‘I’m talking about disruption’

Rapper and poet Saul Williams talks to Chris Garrard about politics, prisoners and the power of imprecision.

Poet and musician Saul Williams. © Geordie Wood/freemanpr

Saul Williams is often described as ‘a poet, rapper, singer, songwriter, musician, writer, actor and activist’, but he’s more comfortable just being an artist. I first saw him perform almost 10 years ago, and was struck by the power of his performance: he came on stage and launched into a torrent of spoken word, shaped by hip-hop and infused with a kind of activism I hadn’t encountered before.

Saul grew up in Newburgh, New York, and has performed in over 30 countries and given readings at over 300 universities. With each new album or book, he seems to bring a new layer of insight to our contemporary situation. During his recent trip to London to promote his new album, Martyr Loser King, I arranged to interview him, to dig into his ideas on art and activism. But, in response to my very first question, he began:

I don’t really characterize myself as an activist. But the things that are happening in the world are just perfect fodder for music and creativity. There’s a power in art, so why not utilize it? I’ve always felt like the underlying sensitivity in artists, particularly musicians, is that they try to touch the pulse of popular culture and society. I think it’s harder to be apolitical – I wouldn’t know how to do that.

When Saul performs, be it music or poetry, it is often bold, visceral and uncompromising, like a revolutionary call to consciousness. He presses into new and provocative perspectives on the social issues that are unfolding around us. Is he, I wondered, trying to confront his audiences or create a feeling of discomfort in them, in order to get them thinking in new ways?

I can’t say that I am consciously trying to create discomfort in others – but I do know that there’s a lot of beauty that comes from challenging myself beyond my own comfort zones. I was raised like a lot of other people – my father was a pastor, my parents were activists – but there was a point where I began to question my religion and all of those things. And because people may be facing the same realities in their personal lives, there may be uncomfortable topics at times. But forcing through and pushing through is what can propel dialogue.

For an artist with strong ideas about society and social movements, you might expect explicit words of protest or concrete messages in Saul’s work, but many of his lyrics are like constellations of images where we are meant to ‘catch the feeling’, as he puts it. This imprecision is powerful in his music and poetry but it also connects to his thinking around activism.

There’s the plus side of not being so precise, because if you don’t have that precision, it can’t be cancelled out. It’s like the idea of a leaderless movement; that’s the idea behind the new album as well, which is inspired by [13th-century Persian poet] Rumi, and it’s in the song ‘Burundi’: ‘I’m a candle, chop my neck a million times and I’ll still burn bright and stand’. It’s inevitable. There are people who say, ‘Ah, you’re an optimist!’, but I’m not optimistic at all. I think it’s a hard fight, but the people have the power.

There are people who say, ‘Ah, you’re an optimist!’, but I’m not optimistic at all. I think it’s a hard fight, but the people have the power.

But we can’t fool ourselves…there are still lots of people who don’t want to be thrown out their comfort zones, that don’t have the space or the time to challenge anyone because they’re [living] cheque to cheque, and hand to mouth. And the ability to challenge the system often comes from being detached or removed from the system – which is why some of the best conversations I ever had about the system came from prisoners who had been thrown into the belly of the system and forced to sit still and contemplate… That’s what I learnt when I was shooting the film Slam. I’m still haunted by those conversations. And that’s what propels me on forward… When you’re at the root of that system, or at the bottom of the totem pole, or the belly of the beast, your perspective is just so enhanced by being able to see through it all.

If you are at the bottom of the totem… and shit is already in a mess, the government and the history books are against you – why not fight the system when you have nothing to lose? How could it get any worse? That’s part of why it’s inevitable.

Through the language of hip-hop and performance poetry, Saul regularly explores the nuances of gender and gendered language. In his long-form poem, 'said the shotgun to the head, he immerses the reader/audience in the concept of a female god, blending themes of the maternal, sexual and spiritual, and talks about ‘the womb of the Great Mother’.

Geordie Wood/freemanpr

The role institutions and religious institutions have played in promoting this patriarchal, highly misogynistic relationship to nature itself is extremely problematic. said the shotgun to the head was super personal for me because it had to do with my religious upbringing and the realization that it was the Church that had decided, for example, that the Holy Trinity should be a father, a male child and a ghost…I was carrying the torch of something just because I was born into it and hadn’t taken the time to question what was burning through that torch. So, I had to put it down and really contemplate my role in society.

Before my first album came out, I had a daughter, and that challenged me to really think about gendered roles in society, about sexism and all the ways that these things play out... So, I came at it as, ‘OK, I have a little girl who is probably going to be listening to this, who is going to read this’, and it got me thinking and moving in a particular direction. And no, it’s not always comfortable. Sometimes you’re in a conversation and you may not be the best listener, but [then] you realize that that not listening also belongs to a certain group that you belong to. So just learning to just shut up has been major to me – which is crazy, because I talk so much.

Flowing through much of Saul’s poetry and music are questions about history and histories, tradition and identity.

If you have a strong sense of what happened with, let’s say, colonial institutions [when they] arrived on the continent of Africa and decided what boundaries they would impose on countries to split up the continent in 1884 at the Berlin conference, and then you look at conflicts and similarities that arise between ethnicities, cultures and languages and ask, ‘Why do people in these two countries speak the same language and seem to have similar cultures?’, you realize these things and start to find answers to certain questions sooner just by being aware.

Of course, we can get too attached to those histories. I think it’s something we see all the time with right-wingers in many cultures who talk about ‘these are our values, these are our traditions’; but, you know, if raping and pillaging are part of your valued traditions, it’s time to reassess those values and traditions.

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One of the ways Saul felt that we are hanging onto these histories is through architecture, particularly in Europe. In recent months, this debate has come into the spotlight as students in Oxford have called for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes.

With someone like Cecil Rhodes – who was quite the colonial, imperialist force – what he has represented in the past is exactly what we know better than in this day and age. So then, what do we do with those statues? What do we do with those histories and how do we realign ourselves? Those are ongoing questions and I don’t have answers to them. I’m just happy that the dialogue is there and I’m really happy to see graffiti on those statues. If we’re going to topple over a statue of Saddam Hussein, then what follows is the toppling of other statues and Western icons. The way I look at it is, sometimes we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and other times we stand on their necks.

Saul often digs into questions of colonialism, race and social justice, not as himself, but by creating a character who can be immersed in the questions and concepts that are occupying his mind. Martyr Loser King is centred on a fictitious hacker from Burundi.

When we talk about hacking the system, we think about it in terms of shortcuts, or disrupting, breaking through the bureaucracy or the red tape. There’s a flip side to that as well, historically. What I’m referencing when I talk about hacking is the way in which we’re empowered, today, through our technology and the fact that we know how to navigate our way around these systems, sometimes more than those in political office.

We have to hold governments accountable. We can go the long way through elections and running for office but there have to be shortcuts: protesting, standing up, releasing information they don’t want us to know

You know, we need more Chelsea Mannings, we need more Edward Snowdens, we need more Aaron Schwartzes… We have to hold governments accountable. We can go the long way through elections and running for office but there have to be shortcuts and those shortcuts are protesting, standing up, releasing information they don’t want us to know, forcing the hand of transparency before they’re willing to make it transparent. That’s what I’m really talking about when I’m talking about hacking: I’m talking about disruption.

It’s a cool time to be alive, but it’s still hard-core when it comes to fighting the system. But when you are able to connect the dots between, let’s say, doubt and debt, and how the two feed off of each other beyond just the silent ‘b’, you realize that when you doubt something, it’s often time based. Like, ‘I doubt that will be able to happen by then or ‘I doubt they’ll elect Bernie Sanders because we’re not ready’, which is a time constraint once again. ‘I doubt’ is related to time... You realize, once again, how necessary it becomes to think outside of the box, to realize the difference between a minute and a moment. And to keep pushing.

Saul Williams is currently touring Britain, France, Finland, the US and many other locations. To view his performance and tour dates visit his website.

Chris Garrard is a composer, musician and arts activist based in London. He has researched and written about contemporary music, art and social consciousness, and is part of the Art Not Oil coalition, which campaigns against fossil fuel funding of the arts.