Sitting down with Saul Williams almost feels like a therapy session with a psychologist. The personal anecdotes and ideologies that emerge from our 30-minute conversation become nothing short of mindblowing. By the time our talk ends, one can’t help but feel more enlightened. This isn’t just an interview, but a lesson in unapologetic acceptance. In these times of #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarSoWhite, it almost feels necessary. Just like the rest of black America, he has had enough which explains why his fifth studio album MartyrLoserKing is so brash, angry, purposely fractured and sonically beautiful. For someone like Williams who has spent his career pushing the boundaries of everything from slam poetry to music in ingenious ways, it makes sense.
Speaking with HipHopDX on the stairs of DJ Skee’s Skee Lodge, Williams explains the meaning behind MartyrLoserKing, being a fan of both Torae and Young Thug and opinions of this year’s upcoming Oscar ceremonies.
MartyrLoserKing Is Saul Williams’ “Middle Finger To The Bullshit”
DX: You performed recently alongside Bilal during the MLK Now Event on Martin Luther King Day. What was the experience like considering almost every major influential black figure were in attendance?
Saul Williams: It was beautiful. Man, that event was beautiful. Everybody did such a wonderful job. Can’t complain at all. To hear people like Michael B. Jordan read a Fred Hampton speech or Harry Belafonte talk about how when he met Martin Luther King at 26-years-old and how all the activists we read about from the Civil Rights movement were teenagers was inspiring. They were reminding us that it was teenagers who inspired the movement.
DX: Last year was an interesting time in race and ethnicity. Where do young people fit into that discussion in 2016?
Saul Williams: Well, I think it’s a powerful fucking time to be in this country and in this world where we have access to all of this media and technology where our voices can be heard. We have the power to disrupt the bullshit that’s been going on for centuries. And, we are. It’s all about that for me now. It’s all about disruption. It’s all about rage and fucking energy that says “Fuck that.” Fuck the systemic policies that have stood against us through time. Now is the time. So 2016 is the continuation of that. And, it’s going to go on for a minute because you can’t fool yourself into thinking that people aren’t going to fight back. You can’t think that people aren’t going to stand up and say “it’s too complicated for change.” Some people think it’s too complicated to switch to solar from anything else that’s self-destructive. But, it’s necessary. These are necessary changes. And, so we have to keep on progressing.
DX: That’s one of the central themes of MartyrLoserKing.
Saul Williams: That’s everything MartyrLoserKing is about. MartyrLoserKing is about that. It’s about that middle finger to the bullshit. It’s about standing up against the nonsense and saying “You know what? Fuck that.” I’m not playing your game anymore. And even for me as an artist, MartyrLoserKing sounds exactly how I wanted it to sound. It speaks exactly to what I want to speak to. I don’t give a fuck about radio play. I don’t give a fuck about whether people download it for free, stream it or purchase it. I think that we have to use art for what it is which is an alternative form of energy, just like wind or solar, that can mobilize people to think, to grow, to feed them. And that’s what I intend to do with my art. MartyrLoserKing is about that.
DX: There’s this beautiful distortion that’s at the sonic bottom of the album. Where were you going musically with the project?
Saul Williams: Beats and bass. The main thing with MartyrLoserKing that I was experimenting with was a minimalism where the beat is implied. I like to call them invisible beats. If you listen to the first track on the album “Groundwork,” there are moments where the beat is not there, but you know the beat. You feel the beat. You can tell where I’ve placed my voice where the beat is. It’s all about those invisible beats and just subtly. I don’t think that the American aesthetic allows enough room for subtlety. I think subtlety is important for art. It doesn’t have to be over the head and hitting you over the head with something. There are the subtle nuances of art that are sometimes more lasting. It’s been about that for me musically. Heavy bass and I’ve always been heavily particular about beats.
DX: Some weeks back, Torae released his Entitled project which featured you on the “Imperial Sounds” track. Considering the more experimental sounds of MartyrLoserKing, it was pretty cool seeing you on more traditional rap stuff.
Saul Williams: I’m a Hip Hop head. For me, that’s what opened the door halfway for appreciating music. It was Hip Hop for me. I’m a big fan of Torae and of the Skyzoo & Torae work. Just a big fan of all the different sounds. The New York boom bap. I’m a fan of drill music and all the gargle rap shit. I’m a big fan of trap. I’m more of a fan than anything else. When I’m home, half the time I’m listening to Young Thug and shit. I’m a fan of a lot of artists.
DX: Seems like everything in Hip Hop is blurred when it comes to sub-genres.
Saul Williams: For me, I like a lot of people. I like more people than I dislike. Some people think that I always have something positive to say or something like that, but I’m a stylist first. What I’m really into is the styles and presentation and how someone may place their voice over a beat. Even if they have nothing nutritious to say, how they’re saying it is enough for me to love this song. That’s something that I started getting into back in the day with Project Pat. I’m a big fan of Project Pat. There are lots of cats like that who I’m big fans of because I hear that voice and repetition. You just get it.
DX: There’s also a graphic novel accompanying the project. Where does that interest come into play?
Saul Williams: Graphic novels are a great way of exploring narrative and telling a story. First, you think about comics and you think it’s for kids or what have you. In fact, there have been graphic novels that approached profound titles. For me as a writer of poetry, writing a graphic novel was exciting for because in a book of poetry you know what you’re going to get. In a graphic novel, you and I sitting on this step can be the scene that you see in a panel. Your socks, t-shirt or brand of sneaker can be poetry. It broadens the context in which poetry can exist. It can just be the tag on the wall of a background in a scene.
DX: You have a favorite?
Saul Williams: I have lots of favorites. Lone Wolf & Cub and Habibi. There are quite a few that I like. I don’t have a singular favorite.
DX: How do you take something visual and transform that into something musical.
Saul Williams: Well, it’s the other way around. I pulled the story from the music. Even before I had written out the treatment and narrative surrounding MartyrLoserKing, I had a bunch of ideas in my head. I turned to instruments in music first and started programming the sounds that sounded like the world I was imagining. Then I pulled the ideas and narrative out of those sounds.
Saul Williams Speaks On A Time Where He Once “Hated White People”
Identifying one’s blackness seems to be one of the struggles that have seemed to dissipate over the last few years. Looking right now at someone as yourself who has always seemed comfortable in their own skin as a black man, have we reached a point to where it’s OK to be black in the general sense?
Saul Williams: There’s a push and pull. There’s this thing where we have to be careful about our reactionary positioning in relation to identity. Primarily because there are no Africans on the continent of Africa thinking to themselves as black. It has everything to do with what was imposed on us or what have you. We brandish and hold high our identity so hard now because of what it was made to mean based on what was imposed on us through time. But, the real question is, what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be alive? How do we share this planet? We’d be foolish to raise up our cause without thinking about Native Americans, Latinos or the plight of Arabs in the Middle East. We have to realize, if they’re going to make a nigga out of one crew, they’re going to make a nigga out of another crew. So we should really be trying to find a way to streamline identity and bring it to a level where we identify as human first beyond gender roles and all of that. It’s humanity that we need to lift. I see it as a necessary part of our transformation. But, we have to keep it moving.
DX: When was your transformation point?
Saul Williams: It’s ongoing, but I’m inspired by great literature like a James Baldwin, Octavia Butler or Walter Benjamin. There are artists that spoke to me on a level that made me realize that whatever particularities of the moment I’m living through, there was something greater. Through time, I just held steadfast through those books, musical artists and filmmakers. Just realizing through the eyes of these varying artists that I couldn’t lose perspective just because I saw someone grab their purse when I walked by them. To keep things on the greatest integral perspective. I couldn’t point to any one thing that helped me maintain my growth process. It reflects my interest in life, being alive and being an artist. But, I think it’s something crucial. I’ve traveled a lot and lived in a lot of different kinds of places. As a teenager, I lived in Brazil and experienced a lot of racism and classism there. People were very confused by me when I lived in Brazil because they thought all Americans were rich and they all thought that all black people in Brazil were poor. I would walk into a store and literally someone would flick their wrists telling me to get out. I’d go excuse me and they would hear my accent. Once they found out I was American, they’d ask me to come in. Then they had this idea that I was rich because I was American, but poor because I was black. It’s realizing this schizophrenia that exists around identity throughout the world made me realize that it was great work to do at a young age. From there, traveling to Europe, Africa, Asia and more throughout South America always opened my eyes to the nuances of global culture.
For example, there were times where the aspects of our movement are very American even though white supremacy is something not strictly American. There are aspects of our approach that are very American. We say fuck the police and we have a very specific image in mind. People in the Congo and Haiti say fuck the police too and their policemen always look like them. So then you realize it’s a question of power and how it infiltrates the spirit. If you are not steadied and grounded in your sense of humanity, it can warp your positioning. I would hate to think any of us gets power and turns the tables to impose the type of bullshit imposed on us on another group. Our sort-of suffering that we’ve been through should enlighten us in terms of our understanding. We have to learn how to milk that cow and take the essence of our struggles. We have to learn and build from them. There are points on this road.
There were points in my road where I hated white people and I saw that as a necessary point to push through and beyond. I’ve been through many points in my path where I subconsciously wanted to be white when I was using bleaching cream as a teenager. These are just points in my path. Of course, while I’m hating white people, that was a necessary point to not be afraid of throwing out a concept of an enemy. It was also necessary to go past that point and realize that they weren’t my enemy. You just have to keep moving because what I see is people reaching a particular point and saying this part feels really comfortable, I’m staying here. Fuck them, I’m staying here. Actually, that’s a good point to pass through, but it’s not the finish line. In order to acknowledge that, it means there is more work to do. Staying in any comfort zone doesn’t always mean it’s suiting you or aiding your spiritual and psychological transformation. You have to keep it moving, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make you. Doing that sort of hard work and continuing to grow, even putting myself out of the zones where I am comfortable, has always been a strong point for me.
Saul Williams Explains Why Academy Awards Controversy Is “Nothing New”
DX: I believe I was ten or eleven when my older brother had me watching Slam. The film is close to its 20th anniversary in a few more years. What did that film do for your career?
Saul Williams: That film did everything for my career. I probably wouldn’t be sitting with you now if it wasn’t for that film. What that really did was that it spoiled me. It spoiled me because before I was asked to act in that movie, I was asked to write it. Because I didn’t have a background as a writer and because I thought this was the only opportunity I’m given to write something, it was crucial to me that the film was embedded with the stuff I felt people needed to hear and feel. At that time, there weren’t a lot of black writers getting films that were going to reach a lot of people. I thought of it as a state of emergency. I fought when I was writing the story and script with Sonya Sohn and Marc Levin. I fought because I would write poems for my character and I’d get asked how does this character know this stuff because he didn’t have the same educational background as me. I fought to say look, I know tons of kids who didn’t go to the schools I went to and are way smarter than me. That brings me back to graphic novels and comic books. I know a lot of kids who learned their vocabulary through comics and graphic novels. Some people learn their vocabulary through listening to Wu-Tang. Some people have lots of knowledge that may not be schooled.
Basically, what I’m pointing to is that I was pressured to dumb down the character and I thought there was no way I was going to dumb this shit down. That’s what upsets me when I go to a theater as a black kid going to see movies and I always see people doing and saying stuff that I think is stupid. I said no, I don’t want to dumb it down. I wanted it to reflect reality as I know it. I’m from a place called Newburgh, New York which is about an hour away from New York city. Newburg has 35,000 people compared to New York’s 10 or 18 million. For the past 40 years, Newburg has had one of the highest murder rates, drug trafficking rates, crime rates in New York state. There isn’t a rougher city in New York. I grew up with that. They had shoot-outs with Uzis in my junior high school. I literally thought that shit was normal. I went to Atlanta to go to college and Atlanta was very calm to me. I just had to represent when I was writing Slam. I had to represent the super hyper-intellectuals and intelligent kids that I knew. Maybe they were selling crack or whatever, but you can’t tell me selling crack for ten years and not getting caught is not a sign of intelligence. Jay Z brags about that all the time. My whole thing was just about if I do get this opportunity, I’m not going to brag about that shit. I’m just not going to underestimate the intelligence of the audience.
DX: One of the things that I always noticed about the film never judged Ray’s character nor the situation he was in getting caught with weed.
Saul Williams: It wasn’t about the fact that he was selling weed. For him it was like, really, that’s what I’m going to jail for? And it’s only now that weed is starting to become legal. Like it’s taken that much time and it’s just stupid. It takes time for justice to catch up with reality.
DX: As an actor, how do you feel about the controversy regarding the Oscars?
Saul Williams: I’m mean there’s nothing new. I was watching a speech from Eddie Murphy last night wherein 1988, he was presenting the award for Best Film and he said the same shit. There’s nothing new. In terms of people like boycotting and all that shit, I don’t really give a fuck. I don’t think Chris Rock should. I feel like take the muthafucking stage dude. Have fun with that shit. I feel like he’s in a position to play the other hand. Let’s great cinema to the point where it’s undeniable. It’s not to say that we aren’t already. I’m not a big fan of the American aesthetic in cinema period at all. When I look a Senigues cinema, South Africa or India, we are self-consumed in this country and think that the shit we’re making is fresh. Often, a lot of the shit we’re making is making a lot of money, but it’s because it’s so easily formulaically packaged. It brings us back to what I was talking about in subtly. I like subtly, I don’t feel as if I have to be told everything in a film. I like room for my imagination to wonder and shit like that. I don’t really have shit to say about that. I’m not invited to the muthafucking Oscars so what the fuck do I care. I’m not a fan of The “muthafucking” Revenant. I think it’s a great visual film, but it’s still the muthafucking white savior that we need in order to see Native Americans on a screen. A thirty-second speech isn’t going to win me over cause I saw the fuckin movie. I saw that movie and know, I don’t need a white tour guide to see what Native Americans look like during that time period. I rather have a Native American tour guide and hear their fuckin stories. I’m sorry that I’m not sold on that shit. It’s great visuals, but I don’t give a fuck about that shit.
I think The Big Short is a courageous piece because it’s attacking Wall Street and not celebrating it in any way. They’re just showing what’s happening behind the scenes. It’s hard to write a script that speaks to that. I also liked The Hateful Eight. I didn’t get caught up in all that nigga shit. I felt like Samuel Jackson’s monolog and subtleties in starting with that wooden Jesus and cutting to that scene later on during Jackson’s monolog. Sam Jackson was shitting on him lyrically. I love that shit. I’m all for it. I love when a director, actor, artist reaches a point where they have no more fucks to give. That’s what MartyrLoserKing is about for me. It’s the last fuck that I have to give. In terms of The Oscars, they’ve been white forever. We’re going change it but look at Hollywood. The images that they have projected into the minds of our youth for fifty years is absurd. We know that. You and I were talking about Slam and it’s crazy to me that it hasn’t been another film like that since that. I didn’t imagine that when I made the movie.