martyr Loser King. I read some interviews last summer and it sounds really exciting.

The only thing I'll tell you is that Martyr Loser King connects everything we're discussing right now. Let's say in America surrounding police brutality, for example, to everything that's happening in the world of technology to all the discussions we're having about gender and women equality and sexual orientation and all these different things. It's an album that deals with all of those realities and finds a way to move through all of those things and keep us on the dance floor.

It's an ongoing experiment in I guess I've always been interested in fusing the politics with the performance aspect of creativity. Because I think they're already there. I think if you don't blend them then you're just ignoring them because they're already inherent in anything we say or do, so why not acknowledge them and move with them?

So it's about that. In a more detailed way, it's the story of a hacker that is living in Central Africa in a country called Burundi, and eventually you'll get to learn what this guy's story is. The title is really intriguing to me because those are words that in Christian communities describe Jesus a lot and I thought about Niggy Tardust a lot, and that kind of has a messiah character in it, too. He's a martyr, a loser, a king.

I think of the martyrs as the other one percent. There's the one percent that we know about, in terms of Occupy Wall Street, and bankers and the rich and the elite, that small collective of people who own and have so much that if they were to share their wealth, the world would be alleviated of poverty. Then there's that one percent of people who have been willing to fight for something they believe in. And often, then punished, murdered, by the powers that be.

A lot of those names, you know who those people are, they end up becoming heroes for a lot of young people growing up. It's hard for us to imagine how much they had to go through in order to continue to exist even. That goes from anyone from poets, let's say an Oscar Wilde, to thinkers like an Alan Turing, who ends up jailed for his homosexuality to someone like Aaron Schwartz who commits suicide because the acts he commits on a computer being labeled as felonies or someone like Chelsea Manning.

I don't think you necessarily have to be killed in order to be a Martyr, Loser, King. It's really just about all of those people who give their all for the sake of humanity to blossom beyond its hypocrisy. And whose reward that they receive is punishment from the powers that be.

I will say this, there's a song that is on the album called Burundi just because you mentioned the messianic thing, really it's about the end of that. There's a song called Burundi that's inspired by a poem by a Sufi poet Rumi and he says, 'I'm a candle -- chop my neck a million times, I still burn bright and stand.' Which is to say, we reach a point where you may be able to take one of us down, but that fuse will always be relit. There's no way to really murder the fuse of resistance. Once that fuse is sparked in the minds of many, then really there's nothing that society or the government can do except listen to us.

Obviously you pay a lot of attention to world news and political happenings and everything in between. Sometimes, it can get kind of overwhelming. How do you handle it? How do you keep yourself from going crazy or getting really depressed about everything? Good question. For me, what works is expression. Writing songs, writing poems, working on creative projects. That's really my therapy, that's what helps me make it through. You know, all of these layers of strata of just crazy news and I can't fucking believe it news and what the fuck not again news and I can't believe they're trying to do this to them news and I can't believe they're trying to do this to us news and all this shit. Having a creative voice and realizing there's a platform that I can sing from, speak from, recite from, act from, that's what really keeps me going. Otherwise, you're right, I would probably fucking lose it. But that's my ventilation process.

Troy Farah is (somewhat) subversive on Twitter.

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Troy Farah is an independent journalist and documentary field producer. He has worked with VICE, Fusion, LA Weekly, Golf Digest, BNN, Tucson Weekly, and Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Troy Farah