“Motherf—— better realize!”
At his best hour, his best day, Saul Williams couldn’t top that line. Not with all the broodings of a man learned in politics, history, music or art. Not with the exhortations of a man fighting to save the world’s animal supply. Not with an idealistic mindset shaped in a pragmatic society, leading to a chip on his shoulder the size of a Radio Raheem boombox.
If only for its poignance and appeal to our lowest common denominator, that line both belies and conveys what Saul Williams is about. He is at once soft-spoken and fiery, capable of astounding with his bottomless insights – to say that he is deep is like saying Dwyane Wade is an adequate basketball player – through whichever medium he feels serves the purpose.
Williams rose to prominence in 1998 with his role in Slam, a movie in which he starred as an embattled street poet. He is an author of four books. He has garnered acclaim and ardent fandom from his circuits through Def Jam Poetry (below), concerts and lounges around the country. Much disinclined to attach himself to labels, his panoramic talents keeps him, if not admired, busy. His most recent album, The Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! touched on a variety of moods and topics, further cementing his reputation as a artist who continues to push the envelope. With a spirit as compassionate about human souls as about animal lives (he is a strict vegan), he offers a deviation from the braggadocio inherent in his profession. Such is palpable through only an interview.
Every question asked to him is answered with great deliberation, as if his life depended on the response. If you ask him a “yes” or “no” question, expect more than a “yes” or “no” answer. If simple answers are what you want, then embrace disappointment. His explanations are devoid of simplicity and abundant in gravity. The world needs these types of individuals, individuals that seek to use their artistic ability to heighten a holistic awareness around them, and not let their foot off the pedal in doing so. The Saul Williams’ of the world serve as the latent inspirations for the world’s biggest inspirations.
They are your favorite rapper’s favorite rappers. Your favorite writer’s favorite writers. Your favorite poets favorite poets, and so on. While this title seemingly does not hold much weight to record executives and major network bigwigs, it holds primo importance to the Kanyes, the Jay-Zs, the Outkasts, the Kwelis or the Commons. This is not by accident, merely a design of a revolutionary operating in a time where his message will recede to the background, away from the mainstream.
In the background. This, to Saul’s chagrin, is not by design.
The state of hip-hop is as bad as the state of the economy, he says.
“We talk about how don’t want another eight years of this government,” said Williams. “I don’t want the same eight years of hip-hop.”
NiggyTardust speaks more about that and more in his interview with Clutch.
Clutch: November 4th was a big day for many. What did that day mean to you?
Saul Williams: I’m still struggling to put that into words actually. There’s a time when you….(laughs)…it was a beautiful day. I was like many others, crying and watching and hugging family members and tripping out really. I didn’t fully realize what it would feel like or invoke in others across the world. It’s crazy to grow up for so long, romanticizing the past, grilling your parents or grandparents asking them what was it like when Martin Luther King was marching or what was it like at Woodstock when Jimi Hendrix was playing and all those things. To actually to be living in historic times is surreal and it makes me want to step even more firmly into to who I am. It makes cats want to straighten up. It makes me want to….detox and cleanse and be my brightest light. For so long I’ve felt that as a young black American man that going to college, and related to hip hop and being in that game, so to speak, has often made me feel that my education was working against me.
Clutch You alluded to this, but put this in perspective from the Black male standpoint.
Saul Williams: For me, what it truly symbolizes is that we have had such a warped sense of heroism for the past eight years. Our heroes, if they haven’t been blatantly labeling themselves as college dropouts, they’ve been identifying themselves as people that beat the system by selling drugs and laundering their money through the record industry. It’s essentially been about money and it hasn’t been about education. It hasn’t been about nonviolence, it has been about gangsterism. And anyone who was saying anything different looks a little foolish. So all of this warped sense of heroism was prevailing. We talk about how we don’t want the same eight years of this government. I don’t want the same eight years of hip-hop. From a black male perspective, the same gangsters that was running our government for the past eight years is the same sort of gangsterism that was running hip-hop for the last eight years. The people that we celebrated (hip-hop), not to say that they aren’t talented and gifted, but if we were just to go by their content, we would ask ‘why are we celebrating them when they are not even celebrating us?
Clutch: When it comes to hip-hop, who do you blame more: the artists who create the music or the record executives who enable it?
Saul Williams: I don’t blame anybody. I blame the times. I think it’s cyclical. It’s easy to place the blame and I think that everyone who is involved has simply been playing their role. When some people realize the power of their position then they can begin changing their roles. They could say, ‘Nah, I can’t do that or nah, I can’t do this.’ I can’t get mad at Diddy or Jay-Z or whomever for being who they are and I can’t get mad about a million have-nots for getting excited for a few that have. You know? That all makes sense. It’s all logical in my book. See what I’m saying?
Clutch: Sounds like you’re saying it is what it is…
Saul Williams: See, it’s not about placing blame. It’s more so about the realization that we have had warped values. So we’re all to blame for that because those warped values did not start with the artists and did not start with the parents. It starts with what we’re born into and what we’ve been bred to idolize and idealize through everything, through our educational systems and through our religious systems. Many of us have not been fully empowered to fully question everything that we’re raised to believe to see if it suits us.
Clutch: Do you believe that Obama’s election is the start of that paradigm shift?
Saul Williams: Yes. Yes…and that’s why I was crying and that’s why I’m still excited. As a poet, I recognize the power of symbols and Barack Obama is a symbol in that he transcends the idea of simply being the first black president but he’s an embodiment of more than one world. He also represents the reality that if he helps to get our heroism in place, of putting the right symbol of education as the ideal, that you should go to school and do well. You could be a president, be a lawyer, be a professor as opposed to dropping out of school, making a hit album, flipping those birds, or even selling that label.
Clutch: On the surface, when one looks at your work, it’s come across as you being this conscientious, bitter artist who has much to express. But looking deeper, it appears that you are an optimist at heart, wishing for a utopian society. Is that a correct assertion?
Saul Williams: Yes that is…I’m not bitter at all actually. But it’s funny, ’cause you’re right, I think a lot of my work has come off like that anger and real discomfort at watching so many of my peers getting caught up in this warped heroism that we’ve been talking about. Not understanding how people could just elect these people in office – Bush, past presidents, our heroes – and not seeing where this is leading. But yeah, I’m extremely optimistic, even in that I realize that things run in cycles and that we had to essentially exhaust every negative possibility so that we would have nothing but the positive available to us. I don’t think I would continue doing what I’m doing if I felt that there was no chance for us. It would be like ‘what am I wasting my time for?’
Clutch: What is your definition of a man?
Saul Williams: Um…I think that a man is someone that is fully willing to take on the responsibility of power and realizing that that responsibility is not expressed necessarily through force but through a careful balance of strength and vulnerability. A man is someone that can listen as well as he can instruct. Someone that can receive as well as he can give, someone who is unafraid to feel and express what he feels as well as ridicule and anger. A balanced man understands the need for nurturing qualities within himself that may be deemed as feminine as well as those which come easily and come with masculine meaning. Yes, he can be the aggressor, he can also sit quiet and listen and learn. Yes he can fight and stand up and be strong. But he can also hug his child and tell his child that he loves him and hold his hand and cross the street and not tell him that he’s a punk for crying. The goal is a balanced man. A man that realizes that he does not have to be clouded by weed or alcohol or any of these things. He can be just enthralled with being alive and realize his capacity for his spiritual being. It all has a lot to do with responsibility.
Clutch: What is the biggest folly of black men as you see it?
Saul Williams: (Long pause) Well, for some it might be whatever cynicism or apathy we have within ourselves. So many of us has been led to believe that the world has turned against us but sometimes it’s not the world turned against us, it’s us that’s turned against us. That is a huge drawback. Then we have to…be loyal. My father’s generation started the trend of leaving their families and not sticking around, and there are still remains of that today. It would be great if our generation could be more loyal to the idea of growing with our partner and learning more about commitment and steadfastness. That’s essential.
Clutch: What’s the most encouraging attribute of black men?
Saul Williams: It’s a strength and connection of our spirits. We are all intuitively connected to each other and I think we know it. That same vibe when we feel that beat and nod our heads when that beat drops. We feel a communal spirit. That’s a beautiful connection for us to have; it’s like being loved by the sun. I think we have this spirit inside of us that bounds us together and it would be great if we stepped out of our cynicism and apathy to step into this higher consciousness that we are very much capable of. We know now that so much more than we thought is possible. The only thing standing in our way at this moment is ourselves.