The Weekly interview: Spoken-word artist Saul Williams

Saul Williams

One of the most recognizable and popular poets in the modern world, Saul Williams and his words aren’t contained to books and pages. Williams’ work lives and breathes in his live spoken-word performances and in his music: activist raps set against cinematic world beats. Ahead of a visit to the Sayers Club, the Weekly talked to Williams about his new book and the many themes of his upcoming album—from hacking and racism to globalization.

How did you come up with the concept for your upcoming album, Martyr Loser King? When I was living in Paris, just having kind of an overview of what was going on in the States and in the world, looking at all the topics, from the whistleblowers, like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, the type of stuff that was going down in the States, and all the crazy anti-gay laws that were passing in Uganda, the trans movement globally, looking at the effects of technology on globalization and how that effects communities. There’s a lot of talk about, for example, migrants going to Greece and Italy from Africa, but you also have a lot of people who would normally travel to Europe going back to African countries, because the Internet makes them feel connected in remote places. I was just paying attention to a lot of global issues and wanted to create a character and a concept that could speak to it all, so I thought of Martyr Loser King.

I zeroed in on hacking, because it’s such a major force of the times. There’s really so much exploration to be done in the virtual world, while at the same time there’s a lot of talk about security. It’s really just stuff that I dreamt up, from witnessing the Occupy Movement from a European perspective, looking out at the world, creating music that reflected all the things I was thinking about and all the places I was traveling. I would say Martyr Loser King was really about me just feeling really confident about doing whatever the f*ck I wanted, musically, and not trying to fit in any concept of the mainstream. For an artist like myself, it’s kind of silly to sit back and try to like, f*cking compete with Taylor Swift or some sh*t. It’s just like, you know what, I’m gonna do me and I’m gonna have a lot of fun and I’m just going to go there and conceptualize my idea of the type of sounds I want to hear and the type of stuff I want to hear addressed through music.

And what is the perspective like from outside the U.S.? From the outside, it’s always really clear to foreigners what’s going on in America in terms of police brutality and racism and what have you. Like, it stands out very clearly from the outside. When you’re outside the country there’s no question what it is, and how it happens, and who’s in control and why it happens, just like you can point it out in third-world countries when you see colonial forces or imperial forces. It’s obvious from the outside. Particularly living in France, where there this a sort of love affair with African American culture from way back—there’s a reason why Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Josephine Baker all felt at home in France. And it’s not because it’s a racist-free country. They have their issues as well. But there is a divine appreciation of the African American culture and an understanding of the cause there.

In the storyline, Martyr Loser King is in love with a transgender woman. Why was it important to include a trans character in this album? It’s because in a lot of indigenous cultures, the trans person has had like, major roles in a lot of ancient culture, whether we’re talking about Mayan culture or ancient Thai culture. In this case, this is a woman from Uganda. I chose Uganda just because of what was going on there in terms of laws. My character has gone through hell because of these traditionalist concepts there, but then encounters Martyr Loser King, who’s exposed to Dogon culture, which is from Mali. Their god is a male-female god, their whole concept of divine comes from this trans perspective, so it just made sense. I think it’s also inspired by some of the other artists I was enjoying at the time, like Mykki Blanco and Leaf and CocoRosie, artists that have addressed certain ideas in their work and symbolize something.

You recently released a single off the album titled “Burundi.” Were you aware, when you wrote the song, that there would be so much violence and political upheaval there in 2015? That song has been named “Burundi” since I wrote it two years ago. And it’s crazy because it’s all about giving love to the protesters. If you’re out marching, fighting in the streets, don’t think for a second [that] just because the police are being violent and brutal and power is trying to quell your voice, that this fight is worthless. It was all about giving voice to protesters, and it’s crazy because that’s exactly what [they] needed in Burundi with everything that was going on with [Pierre] Nkurunziza, their now president who’s sitting for a third term. He was announcing he was going to run for a third term and sure enough, there have been voices of protest that have been silenced, people murdered, what have you. It’s really that sort of synchronicity … We pull from these sources when we create that are not our own, that are circulating in the ether. It’s possible to have those quote coincidental or synchronistic moments between me thinking something over there and what’s actually happening over there, and how the two connect is always interesting. It’s all about timing.

Speaking of creative sources, the concept of this new album reminds me of M.I.A’s 2010 album, Maya. Has she been an influence of yours? I’ve always been inspired by M.I.A. We had the same manager about 10 years ago, so I met her when she was first coming out with “Galang” and I’ve kicked it with her a bit. I think it’s super important, extremely underrated and I think she gets some f*cked-up flack for just being who she is and being the voice that she is. There is a particular point of interest in this story that is specifically inspired by her, and that’s “Burundi.”

The reason why I chose to center the story in Burundi, as opposed to the Congo or Rwanda, which is also central to the region where the story takes place, is because people have heard of Rwanda and people have heard of the Congo, but most people have not heard of Burundi. I always had circulating in my head this M.I.A. line, which is, “I put people on the map that never seen a map.” And so, yeah, that idea of centering the story in Burundi was kind of confirmed by that phrase.

You’ve often said that race is performative. What do you mean by that? What I mean is that many of us in our lives are acting. We’re acting out ideas of who we are. Whether that comes from how we talk—we hear this, “Oh my god” vocal fry—we’re socialized. There’s a bunch of socialized behavior that comes with the idea of race, and you can see kids, for example, being extremely neutral to a particular point. Then let’s say you’re that black kid who’s 9 or 10 years old and starts to realize that, say maybe you’re the only guy in your class, and the kids are looking to you, saying, “Have you heard the new such and such album?” Because they expect that you’ve listened to it, and all of a sudden you’re watching music videos or watching TV shows and you’re like, “Oh, this is how young black kids walk. This is how black kids dress.” And you decide to identify with that, make a choice. And there are white suburban kids that make the same choice, but it’s a choice on either side.

We’re influenced by society itself so that we perform the idea of gender. And we instill it when we buy that pink towel, that blue towel for the baby. And we buy that football for the baby boy, and we buy the doll for the girl. And we say, “Oh no, little girls don’t do that; little girls do this.” Before you know it, you have a girl who’s acting out a socially constructed idea of what a woman is instead of some sort of gender-neutral thing where she arrives herself at however she wants to be. You hear it in our language all the time, where someone’s like, “Man up.” And it’s like, what does that mean?

On top of your new album, you also have a new book coming out titled US (a.). Yeah. That was something that came as a surprise when I landed in New York two years ago. I was working on MLK—’cause it’s an album, [but] the album builds up to a graphic novel. And when I came back I was working on this graphic novel, and my book company, Simon and Schuster, were like, “We don’t do graphic novels, but we want to commission you to do a book.” And they commissioned me to write a book about what it felt like to be back in America, a book of poems about that. So that’s what US (a.) is.

But it ended up being not so linear. I ended up doing a lot of writing exercises where I was collecting dreams late at night or early in the morning and traveling to New York and having weird memories, being someone that kind of grew up in New York City, having weird memories in spots that connected to other memories and how that connected to the present, which was also bizarre because of stuff like Eric Garner and all of the craziness that’s been going on for the past two years in the U.S. in relation to police brutality and the criminal justice system.

All these things have come to a head. I come from a family of activists so moving back to America right at this time was crazy. It’s been crazy in terms of headspace, because I was out marching for the same stuff when I was 13. It’s all repeating again and for me. I remember when Public Enemy came out with “Fight the Power.” I was a teenager. That was circling a case surrounding a woman named Tawana Brawley, where once again, no one was indicted and they ended up saying that the crime that was committed against her, she did to herself. And so walking back into New York at that moment, right at the Eric Garner moment, right post-Trayvon Martin, right at the Michael Brown moment, and then going and deciding to go out into the streets and march again and facing off with the NYPD, all of these things basically just made their way back into the book. I think on one hand, the book company was expecting me to write something about how things have changed because Obama’s in office and all these things have gone on since I was away, and I ended up writing a book basically saying, “Ain’t sh*t changed.”

Saul Williams September 21, 7 p.m., $22. The Sayers Club, 702-761-7618.

The Bunkhouse Series at the Sayers Club at SLS is sponsored by Southern Wine & Spirits, Live Nation, Downtown Container Park and Greenspun Media Group.

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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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