Saul Williams [Interview]
“I specifically try to create a kind of work that can exist in a classroom, in a classical setting, in the streets or in a rock and roll setting… however it reaches you is fine by me.” – Saul Williams
Vancouver, ON – On the fronts of race, message and media Saul Williams refuses to swear allegiance to anything but his own acumen. The resulting body of work is as varied and unpredictable as light refracted through glass: the source stays consistent but each beam hits its target in a different, beautiful way. The written word, the printed page, the stereo vibrations and the flickering screen all support Williams’ cathartic expression. He is hip-hop, the rock and roll of revolution, the symphonic sway, the mainstream idol and the underground hero all at the same time, and all without apology.
Saul Williams has worked with Rick Rubin and Trent Reznor, both moguls in their own rites, to release some of this generation’s most political and chilling albums. The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! is the latest, and possibly most belligerent release from the shit-disturbing poet. Williams makes a habit of turning symbols on their heads by returning language to public property: his moniker Niggy Tardust may make some fans cringe but damned if it doesn’t make them think and re-think the codes associated with hip-hop. And at the end of it all is compassion, human understanding and destruction of the systems which impose otherness.
And to top it all off, the man puts on one hell of a performance. Complete with sparkles, paint and feathers, Saul Williams hit the stage at Vancouver’s Venue to pound out some rock star poetry: writhing and glistening, you’d swear he was sex incarnate. HipHopCanada was fortunate enough to sit down with the talented artist to talk about the Afro-Punk tour, his association with Nike, and looking a white woman in the face.
HipHopCanada: You’re currently on the Afro-Punk tour, and I’m wondering what differentiates Afro-Punk from regular punk?
Saul Williams: I’m on the Afro-Punk tour, I’m not a creator of it so I can just give my opinion. I think of Afro-Punk not really as describing the particularity of the kind of music but more as a safe haven, particularly urban kids who come from an experience that expect one thing of them and deliver another, and feel isolated because they’re not necessarily into what you might think they should be into. They may be picked on, or feel alienated, then they discover a place like Afro-Punk and go, “Oh, there’s a bunch of urban weirdoes, or black weirdoes,” so I think of it as sort of a support group for those of us who fall between the cracks because we don’t fit easily within the context of genre and expectation.
HipHopCanada: You premiered Niggy Tardust at this venue last year, and I hear you’re ending him on the same stage.
Saul Williams: Niggy Tardust doesn’t die, he is liberated, just free to do whatever the fuck he wants.
HipHopCanada: Why did you choose that particular name – I don’t feel comfortable saying it, what does the name mean to you?
Saul Williams: To kind of point out the kind of schizophrenia that race induces: there’s a part of you that might think that it is such a clever name, and another part of you that doesn’t know if you’re allowed to say it. I think that dichotomy points out the varied roles that we’ve pledged allegiance to. You don’t feel comfortable saying it because you actually believe that you’re white, whereas race is a non-scientific description of humanity that we’ve bought into and we subscribe to. At the end of the day, we are each other, you and I, with our varied experiences, and probably have a lot in common beyond these ideas of race and nationality and the parts we don’t want to play. But at the end of the day we’ve been taught that we’re different and have chosen to believe it, and until we get beyond ourselves or what we buy into, we’ll never truly harmonize, which is what the role of music is. So Niggy Tardust is a hybrid, who’s proud of being the hybrid, who’s saying, “I fully acknowledge the varying consistencies of all these different roles and realities and perspectives that have their place in me. In us. And I am not one thing, I am all of these things, as are you.” And instead of trying to sweep things under a rug and make things all PC and can’t we all get along, we can acknowledge the differences as beautiful things that bring us together.
HipHopCanada: The whole Niggy Tardust experience makes us step back: Trent Reznor’s beats are aggressive, the lyrics are saturated with violence and sexuality right in our faces. What are you hoping people will get from the Niggy Tardust experience?
Saul Williams: Themselves. At the end of the day, Niggy Tardust is my way of expressing where I am at this point in my life, career, existence, in my understanding of what it means to be an artist, what it means to be alive, what it means to be “black” or what it means to be “male” and bringing all those things to question. And if you look at Niggy Tardust you might see some sex or some violence but if you spend any time at all dissecting any of the lyrics you’ll understand that the through line of it all is actually compassion. I’m using all these common themes to get to something that should be more common. The beats are aggressive because we’re living in a crucial era where I don’t want this stuff to fall between the cracks, to be played in the background. I want you to step back. I want the question, “what is this?” to pop up, and I want your friend to stutter when they say the name. All of those things create dialogue, the purpose of Niggy Tardust is to instigate and aid expression. It’s the same thing with Afro-Punk, the purpose is to instigate expression, to get you to raise questions, and I’m hoping I’m not the only person that you point those questions towards, that perhaps you ask yourself why you’re so drawn to it, whether it’s for you. The fact of the matter is, it’s written for you. And if you listen closely you know that, but if you dabble around the surface you might doubt it. It’s to inspire you to work through your doubts and get to something firmer.
HipHopCanada: What are the major codes of hip-hop, and how are they changing?
Saul Williams: When I think of what hip-hop has symbolized and symbolically done and represented in the African-American experience that it came from, it has symbolized the rise and the need for a rise in confidence. That’s what swagger is all about, that’s why Jay-Z sales skyrocket, we needed to see confidence. That’s why the idea of Run-DMC standing in front of the rock and roll hall of fame with no guitars and no band saying ‘I’m the king of rock,’ or the whole idea of looking someone in the face and saying ‘What?!’ may seem silly out of context but 40 years ago, me – a black man – looking a white woman in the face would have gotten me lynched. And you understand how powerful it is to stand there and look you in the face and go “What?!” That’s confidence. I dare you, I don’t give a fuck. That’s all confidence, that attitude is what hip-hop is about. And using that attitude to uplift.
Now what that means in the role of codes, I have no idea, but that’s what hip-hop has symbolized and for me the next level of that is the realization that the hardness and bravado that was necessary to find that confidence is just a shell, that we still have to remain vulnerable, that we still have to acknowledge our humanity, and our connectedness to all people. So that’s the necessary phase, the sort of thing that will make us revere more female rappers, or rappers tuning into their feminine side. A lot of rappers don’t want to show any signs of vulnerability because they believe vulnerability is weakness. Anyone with any sort of real grounded sense of self and being knows that there is no greater strength than vulnerability, that our true power lies in vulnerability. That we did not rise as a people because when they whipped us we stood there hard and said, ‘hit me again’ but because we took the beatings, we cried, we fought, sometimes we didn’t fight – remember we had a non-violent revolution. We took it, we prayed, we sang, we allowed our vulnerability to guide us because we trusted in the fact that people are going to see it and people are gonna acknowledge. So that’s what’s next.
HipHopCanada: The Dead Emcee Scrolls are quite fascinating, and your poetry on Thomas Kessler’s symphonic composition is different than what other artists are doing: it seems that your message is refracted through so many different genres of expression, is it hard to keep that unified?
Saul Williams: No. I’m not subject to all of those refractions. I wrote that book, for example, some of those lyrics found their way onto Niggy Tardust, and Thomas Kessler took some of those lyrics and wrote a symphony. But the lyrics and my presentation of the lyrics don’t change on the symphony nor on the album. I’m not pulled apart by it.
HipHopCanada: Do people’s perceptions, or reactions to them change?
Saul Williams: Well what it does is it gives more people an opportunity to have a reaction. There are some people who will listen to a Thomas Kessler composition before a Trent Reznor production. When I do stuff with Kessler I’m in the classical world, amongst classically trained musicians and symphony halls and opera halls, and we’ve performed in Vienna and Berlin and London and all of these highfalutin symphony halls that have nothing to do with The Venue here in Vancouver. So it opens different peoples’ eyes and ears to that world and expression, and perhaps allows them to make connections between a language of the streets and a more academic language. Part of the goal of my work has been for people to realize the academic strength of what’s happening in the streets. That’s why The Dead Emcee Scrolls exists in book form. I wrote that book specifically for friends of mine who work in prisons and juvie halls, who needed something they could hand to a 14-year-old kid and say, “you might relate to this.” For a kid who might get through one book in a year. And that kid needs to know that books can take on any form, that they don’t have to be in some dead language that they don’t relate to, that it can be in a language that they know and speak, but connected to a meaning or depth of being that they may not find in every day talk. And so I specifically try to create a kind of work that can exist in a classroom, in a classical setting, in the streets or in a rock and roll setting. I want it to exist in all those things, but all that does is make me find the through line. However it reaches you is fine by me.
HipHopCanada: What do you feel when the words and ideas and images flow through you in the writing process?
Saul Williams: What you’re asking me is the thing that makes me relate to Thom Yorke. I don’t expect him to give me a linear explanation of what he means when he goes, “women and children first, and the children first . . . ” but I know what he’s channeling and I know that he’s found that little thing that we can all tune into and bring what we know and feel to it, and get our own thing from it. The process of writing for me is cathartic, depending on the topic, sometimes I am addressing a particular topic and sometimes it’s a stream of consciousness. Either way, it can be likened to taking a good shit. The song with Gift of Gab and Zack [De La Rocha], “Release,” I remember sitting in my loft in downtown L.A. and the place was a mess, but I sat in front of my alter, pulled out my journal cause I had to go to the studio that night, and I described everything that I was surrounded by. A mandala encased in glass. I’m literally and simply stating everything that’s in the room with me. But also what’s in the room with me are my thoughts and feelings. I’m writing what I would like to read.
HipHopCanada: Well, this might be a bit of an asshole question, you probably get this a lot. Nike used your song “List of Demands (Reparations)” in their advertising campaign, which confuses me because they seem to be exactly what that song is rebelling against. So what’s that about?
Saul Williams: Well first of all, I think that the most important thing for me, and part of the reason why I created Niggy Tardust, was because there’s always boxes and those boxes seem to limit your exposure. You should understand that before I did that Nike commercial I published three books by MTV, and I think everything you said about Nike you could probably say about MTV. I put out my film Slam not independently but through Trimark Films, and again you could say the same thing. I did commercials for all of my books on MTV. Why did I do any of that? I had offers to release all that stuff independently. The reason I’ve done all of these things is to reach the mass market. It’s no secret; I want to reach as many people as possible with these ideas. So when Nike called me, I said yes for the same reason. They made the commercial with my song before they asked me; when they asked me it was with the complete commercial and they wanted to run it in four days during American Idol.
If you think about what I believe in and what I say, and think of American Idol and the viewership, do you think it would be selfish of me, would I be more strong to say ‘fuck that!’ or would it be more courageous to let them hear it? Especially when you take this into account: we have our ideas of what goes into a Nike shoe, sweat shops and all that. I have an even stronger idea of what I put into a song. My belief in my art and in my craft supersedes my belief in that corporate power, that’s why I feel comfortable swimming with sharks. I put out my first album with Sony. You think I give a fuck about what they represent? I’m not afraid of them, I don’t think that they will water down what I want to do and I never believed that people would leave that Nike commercial and want to go get some Nikes. And they didn’t. They said, “what’s that song?” and the downloads on iTunes after that commercial came out will tell you exactly what sales were spiked, which is why I say that Nike did a Saul Williams commercial.
I want to reach jocks. The goal is not to say “fuck you” from the sidelines, as I did once when Mercedes asked me to write a poem for an ad. I hate Mercedes and I always have, and asking me to write something – now that is selling out. Nike wanting to use a four-year-old song that I know the power of: go ahead. And I got to meet the global head of Nike who is now a huge fan, and got to ask about the truth about Nike sweatshops. By 2011 Nike has a plan to be completely transparent, you’ll be able to visually monitor every one of their factories, how it’s working and who’s getting paid what. They’re going green, it’s big business now so they have to. In America, Nike has some of the best benefits for workers ever. Now they’re trying to incorporate that into their external factories. A month after that commercial, because of all the mayhem surrounding why I would do that, CNN did an expose on Nike factories and made them answer to it nationally. If I had just said no, and Maroon 5 did it, do you think any change would come about? I’ll answer. No. It wouldn’t be addressed as specifically.
HipHopCanada: Do your fans see eye to eye with you on this issue?
Saul Williams: A lot of times my greatest enemies are my biggest fans because they just want to hear more happy music. Or they want more regular hip-hop. And I’m like, “Dude, I am so opposed to your idea of what hip-hop is, you probably think I’m back home listening to Common and conscious stuff. I like shit hard.”
HipHopCanada: What do you like?
Saul Williams: Hard shit. Nowadays there’s very few hip-hop albums that I buy, most of who I like are friends, like K-os here. And I really like his music because he explores. I love his spirit soaring through songs, singing, the fact that he’s going beyond a typified idea of what hip-hop should be. I also like Drake. I love Lil’ Wayne over most “conscious” rappers. I’m more of a stylist, I’m into style and presentation so I love OutKast when they were would. I’ll take style over content any day. Truly. That’s where people get lost with me cause they’re so into my content that I’m like, “No, I just said 99 names in a row, that’s a style.’ I like content myself so I present my styles with content, but a song like “(Tr)igger” off of Niggy Tardust is all style. That’s what I’m into, I’m into style.
HipHopCanada: Well we’ll leave it at that, thank you so much.
Saul Williams: Thank you.
Written by Amalia Judith for HipHopCanada
Photography by Whitney Summer