Saul Williams Speaks About New Album and How to Remain Subversive

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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.

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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