“There are a lot of recurring themes in my books because a lot of the same shit is still happening,” said multidisciplinary artist and activist Saul Williams about his latest book US(a.) at the Seattle stop of his 2015 World Tour, where I caught up with him for this interview. Dubbed the “poet laureate of hip hop,” Saul Williams, 43, has written four books of poetry: S/HE (1999), said the shotgun to the head (2003), The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop (2006), and US(a.) (2015)— all published under MTV Books/Pocketbooks. He has also recorded five albums: Amethyst Rock Star (2001), Not in My Name (2003), Saul Williams (2004), The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust (2007), and Volcanic Sunlight (2011). As an actor, Williams has starred in the critically acclaimed film Slam— which in 1998 took home the Sundance Festival Grand Jury Prize and the Cannes Film Festival Caméra d'Or— and in the Broadway musical Holler If Ya Hear Me, which featured the music of Tupac Shakur. Here, Williams talks about US(a.) and his observations about the state of America after living in Paris for four years, about art and politics, and his forthcoming graphic novel and album Martyr Loser King due out in early 2016 on the FADER Label.
By Joann Natalia Aquino, AFROPUNK Contributor
(Photo credit: Geordie Wood)
It’s been nine years since you released The Dead Emcee Scrolls, what led to US(a.)?
I”ve always been writing all these time and in between the The Dead Emcee Scrolls and US(a.) I edited Chorus (2012), an anthology of poems— a literary mixtape is what I called it. Hearing you say it was nine years ago, and yeah, I guess it was nine years and I never really realized, but for me, it was just whatever it was.
I was commissioned to do the book right when I moved back to New York from Paris in August 2013, so I was asked to write about what it felt like to be back in America. This book came on by the time I was working on a series of projects and they asked me to add one more to it.
What does the “(a.)” in the title suggest?
Of course there’s the U.S.A. side of it. Then I was thinking about the identity politics that you feel so strongly in America, and I say in America just because there’s a hell of world problems and issues going on, but America’s often self-consumed in their own thing: it’s a fight between identity— how you identify black, white, trans... So I thought of “us.” And I wrote initially from my personal experience which would have me fall under a few categories like male, black, all these things. With the “(a.),” I figured if I’m really going to write about America and what it felt to be back or what it felt like to be here, it would take more than one book, and so I imagined there would be a US(a.), a US(b.), a US(c.)… On the other hand, when I was asked to write about America, my first response was, “Well, haven’t I always?”
How did your viewpoint of America shift after living in Paris for four years?
One of the most interesting things about living outside of the country is this sort of insight that comes from having an overview, from being outside of the box and seeing it from the outside. It doesn’t necessarily change your perspective, it does inform it— not necessarily of America but of the world. And the more you are informed about the goings on of the world and the more you become aware of American foreign policy and American intelligence influence on things going on across the world, that’s what shifts your perspective of America. It’s the more you see the world and the more you see America’s influence often more negative than positive that makes you go, “Holy shit!” But for me that was something that began way before I lived out of the country in Paris, it was when I was a teenager living in Brazil (as an exchange student). That was the first time I really realized that it was something special to look at where you’re from— from the outside. From there I chose to take this trip to Paris because I wanted to encounter that perspective again for an elongated amount of time, and of course that can happen all the time when you’re traveling, but it’s another thing when you really start spending time in another country.
The Tupac Shakur-inspired Broadway musical Holler If Ya Hear Me— which opened in June 2014 and was cancelled six weeks later— occurred around the same time as Eric Garner’s death, about a month before Michael Brown’s shooting and the Ferguson uprising, and many other similar incidents that followed after. It seems like the play is more relevant and much needed now than ever. What would it take to bring it back?
It would take the producers of the play who have the power to bring it back. But you’re right in pointing out the irony because we were told repeatedly that the play was powerful and really poignant, but we were competing against Rocky the Musical or Cinderella, really entertainment-aligned with escapism sort of things on Broadway and we had a play that was centered around the story of a black man living in an unnamed city in Midwestern America who goes to issues with the criminal justice system. It had everything to do with the Mike Browns and the Eric Garners of the world. And yeah, it was about two weeks after the play ended that Mike Brown was murdered and I felt that taste of irony immediately, like it was crazy to realize that we were talking about exactly what was happening then.
What do you think is the role and responsibility of artists in our evolving world?
It depends on the artist. I never hold it to an artist to engage in a way that is unfitting to them. When I look at the role and responsibility of people, I think just in terms of human beings, in terms of engagement and in terms of being awake. It’s not so much about the artist responsibility, it’s really about the human responsibility. After that, then it’s just a matter of taste.
The state of poetry is consistent, it’s our attention to poetry that shifts. There’s always beautiful poetry to discover by others and within one’s life, because I don’t think poetry is something that is simply written or spoken. It’s a way of observing reality. It’s an act of questioning of one’s understanding, of one’s place in the world.
What feeds your fire as an artist?
It’s always been the same things: experience, beautiful experience. Nature. Natural and unnatural disasters— there’s the tragic thing that fuels it and there’s that sense of connection to the all that is found and expressed through love, through music, through food, through good times, through contemplation, through being in the ocean and being with nature.
And what grounds you?
Also the same things.
What can we expect from your upcoming album and graphic novel Martyr Loser King that we have not seen from you yet?
I always have goals I set for myself and Martyr Loser King is pretty much 100% my production, music-wise. I also think that I understand a bit better of what I’m doing right now musically than I did before. And with the graphic novel, it’s a whole world. It’s literally a whole world.
Saul Williams is currently on tour of the U.S. and Europe. For a list of the cities, visit http://saulwilliams.com.
* Joann Natalia Aquino is a traveling freelance writer covering lifestyle including food, arts and entertainment, indigenous arts, and the tattoo culture. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..