Origins of Sound: Saul Williams

Sat in relatively noisy restaurant in East London, Saul Williams is wrapped up warm, he’s experienced harsher weather in his hometown just outside New York City but he’s not taking any chances with Britain’s fickle weather. It’s a been a few weeks since the release of his album ‘MartyrLoserKing’ and there’s no doubt he’s bursting with a story to tell about the euphoric yet arresting album. The poet who also masquerades as an actor, rapper, writer and spoken word artist is keen to document the world in which he finds himself in. Williams gained notoriety for his galvanising role in 1998’s ‘Slam’, alongside Sonja Sohn. Three years later, the New Yorker released his debut studio album ‘Amethyst Rock Star’, which was produced by Rick Rubin. Much more recently, the poet starred as rap luminary 2Pac in the Broadway musical about his life, ‘Holla If Ya Hear Me’.

Poetry and rap have a peculiar relationship. In order for the latter to work successfully, one must be able to exhibit an ability to master the former. Historically, the origins of Saul Williams’ style can arguably be found in West Africa with the griots. Griots were essentially modern-day spoken-word artists but in ancient times, they were seen as spokespeople, political figures and musicians. They would often tell their stories, stylistically over the sound of a Djembe drum. Artists such as Gil Scott-Heron are widely regarded as the forebearers of modern-day hip-hop, not only for the stylised form of poetry but for the social commentary, which is how the times in which we live in are contextualised. It’s poetry in itself that some centuries later, a spoken-word artist from New York would focus one of his projects in the continent where it all began.

As we wait for the menus to be brought over, Williams brings up the concept of martyrdom, which in the West, is as loaded as they come. When there’s a terrorist attack, it’s our understanding that the attackers give up their lives for a cause much bigger than them. If we were to look at activists, many of them give up their time and freedom for a cause much bigger than them. Therefore one would assume they would fit the criteria of what it means to be a martyr.

There’s a sense that in amidst all of the campaigns against social injustice, those who have made it their charge will eventually prevail. Unfortunately, as history has reflected, this isn’t always the case. There are plenty of examples, from Huey P. Newton to the man whose name inspired the title of Williams’ sixth studio album, of where our heroes have fallen short. In some cases, it’s a matter of perception. Martin Luther King Jr. was, in many eyes, a hero and a revolutionary man. However, in others, he could be deemed as someone who fell short of seeing his dream realised.

‘MartyrLoserKing’ isn’t just about the hacker from the middle of nowhere, more importantly, it’s about how he views the world and how that isn’t reciprocated.

What inspired the title of ‘MartyrLoserKing’?

Well the title is simple, the title just came to me from hearing someone mispronounce the name of Martin Luther King and I immediately understood it as a title.It’s the idea of the martyr kind of being like those who give their lives and those who willingly and unwillingly die, sometimes kill too. They get labelled martyrs too and there’s a lot of confusion around that, the same way if you look at the history of hacking. The normal association would be with the machete and I’m really conscious of that because the story I’m telling is of the Great Lakes region in Africa, you know. There’s a recent history of the machete there of genocide and all that other stuff but when you think of the resources that are there, and to think of that relationship as a poet brings these words and ideas alive. So I started playing with the idea of a loser in relation to this instantly retweetable idea of winning and what it takes to win. And the way that in celebrity culture and worship and we have this sense of wanting to be on top. Why am I going to spend that much money on a car or shoes and I may not have the standard idea of beauty and I don’t associate my idea of winning with what others associate it with. In fact, in some books I may be qualified as a loser because  I wasn’t invited to those awards or wasn’t nominated for that, but that’s not what I value. I was also playing with the idea of religion because in Christianity, people identify as sinners and I related that to ‘we are all losers’. It was a flip on that and realising that Martin Luther King could’ve been one of many ‘martyr loser kings’ if I were to look at that list in my poem, ‘Coded Language’, there were so many Martyr Loser Kings I noted.

Your point about religion and sin is quite interesting because people focus on the sinning but not necessarily the parts where they do good. Why do you think we as a society and as individuals focus on the negative rather the positive aspects?

I think we’ve been conditioned that way because for example, the word sin comes from Hebrew and it doesn’t mean to do something against God, it means to miss the target. Just like the word repent comes from Latin and that means ‘think again’. So the empowering thing to tell someone would be that if you miss the target, think again. That’s way more empowering than if you do this bad thing against God then fall on your knees and beg. One gives you the keys and lets you have them, the other places them on some unattainable shelf. I play with those things because it’s important to deconstruct playfully through music, because we want people to question and challenge authority. Why is that important? Well when we say ‘fuck the police’, what we’re responding to is our relationship with authority, those combating police and those eventually become police. When you think of dictators and how power affects them, they were people who had high ideals and wanted to do great things but that little taste of power messed with him. You don’t know what it’s like to have thousands of people screaming your name. How do you find and maintain grounding so that you don’t become this warped, egotistical idol? Some people do it wonderfully. If you look at Malala, every time I think of that girl I’m on the verge of tears because she’s such a fresh teenager and I’m seeing the bounce back of a crazy situation like that. It’s so punk rock.

It’s not even that she’s just a teenager. She’s a woman from the Middle East which obviously has so much stigma attached to it.

She’s my hero right now. There’s something really and simple beautiful about that conviction, the sort of martyrdom or sacrifice that doesn’t come with giving your life. It just comes with giving your energy to a cause.

Essentially, martyrdom isn’t always about putting your life on the line, it’s about giving what you can give, whether that’s time or energy.

Exactly, Mandela is the perfect example. Mandela could’ve cashed in, when he got out of prison he could’ve said he was cool on the presidency thing and he’ll just take this consultancy position. Tons of things that could’ve happened to a lot of people like Thomas Sankara, or even Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, who both knew that they’d be punished for what they did. But based on the fact they love humanity more than this thing they pledged allegiance to, they have to say something.

It must be a lonely experience and isolating being a martyr.

I think it is isolating but those are people that inspire me. There’s lot of things that are isolating, especially when I think about all the great writers that inspire me. The only writer I see out at parties is Salman Rushdie, aside from that, they’re isolated and they isolate themselves. Their outside world is all too cut off so they can create that thing that you’re going to read in your bedroom or on the train, like “oh my god, thank you for cutting yourself off from the world to create this art, it’s worth it.”

Do you feel that we need to show more appreciation for those people, who are willing to put their lives on their line?

I mean, yeah. I saw this documentary recently on Harry Belafonte and, in it, his son and daughter are talking about being upset at one point because their dad wasn’t at home that much. When he was home, he was in a zone either studying or reading. Then they got older and started realising what their dad was involved in and they were pretty struck by that. “How awesome is our dad that he’s giving our energy to this great cause,” and that’s different to him just not being there. So that inspires me as well.

On ‘The Bear/Colton and Cotton’, you mention hacking quite a lot. How did you first decide on using hacking as an image?

I guess I started thinking of hacking as performance art. When I first started conceiving this album, I imagined a virtual Banksy, someone who was doing the confrontational work that you encounter like you’d encounter his work on a wall. In the States we get these amber alerts and if there’s a hurricane or a national emergency, everybody gets a text. Martyr Loser King, the character, hacks into shit like that and suddenly a grey screen comes over your phone with a middle finger. That’s what I was playing with when I was thinking initially about the idea of hacking as performance art. I was inspired by this hacker Guccifer, he’s the guy who stole George Bush’s paintings from his email. I was inspired by those devious hacks that we all enjoy and the whole Wikileaks thing. When you look at that and social movements like #BlackLivesMatter, Occupied, or Arab Springs, they have a direct connection to the abilities that have through social media right now and thinking of the parallel universe where we could use these things creatively. We’re already sharing funny memes and life hacks, so people are already playing with these terms. I wanted to create a fiction based on these things and I decided to take it further by acknowledging that a lot of this technology is dependant on resources from a really specific place. What’s crazy about that is that we label it technology and we call it ‘advances’ but the ways of achieving them are analog and exploitive, in the same way it’s always been. By creating a fiction, it allows me to go into a topic and play around. The main thing I wanted to play with on this project was the idea of rebellion because I feel like that punk rock spirit was lost along the way. We used to not always root for the winner, we used to root for the underdog. Like recently, the beef with Drake and Meek Mill, everyone roots for Drake, even those Meek Mill is the one from the streets. He’s the one with the record and hood but fuck it, Drake’s the winner and we like winners now. There’s something that makes me think of how deluded we were when we rooted for cowboys, common sense and logic would tell you that those are the ones that raped and pillaged the indigenous and The First Nations. I’m trying to take the adolescence angst that’s still alive in me and point it in the right direction. That’s the fun that I’m having, being able to embody a character who’s like “fuck that shit”, but in the right direction.

Do you keep abreast of the poetry scene in London much?

I keep abreast of the poetry scene here as much as I do anywhere else, I have poets that move me whether it’s a Kate Tempest or a musician like Ghostpoet or someone that’s been doing fresh stuff for a minute. There’s tonnes of people that have inspired me over the years.

I guess social media’s made the world so much smaller that we don’t really think of poets by their locality anymore.

Exactly, exactly. I guess I do stay kind of abreast.

Do you think social media has had much of an impact on that shift in who we view as the winners and underdogs?

Yeah because we haven’t figured it all out yet. We retweet things that annoy us or things we don’t like and we give all this energy towards bullshit. On one hand it’s crucial to not give the energy to the shit that you’re speaking up against, like let it die out or don’t let it trend. That’s the thing, it shows the power of collective energy, for example people are spending so much energy talking about Trump. Can you believe it? Why are we even talking about this fool, let the fools have him. Only then, once we leave it be, can we see who’s talking.

That’s interesting because liberal media is focusing so much on him, vilifying him in the best way they can but at the same time, he’s given a platform.

As the saying goes, any press is good press. It’s interesting because social media does aid in that in some ways but it also reveals just how ineloquent we are in ourselves but we’ll learn. I just unfollowed this dude on Facebook who said he was ready to become a terrorist and I was like “don’t type stupid shit.” I get it was a joke but you see people losing their jobs over stupid opinions or offensive s**t that they could’ve kept to themselves.

I think it could be the times we live in. Since the internet blew up, information is so readily available and we don’t always have to put our names to the stuff we put on the internet. Some people don’t feel they own what they put on the internet because it feels like a free-for-all at times, so they shed themselves of responsibility.

Yeah it’s there but it’s forever chronicled, which makes it worse. That’s not to say we don’t all tweet shit that we regret, it happens.

What kind of world would Martyr Loser King like to see?

This is the thing, I think he would like to see the world. When he logs on from this fictitious village in Burundi, a village made of old computer parts, it’s his biggest window to the world. And of course, he’s observing it knowing that they’re not observing him because half the world hasn’t got that geography knowledge that tells them where Burundi is. Even when he hacks into satellites and they see that signal, they don’t believe that it’s coming from there. Their arrogance tells them that it must be coming from London or wherever else. His view of the world is informed by the fact that when he looks out, he doesn’t see himself represented. It’s that modern, narcissistic approach like “yo, I’m gonna put myself on the map.” Like that M.I.A  quote, “I put people on the map, that have never seen a map,” and it’s just the idea that ain’t nobody talking about us, and lots of places and people can feel like that. Especially in places that aren’t resource-rich or there’s no UN intervention. If I go back to when I started working on Slam, that was the first time I was around the prison system and prisoners and having some amazing conversations, realising that because of their positioning in the system, they were some of the most informed discussions I had. Just looking from the belly of the beast outward, you know. And that’s the sort of thing that made me want to play with this character. I’m from this town called Newburgh, which is about sixty miles outside New York City and has about 30,000 people and has for the past forty years, had the highest murder rate and drug crime in the state. Nobody’s ever heard of that city and that’s part of the reason why I wanted to do this story in Burundi, next to Rwanda because of the connotations that come with that. The thing about this project is that I’m always challenging myself and growing as I learn new topics. I’m reading that I’ve referenced in a poem so that I don’t forget.

When you look back at a particular piece or project, you can identify that period in your life?

Yeah, totally. I can look back and remember the day when I was in Guatemala or I was at that club. It’s like saving a strand of hair, a lot of these poems and songs are photo albums that you can go back to. There’s a poem on my first album where one of the lines is “I’ve gotta pick Saturn up from school,” and when you listen to that you might think I’m crazy but I have a daughter named Saturn. So for one person it means something else but for me, it’s different.

Is there anything else you’re looking at for the future, topically?

I’m working on the graphic novel for ‘MartyrLoserKing’ and finishing it right now, it’ll come out about a year from now along with the second part of the album. The one thing is that the main character of the story is not Martyr Loser King but it’s a character called Neptune Frost. There’s a song called ‘Think Like They Book Say’, which is about the encounter between both characters and the next album is really about Neptune. As the album progresses, one more topic that enters is migration.

Will that give the full context of ‘MartyrLoserKing’s story?

Definitely, he comes and goes but I can tell you straight up that he lives up to his name.

‘MartyrLoserKing’ is available to purchase on iTunes now.