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The Inevitable Rise and Transcendence of Saul Williams

We spoke to Saul Williams about his new record 'MartyrLoserKing' and life itself.

Illustration by Stefani Akner

When you're in the presence of Saul Williams, you feel time and space slow down. When he arrived for our interview, he was wearing what looked like a cloak, his wrists adorned with various bracelets and bands. He looked like some kind of modern mystic, carrying with him a series of invisible energies. Growing up alongside his work, one sees his ideas working and emerging in different ways. In music, he weaves back and forth between creating hip-hop that gives tribute to works of the past, and coinciding with ultra-modern, sleek production. On screen, he absorbs himself in a variety of different roles, playing in movies like K-Pax and Slam and stage productions like the short-lived Broadway production, Holler If You Hear Me.

But at the core of all this is poetry, language's inherent beauty, and the innate power you can pack into a word, whether intentional or not. The title of his new record MartyrLoserKing comes from a French person trying to say "Martin Luther King" and mispronouncing it, truly capturing the weird wonders of translation. When you talk to Saul, or walk with Saul, it can feel like he's on some other plane, broadcasting thoughts and images down for the rest of us. It allows him to create music that stands alone and ubiquitous, albums like The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust that employ pounding industrial production that would later trickle down into groups like Death Grips.

MartyrLoserKing is poignant and contemporary, calling forward issues that affect us globally. It evokes images of hacking into every system around you to incite change, staunchly planting oneself against a police force we pay for and created, the innate sadness of having the technological power to create change but also having much of it locked away by corporations. The album is an umbrella in a storm of injustice, it helps us stand against wrongdoing with all the hope in our hearts. It unites different genres and people, no matter how far removed they might appear.

NOISEY: I was a big goth kid in middle school. I remember learning that Trent Reznor was producing a hip-hop record, which would turn out to be your third LP, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust. I checked out your self-titled album, and dug it, up until the fourth track, “Act 3 Scene 2.” I have the clearest vision of completely weeping and breaking down during the third verse of that song. It was the first time I felt connected to a political situation, something greater than myself, and felt that there was something I could do about it at a young age. So, thank you.
Saul Williams: [Laughs] Oh man. That’s crazy. I think that recording specifically, and lots of recordings I made like that, I’m a big listener. I had my big breakthroughs in terms of epiphanies and about politics, life, what have you, through music. And making music, especially on that album I reference somebody in front of a speaker listening because I remembered how excited I was when an artist I liked came out with new music. That process of listening to something for the first time, dissecting lyrics. So that music was made for that experience, and I’m glad it worked. [Laughs]

Do you remember the first thing that did that for you in music?
There’s a few things. I remember one time was when "Welcome To The Terrordome" by Public Enemy was out. I was a senior in high school, after, like, a concert. We were in the band room having a party, and we were blasting that song and I remember everyone dancing. There’s that part of the song where it’s like “The shootin of Huey Newton from the hand of a nigga that pulled the trigger.” And the beat changes up, guitar comes in, and I remember having a tear well up just from looking at the people dance. He says “Make them all jump and dance to the revolution." I remember saying “It’s working,” the idea of what Public Enemy was doing.

I remember a few years later with Pete Rock & CL Smooth, “They Reminisce Over You.” I was going to a club with my friends. We were here in New York crossing the old George Washington Bridge. I was sitting in the back of an SUV facing out, looking at the lights of the city and blasting that song, and just listening to the words and being like “Wow this is so powerful and touching.” For me, there was always that and also because I felt a proximity to the birth itself of hip-hop. Whenever hip-hop made steps, whether the first time at the Grammys or first time anything, I always felt personally invested. Like “Wow look how far we’ve come. It’s my baby.”

Yeah, cause you grew up just outside of the city right?
Yeah, I grew up sixty miles north of New York City. Just far enough to still get the radio stations in a place called Newburgh, NY. Newburgh was a little crazy: For the past 40 years it's had the highest crime rate, drug trafficking rate, murder rate in New York State at just 30,000 people. Still, to this day. It’s a crazy little city on the Hudson right across from Beacon. So I grew up there thinking the violence that I witnessed was normal, that it was everywhere in America. And so I would come here from the time I was twelve. I was coming here every Saturday to take the mid-train or the bus to go to acting class in the West Village. Come by myself doing that. I did that from twelve until I graduated high school. Came into the city on a regular basis. Most people in Newburgh are commuters.

Was acting something you originally found for yourself or did your parents really push you into it?
I decided myself, they just supported me. I decided when I was eight because I did a school play. It was Julius Caesar, and I played Mark Antony in third grade. I loved it. I loved everything about it. For my costume I wore one of my sister’s skirts, and I had these silver boots and a tinfoil sword. [Laughs] The "friends and countrymen" monologue and all that kind of stuff. I came home and told my parents “I want to be an actor when I grow up.” My dad was like “I’ll support you as an actor if you get a law degree.” My mom was like “You should do your next school report on Paul Robeson."

Because I started studying Paul Robeson, by the time I got to college I realized I didn’t want to get a law degree, that I wanted to go full-head on into acting. And I was in grad school for acting at Tisch, and I started writing poetry. And here the underground hip-hop scene, slam scene were all being born in the 90s. And so that opened up a world of possibilities: be an actor during the day and go to an open mic that night. I was doing a lot of open mics before doing slam. There were a lot of cats coming up that way. Yasiin Bey, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, I knew all those people from the poetry readings. And it wasn’t just poetry, people would rap, people would sing, people would dance, play instruments. It was really open mic culture in the cafes in New York at the time. I really found my voice there, beyond saying other people’s words in a play.

Is it ever weird coming back to Brooklyn? Clearly it’s a whole different deal than it was before.
No, it’s not weird. [Laughs] I have a special relationship with Brooklyn. My mother and father were both born and raised in Brooklyn. My dad is from Brownsville. My mom’s from East New York. My grandfather for my entire life lived in Williamsburg. So I know this place from way before when people arrived. It’s not really... I mean we joke about it. [Laughs] It is what it is, these things happen in cycles, right? But the only thing I find weird is the edge that’s been lost since Giuliani and Bloomberg. It’s like the majority of the cats you see around here aren’t really from New York, and that influx is normal. But there was something particularly special about a New Yorker, and parts of that edge. I mean, you felt that when Eric Garner or Occupy... you could feel it, like “Oh wait.”

I’d like to see more people who are moving here engaging with the energy with New York rather than bringing the energy of Iowa to New York. [Laughs] I don’t know what that means, but I guess to me that means you see people standing on the sidewalk waiting for the light to change before they cross. And that’s not how you’re supposed to do it in New York. [Laughs]

Why do you think the edge was lost?
I think the amount to which we’ve ingested pop culture without question can be harmful. I felt it at the advent of the reality show, like “This is fucking bullshit. You guys really wanna watch this?” It watered down so much of culture, creativity, entertainment, you see with American Idol and all that, the idea of “Make me a star!” That fifteen minutes, I feel like we’ve really reached that high point of the Andy Warhol shit where we saw so many people get their fifteen minutes. And that’s not to say everybody is undeserving at all, it’s just to say we’ve narrowed down entertainment into celebrity and escapism. And entertainment, music, literature can be so much more. You think when they showed Do the Right Thing in the late 80s and them having riots at the movie theaters because of that. You think, shit, people going crazy and rioting when Wagner played back in the day. [Laughs] Just the fact that music can have strength, and it sucks sometimes to see people not using it. It sucks in the same way when you see an artist is putting out songs more so as a branch of a money making system than an investment in music. Music is so powerful and sacred in that sense—film, art in general.

I feel like in many ways American societyand New York is a reflection of thatstarts to narrow down possibility by being less punk. It’s when we accept the uniform, we accept what we’re told without question, we just buy into shit. We need more punks, we need anarchists, we need the thing they tried to wipe out during Occupy. We need people in that “fuck it mode,” and we have it, but places like Williamsburg could use it more. There’s a lot of privilege walking around and obliviousness. Americans in general could afford to be more engaged with other American people. They could afford to realize what it means to be here. Like knowing who are the Manhattan Indians. What does it mean to live here?

I remember reading this short story by George Saunders called “Brad Carrigan, American” and there’s this one quick part that really stuck with me, where these friends are on a reality show called “Final Twist” where they end up eating their own mothers in a prank. And it’s all about the complete savagery of reality TV to be really mean and terrible to one another. In a way I think having an edge or toughness requires a kind of vulnerability and courage as opposed to malicousness and indifference
Right. The idea of rooting for the underdog. For example, you think that funny Meek Mill/Drake moment: funny for some, not funny for others. But to see so many people rooting for the winner... there’s something shallow and mean-spirited about what that quest for celebrity brings out. You see it in social media. You see straight into people’s heads, someone’s attempt to be funny or cruel. You see all of these things. There’s a new form of silence we have to try and find because we have so much access, and some of us are choosing to communicate more than we normally would. We’re choosing to speak when we might normally be silent. But now, we can communicate the entire commute and be silent. [Laughs] I don’t know how it evolves culture, but it definitely evolves culture. I’m not yearning for some retro relationship with culture, I think it represents our unawareness and the things we haven’t developed yet. It’s reflected when you see so many poor white people choosing Trump when Trump isn’t a friend of poor white people. Like that anger, blinding the possibility of seeing beyond and choosing because of the idea of groupthink. The primal association that everyone has to fight in themselves, because we’re all born belonging to one group or another, and we can become nationalistic about that group, predatory about that group.

When you look at neighborhoods like this that have changed, you have to question the idea of inclusiveness. You can’t be oblivious to the idea of a place not being inclusive. And, on the other sideif there is another sidethere has to be a desire to explore or experience when self-doubt gets in the way. America and humanity is an interesting space because technology is evolving us. We evolve it, and it evolves us. And that’s how it should be, like music or art. You plant great ideas in music or art, it gets people thinking in new ways. That’s my critique of music at times, like “This is fresh, but it’s just commenting on the times. It’s not progressing the times.” That’s what MartyrLoserKing was about, trying to progress the times through music in the same way you might try to spark a conversation and get away from small talk. Like, what if we played with beats and sounds?

What does martyrism mean to you?
I’ve been playing with the idea of the martyr as the other 1%. The martyr would be the person who gives their life to service to humanity. Meaning you can even do that without dying. Someone like Mandela, or Mother Theresa, someone in service like a kindergarten teacher, giving their self for the betterment of humanity. And that includes people like, the moment Chelsea Manning decided “I’m going to go ahead and share these files.” She martyred herself and knew she’d either be in prison or killed. Or she didn’t expect to get away with it. Edward Snowden didn’t expect to get away with it. On the other hand you have unknowing martyrs like Aaron Swartz who in downloading a bunch of books that were already free from MIT gets 13 felonies and commits suicide from the pressure. I don’t think he expected to get made an example of, and that’s the other role of the martyr. Michael Brown is a martyr in that sense, Tamir Rice is a martyr in that sense.

There’s tons of people that have been martyrs. And there’s the erroneous use of the word, using violence in the idea of martyrdom. The media throws around using the term “terrorist.” There’s that too. Those are the people that bastardize terms, like ISIS bastardizing the Egyptian goddess Isis. Or Starbucks bastardizing the image of Yemaya. That mermaid. But I like coffee. [Laughs]

One thing I’ve always noticed in your music to me is an idea of preservation, be it culture or the self. Even when I heard “Burundi” on The Breakfast Club a couple years ago, all I could think of was the tragicness of a candle creating light but being temporary. What do you think preservation means to you?
I’ve never really thought about it too much. I guess I think of it in terms in balance. I work a lot, tour a lot, speak a lot, and I like working in varied fields like with an orchestra or reciting poems, with a band. I go hard. And I’m also a parent and a husband. It becomes important for me to balance that work with pleasure, and play with being an audience member, being a listener, the one to make dinner. With a chill time in front of a fireplace. The balance is what brings that self-preservation, but I feel it’s also crucial to avoid those comfort zones that make you read less or watch films less and critique less. I’m just happy, for example, when I moved to Paris. Not just because of the romantic idea of Paris but because I was immersed in another culture and forced to change my relationship to time and communication. I had to learn another language, and how to enjoy a weekend a different way when everything is closed, and everyone else is enjoying it. You eat dinner at nine or ten. You start hanging with people there, you slip into the way they live. And then you’re practicing another culture. And that does something too, you work different muscles and parts of the brain. I always think about what my personality must sound like in French. I can say the same things, but there’s different intonations and ways to say those same things and ideas. There’s the language itself and how you say it, like “I hate that!” That can’t be easily understood. You understand the nuances of culture, and it makes you hyper aware of your own culture.

Does death scare you at all?
Not really, no. Nah, I’m frightened by violence. I don’t like violence. I don’t like to see it, to be around it, it doesn’t have to be physical. I don’t like violent communication. Which keeps me away from the comment section a lot. [Laughs]