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Interview: Saul Williams on his early writing, adolescence and latest album

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Saul Williams Q&A

Prairie Lights — Sat., Apr. 9 at 4 p.m.

Saul Williams with Psalm One, Akwi Nji & Lovar Davis Kidd

The Mill — Sat., Apr. 9 at 8:30 p.m.

Saul Williams - Illustration by Cheryl Graham
Illustration by Cheryl Graham

Saul Williams, a poet, rapper, songwriter, musician, actor — pretty much an all-around artist — has been sharing his time and thoughts with the world since the late ’90s. However, his journey as an artist started way before then. Williams is a true testament to how perseverance can shift one’s career, as well as an example of the importance of a single voice, and how it can challenge and shift how we view the world.

Williams has gained a B.A. from Morehouse College and an M.F.A. from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His pursuit of knowledge continues, as he seeks to increase his understanding of life through travel.

Williams has performed in over 30 countries and has read at over 300 universities, with invitations that have spanned from the White House to Queen Elizabeth Hall, including his visit to the Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City on Apr. 9.

Williams took the time to speak with me from his hotel room in Geneva, Switzerland, about his journey as an artist, the importance of being a lifelong learner and his newly released album, Martyr Loser King.

Little Village: So what got you into writing?

Well, I started writing really early as a rapper and I was into that and I quit when I was 16 because I thought I was too old. Then when I was in college I had a double major in philosophy and drama and well … the thing about growing up in the theatre is that when I tell you I love the theatre, we automatically think about the stage but when you are rehearsing for a play, the stage is not the first place you go. The first place you go is you sit around the table and you read the play. You read the play as many times as you can before you start rehearsing and what you do is you start breaking down the literature and finding the objectives of the character and the beats in the scene and what have you. It was the sort of thing I was doing when I was breaking down the literature that kind of grew my nuance and my appreciation for writing.

[The analysis] is a huge part of it. The thing is, very few people write plays for money so there is usually a great deal of depth that can be found. There is usually something the writer is trying to get across through these characters and it’s usually not the first thing you see, so breaking it down is very crucial in finding the layers of meaning. It’s crucial. Then I was dealing with the classics as well, like Shakespeare (the first theatre I was exposed to) and there were so many layers of meaning and everything, from critiques of the government to the commentary on power or pride or honor. There was so many elements … that in fact it clued me into much of what was going on in life beneath the surface before I ever had the life experiences. I experienced war through theatre and in literature initially before I had life experiences to match this sort of stuff that I was playing with in the play.

You made a very interesting comment earlier about how you were into music when you were 16 and you thought you were too old. What gave you that idea that 16 was too old to be pursuing a music career?

Because in my head I was competing. As a young kid there as all this talk about LL Cool J being the youngest rapper alive. He was 16 at the time when he came out and I might have been about 10 or something or eight and I was like, “Fuck that, I’m going to kill it,” and I was so inspired by his braggadocio, you know. I just thought he was the shit when I was a kid, and I was so much younger than him that I was like, “OK.” Then when I became 16 and I had already been trying for like six years I was like, “Oh no … oh no (laughing).”

What advice would you give to someone who may think along the same lines as you did, and feel as if they are too old to continue pursuing what they are doing?

The advice would be to persevere … that in fact the construct of time and age as we practice it does not necessarily control or regulate the creative gene. In fact, the sort of thing I ended up sort of memorizing along the way was, I started tuning in to all the different artists that were inspiring me and finding out what their stories were. For example, when I read that Maya Angelou’s first book of poetry didn’t come out until she was 42, as a twenty-something year old reading that I was like OK, I have time (laughing). You know? Or seeing that she was trying her hand at dancing and at singing and none of those things were taking off and she found her calling, we can say, kinda much later on in life, so to speak. There are tons of artists and tons of stories like that and those stories became crucial to me because they helped me realized something. I remember thinking about, well, how old was James Brown when he came out with the Funky Drummer, or how old was Miles Davis when he composed Bitches Brew, and the answer was never 16 or 21. There was a point where I was like, “Ah, OK.” You know what I’m saying? Because in fact these things ended up being the legacy of the artist. You know? You really feel how great they are and if you play according to the rules of society, that tells you you’re washed up at a certain age, you’ll never see it through.

That’s why it’s as important to learn to tune out and disregard a lot of things that are coming at you. I mean, we play the age card so heavily. On one hand, I am really thankful that I was born on a weird day because it made me look at age differently. I was born on leap year. I’ve had 11 birthdays, and it’s helped me to realize in fact all this shit is construct. I can play with the idea of what it means to be 11 just as I can play with the idea of what it means to be 44 and realize adolescence isn’t necessarily where they put it. I remember studying this Ethiopian tribe and learning about how, for them, they said that adolescence for men started at the age of 23 and went to the age of 42. Just tuning into all the different ways people look at life and reality helped me realized that I didn’t have to necessarily process things the way they were coming to me because I was coming through the filter of a singular culture, of a singular perspective, of one way of looking at things. Then spending time in another country or another culture … makes you say, “Oh, they look at it like that,” and I start to realize where you are reacting and overreacting and you can take that in any and every direction.

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For example, I remember learning about the previous president of France who divorced his first wife and married a model while he was president. You know what, it didn’t mean shit to the people because the people in France, their relationship to that was, “Whatever. We didn’t vote for you to be our fucking boyfriend.” Keep it in perspective. Just keep it in perspective — but we have this sort of Puritan streak mixed with all of these other, like, ageist and weird ass ideologies that run rampant in our culture that shouldn’t go unchallenged because people live differently in other places and we can’t always assume that our approach is the most wise or most logical.

How would you say your writing has evolved from your first book, The Seventh Octave, to now?

What does it feel like to re-read the first book you’ve ever published? Well, I just kinda fell in love with one of the poems that are in that first book. There are other poems in the first book that I still relate to greatly even though I might say, “Oh, I would write that differently,” or, “I would change the punctuation or the syntax,” or, “I could streamline this phrase or this stanza a bit better or clearer now.” Overall, when I wrote my first book, which was self-published [with help from editor] Jessica Care Moore[-Poole], at Moore Black Press, a lot of the stuff I was thinking of at that time I’m still thinking of. One, I was interested in playing with the idea of creating what I called at the time “folkcures.” What was going on was, I was starting to read a lot of sci-fiction. I was starting to realized the importance of art and creativity and how it affects the imaginations of generations and started to realize the contribution I wanted to make through my work.

Simultaneously, I was thinking in terms of creating a sort of time capsule with my work. I wanted to reference enough cultures and subcultures in my work so that if anything was lost or forgotten over time and the poem was found, there were triggers in the poem that could perhaps bring about the memory of another time, of another era, of another way, of another truth, of another instance. Maybe that’s why my earlier poems were very dense … because I am thinking of them as a time capsule. Let’s squeeze one of these in, we need this Hindu reference, we need this thing, we need this thing, we need all these references so it’s kinda like a thumb drive that’s a couple of terabytes of information coded and streamlined into a few sentences. One of my favorite poems is in that book.

What I’m not into so much is the layout. I go, “Oh, OK, I’d layout the book differently.” You live and you learn. It was the best I could do at the time. It was the cork expressed version of my life. And also I was forced recently to listen to just a song off of my first album and I had a similar experience where I was like, “Oh my God!” (laughing). I realized on my first album, I was so deep into performance culture and performance art that in fact when I went into the studio I was projecting as if everybody in the room needed to hear me and there wasn’t a microphone in front of me. So I listened to my first album … I’m like, “Why are you screaming? You have a microphone dude—you could whisper, you’ll be heard.” But I wasn’t seen as a recording artist at the time, and so I hear those things but I wouldn’t turn my back on them.

Since we are talking about albums, could you talk a little bit about your new album, Martyr Loser King (MLK)?

This album is responding to the story that hasn’t been released [yet], in the graphic novel form, that will be about this hacker whose screen name is Martyr Loser King, and the world of people around him. I think that what this project is doing, is [to] streamline, not only ideas and thought, but also my abilities. Meaning, I wanted to put all the stuff I love to do in the same project. In the past, I’ve had an album over here and a book over there and a movie over there; these separate things. With this project I wanted to create under one heading something that would allow me to express myself in all of the ways that I love to express …

With the music itself, I was going for two things: this bareboned minimalism, and this sort of polyrhythmic dynamic that allowed the world between worlds to take shape. The story I am telling takes place is a parallel universe, and I was trying to find a way to convey that and also trying to find a way to convey my own biorhythm through music. Meaning by playing instruments, programming beats and insisting on doing most, if not all, of it by myself, I wanted to be felt on a molecular level.

Heather ‘Byrd’ Roberts is a poet, performer, and teaching artist who was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. She received her Bachelors in Special Studies in Performance Art from Cornell College, a Masters in Organizational Leadership from St. Ambrose University and a certificate in Spoken Word Pedagogy from Concordia University-Chicago. She is currently the Program Associate at Young Chicago Authors, Home of Louder Than A Bomb, a Teaching Artist for YolloCalli at Richards Career Academy and and a member of the Poetic Forum Collective in Chicago. Byrd has recently released her first chapbook, ‘Mahogany: A Love Letter To Black,’ which can be found on Amazon. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 196.


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