Saul Williams is a rapper, actor, musician, and slam poet who toys with the sounds of syllables, words, and terminologies. Classical composers, such as Thomas Kessler and Ted Hearne, have found themselves inspired by his texts. We spoke with him about resistance, colonialism, and why he only sits when he’s performing with a string quartet.
VAN: If you had to explain your art in a few sentences, what would you say?
Saul Williams: I’m writing poetry, primarily. I think of poetry, if we were to put it in modern terms, as a form of coding. The idea of coding, programming, hacking, all of these things are always, and have always been, somewhat connected to the idea of what poetry does, by modifying and pinpointing some of our relationships to language, culture, ideology, thought, emotion. Finding that through-line and that way of speaking to all of these things at once.
Is there a political strategy in your poetry?
Well, there’s definitely some political strategy involved, simply in that a poem does not necessarily end where it begins. So you have the opportunity to bring the reader or the listener with you on a journey, and to question things that the reader or listener has perhaps also questioned, and to arrive at answers, or other questions, that may encourage the reader or listener to also raise new questions and arrive at new answers. In that sense we could strategically arrive at a place that is different from where we began.
You studied philosophy and drama. Who were your favorite philosophers as a student?
To be honest, I’ve never really had any favorite philosophers. There have been many who have touched me in numerous ways. But I never walked away thinking, “Ah, this is the philosophy I stand behind.” In fact, the so-called philosophers I identify with most are not people who have identified themselves as philosophers. Some are poets, like Maya Angelou; some are novelists, like Alice Walker, Marguerite Duras, or Virginie Despentes; some are philosophers, like Paul B. Preciado.
How did you become a musician?
I guess in the same way that I learned how to cook. What I mean by that is: I became hungry for a sound, and I was not comfortable with having to search through numerous artists or musicians in order to find it. At some point, I realized that if I wanted to hear something a particular way, perhaps I was going to have to create it.
Is rebelling or resisting a motivation for you in making art?
In a sense. What I can say is that I’ve grown to appreciate courage in art, when artists apply themselves to the times in which they live and find ways of speaking to or speaking through the moment. And perhaps the artists and musicians who have touched me most are those who have been exiled from lands, who have been refugees, who have had to stand up and say something meaningful because of how they or people who look or think like them are seen. I’ve grown to identify with a lot of artists who resist. I guess I pay it forward by creating in those terms.
Have you had personal experiences similar to those artists?
Without a doubt. I mean, I am what most would term as an African-American, but I’m a dark-skinned person on the planet earth and have experienced, on a regular basis, white supremacy, inferiority, oppression, suppression, on what feels like a regular basis, countless times, possibly every single day of my life. Even the days when I’ve decided to stay home.
You write text to be performed. Is it meant mainly for yourself, or do you want others to perform your poetry as well?
I’m totally open to others performing my text. I try to write in a way that is opened to the possibility of others finding their place within it. So it seldom comes as a surprise to me when I hear of other artists finding some sort of personal relationship with my work; it’s written with that intention.
The American composer Ted Hearne set your text “The Answer to the Question that Wings Ask” to music in 2016. What is this piece about for you?
That poem in particular is sort of an open-ended pondering of what it means to create, to be an artist, to be alive, to have ideas and share them or keep them to yourself. It’s a poem that questions the meaning of just about everything in the modern age, of what it means to participate. And by participate, I mean, people have Twitter accounts, Snapchat, Instagram, and they choose to participate or not. And so “The Answer to the Question that Wings Ask” is a poem about what it means to participate, what it means to yield to life and the experiences that come with it, what it means to contribute or not contribute.
The work is with string quartet. Is what’s happening the addition of a background of classical sounds, or is there a new, distinct energy to the setting?
It definitely contributes new energies. It recontextualizes some of the words and ideas. It allows me to hear some of my own words and thoughts in a different context. It also allows me to appreciate a reverberation of sound that is coming from a different place than the machines I work with on a regular basis [laughs].
Ted Hearne, “The Answer to the Question that Wings Ask”; Saul Williams (Speaker), Mivos Quartet. From a performance as part of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series.
Martyr Loser King is a virtual character you created, with obvious echoes of Martin Luther King. What does your character fight for?
In the simplest sense, this is really just a hacker who’s fighting to get his name out there. He has very simple goals. But how he thinks and how he looks at the world is very much informed by where he’s from. And how much the world looks at, or doesn’t look at, where he’s from…
Burundi. Burundi, even right now, is facing horrendous acts of violence against people, students, as their President has forced himself into a third term and the people who have resisted that third mandate have been imprisoned and murdered. And there are now hundreds of thousands of Burundian refugees outside of Burundi since 2015.
Do you have Burundian friends or contacts?
When I first began writing this piece, no. But now I do, yes.
Is your text “Coltan as Cotton,” from the “Martyr Loser King” album, a criticism of the smartphone age?
Coltan is a precious mineral, just like titanium, aluminum, gold, silver, nickel, iron, all of which you see listed on the stock market. And coltan is crucial for technology as we practice it, because it’s found in all of our smartphones and laptops. And so what I’m really talking about in that piece is sort of the virtual or digital progression and technological advancement that’s based on a very analog form of exploitation, which has been around for time immemorial. The looting of Africa for precious resources is what colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, have been based on for hundreds of years. And it continues on through our technology. Just as it played a heavy role in the technology beforehand in the industrial era—our oil and the rubber for the tires of our cars—all of these things do not come without any consequences. And most of these things have ties to Africa, the rape and pillage of that continent. It’s something that heightened awareness could perhaps play a role in shifting our allegiances and realizing the role that we play in that exploitation.
The Mivos Quartet plays music to accompany Saul Williams’s “Coltan as Cotton,” from the Ecstatic Festival in 2014.
Your “NGH WHT” is an abbreviation for “Nigger What”…
It’s the name of a poem that’s been composed as a symphony by the Swiss composer Thomas Kessler. And it’s a piece that speaks to the origins of hip hip, the essence of resistance, and also the role of the feminine within that resistance and within our times.
We talked about poetic, political strategies of resistance. Does the U.S. need a new civil resistance at this moment?
Without a doubt. [We need one] globally. The issues we’re facing in America are not different from the issues we’re facing around the world, where people have somehow forgotten the role that fascism and these right-wing extremist ideologies have played and played out in society. The more distance we get from those horrendous realities, the more people begin to flirt again with those ideologies, and become more xenophobic and fear-based. What’s happening in America right now is a direct result of that. And no place is safe, as we know.
Are you still dancing?
Of course. As long as there’s music there’s dance [laughs]. When I’m in the format of my performing my own music, it’s impossible for me not to dance while performing. It’s only in a context with classical musicians where I am seated during much of the performance, because I’m reading the music along with the musicians. So that puts me in a different space. ¶