Saul Williams — the well-known poet, musician and actor who got his start at dark, intimate open mics throughout Brooklyn in the ’90s, rose to prominence at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and recently starred on Broadway in Holler If Ya Hear Me — will release a new collection of poetry, US (a.), on Sept. 15. Beyond the book, he’s also in the midst of creating his multi-media project MartyrLoserKing (MLK). Earlier this summer, Williams finished a nation-wide tour to promote the album, which will drop in early 2016. Now he’s writing the script for the MLK film — a deviation from the play he originally envisioned. The third leg of the project is the same-titled graphic novel, which will also be released in 2016.
Though there are multiple facets to MLK, the story centers around the character of Martyr Loser King — a hacker from Burundi who becomes popular and evades authorities. MLK was inspired by current events both great and horrific — such as Edward Snowden, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the militarization of drones. It serves as an inquisition and “fuck you” to the powers of government, religion and long-enforced ideologies that result in disenfranchisement, bias, sexism and exploitation. We recently spoke with Williams outside of his house in Washington Heights as he smoked a freshly rolled cigarette. Here are his thoughts on his tour, the creation of MLK, the need for art to challenge rather than acquiesce to authority, and his dream that we can move beyond the selfish “me-isms” infecting society.
How did your tour go?
That tour was a first for me primarily because it was the first time I restricted myself to only playing new music. So I did a tour with no old poems and no old songs. The album is not out yet so I was testing out the effect of the music on people. It was overwhelmingly positive. It’s great to play with that before finishing an album.
In MLK you speak from the perspective of Martyr Loser King. Why did you use this narrative style rather than speaking from your own perspective?
You would almost have to put me on the psychiatrist’s couch to figure out why I would choose to do that. Part of it may come from the fact that I oftentimes think of myself as the hungry actor. So maybe I’m creating characters because I’m hungry to play them. But I also think of creating a character like creating a tax shelter, a nom de plume. It’s more fun for me to associate attributes and characteristics to a character that I may not share. As Martyr Loser King I feel a bit more freedom to be irreverent, even though I’m pretty irreverent myself.
It’s the same thing I discovered when doing Niggy Tardust. It has to do with that same question of identity politics and the limited definitions that we place on self and the more expansive definitions that can come about when we redefine ourselves for ourselves.
You attended NYU for your MFA in acting. How did that experience impact you as an artist?
Those were crucial years for me as an actor. The first year the majority of our classes were about improvisation. That opened my imagination up in ways that led me to writing poetry. It’s the same year I got introduced to the poetry scene in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Café and that led me to the Nuyorican Poets Café. At that time I started thinking in terms of the imagination being a muscle – if you work on it a little bit every day you’ll start to see and feel the difference. I started seeing and feeling the difference in my writing. Then I started paying more attention to what I was writing because I wanted to be careful what I conjured. This was simultaneous with the murders of Tupac and Biggie. Which is to say I already had questions circulating in my head about what these cats were saying on record and what they were conjuring in their lives. Biggie’s first album was Ready to Die. Booffff! So I had those questions and they were answering them for me. Tupac said that he never had a criminal record until he said that he did on record. You still see that playing out a lot in hip-hop.
In previous interviews you talk about waking people up from their forgetfulness. What do you want people to remember after listening/reading/watching MLK?
It’s not as much about waking people up as it is about prompting or inspiring the sort of art that inspires me. It’s really just putting gas or fuel in the creative engine so that what comes out of it will have positive effects on me – it’s kind of selfish. I identify heavily with humanity at large and enjoy trying to connect dots between social movements in one place and another, between social injustice in one place and another. A lot of times people who are disenfranchised may be well-versed in their own disenfranchisement, may be well-versed in knowing what’s happening in them, and how fucked up it is. I think it’s empowering for them to know that there are other people going through similar things in other places. That is what’s happening now as we release this single “Burundi.” At the same exact time there is unrest in the country of Burundi because their president is trying to change the constitution and run for a third term. All of the youth who have a vision for a more democratic nation are out in the streets protesting and sometimes the police are responding in fucked ways. Kids are protesting non-violently and police are opening fire and all this kind of shit. Part of the world is paying attention.
What are your thoughts on today’s national legalization of gay marriage?
It’s awesome, but it’s as awesome as people wanting to take down the confederate flag 150 years after the war was lost. It’s disheartening that it’s taken so long and to see the bigot resistances. I’m amazed by the high levels of bigotry in this country and across the world. It’s heartbreaking to realize how may people proudly claim their ignorance. Big power like government and religion had so much to do with repressing women and sex. We’re celebrating the government’s positioning itself against its own hypocrisy.
How do you address these hypocrisies in your album? On the cover of your album there is a middle finger. Who is the middle finger pointed to?
The reason you see that middle finger is because I know that sense of wanting to rebel and to say, “Fuck you, fuck this.” It’s something internal – you feel it anyway. My goal is to point it in the right direction. If we’re going to rebel and release this teenage angst, let’s rebel at the right things. Otherwise you have a bunch of rappers who think rebelling is getting diamond necklaces, buying sport cars and hanging out with strippers. That’s not rebelling – that’s the norm, that’s the status quo. If you want to rebel there are some issues at hand – there’s some issues you can actually rebel against. I’m trying to redefine gangster.
What inspires you musically?
On one hand, I can give a heavy critique to what people are saying in songs. But musically, if you take away the lyrics, I’m super inspired by trap music, I’m super inspired by drill rap, I’m super inspired by footwork coming out of Chicago. I listen to the electronic music coming out of Angola, or South Africa or stuff coming out of the Lebanese underground and the Syrian underground. Places where fucked shit is happening can evoke some interesting juxtapositions in music, which is why the Black American music experience has been what it has been. I’m interested in music from war zones. In terms of MartyrLoserKing, I’m interested in polyrhythm because I listened to a bunch of shit coming out of the Congo where people have been making 100-year-old instruments electronic.
What do you want people to take away from MLK?
I want people to be inspired, as they are right now, to realize that the powers of being can overthrow the powers that be. To realize that there is an issue at the root of the American equation. If we’re going to really resist we need to realize that the elitist, one percent has been the root of a lot of fuckery in this nation and in the world. Educating ourselves so we know what we’re fighting and how to fight it is crucial. Having music to go with that fight is crucial. We need music to march to. We need music that does not make us hold to erroneous ideas of society, that doesn’t continue to propagate the bullshit.