Real girls in their own place.
Not too crazy and just a pinch of naughty...
pictures by @SaulWilliams
words by Falene
Saul Williams is smarter than you!
The problem is he’s smarter than me too and I’m interviewing him. Usually chatting with complete strangers never intimidates me, in fact there’s nothing I rather do. There’s a certain intimacy to a phone conversation with a person you have never met. This time however in the back of my mind with every “silly” question I ask (not that that’s ever stopped me before), there’s a little voice taunting me. “Saul Williams is smarter then you! Yeah - that’s right! Saul Williams is smarter than you” and for some strange reason it’s to the beat of “You Can’t Wu Tang Better Than Me.” WTF? Perhaps it’s because Saul is not only creatively quite the genius, but academically he’s pretty impressive too; with a B.A. in philosophy from Morehouse and that Masters from NYU. When it comes to debating a topic, he’s usually got you beat, or at least in a quandary. Which of course adds to his mischievous charm and striking good looks. Not too far back the blogosphere was ablaze, how could he let “List of Demands” (his damning tune on over-consumption), end up as a commercial soundtrack for Nike? Intentional irony? Was it part of his satirical plan all along? Or was he just letting the most well intentioned progressives know, not even they have the right to dictate to Saul what’s cool or acceptable.
Influenced as much by Allen Ginsberg as Public Enemy, he’s collaborated with everyone from Erykah Badu to Trent Reznor. Emphasizing his utter refusal to be artistically contained. His is a voice that can contribute as easily to popular men’s mag Esquire, as the more highbrow New York Times and African Voices. He’s published 5 critically acclaimed poetry books, won the coveted Grand Prize at Sundance and the Cannes Camera D’Or, while shaking up the literary academia in his spare time. My brain matter got greyer just thinking about it! Now after the irreverent “Niggy Tardust” (an eff you to musical genres) he brought out “Volcanic Sunlight,” a personal music collection of sorts. For Saul Williams it’s more important to get people thinking, then talking. Whether you agree with him or not, really isn’t the point.
He skypecalls me from Paris. I suddenly feel terribly cosmopolitan.
When did you first act?
Around 8 or 9, I went to a performing arts elementary school. I decided I wanted to take this class called “Shake hands with Shakespeare.”
(laughing with nostalgia) So the first play we did, I played Marc Anthony.
I can’t imagine doing that so young, mind you we were force fed Shakespeare in England.
We were really never force fed it here, I was lucky to encounter it through theater, before the classroom. It was NY in the 80s, and the emergence of hip-hop. So me learning Shakespeare and me trying to write my first rap, were both around the same time. Sometimes I even tried to mix the two together.
Rapping in Olde English!
Which was also my first foray into poetry, but at the time I didn’t think it of as writing poems. They were rhymes, that I wanted to rap. It’s those little things you give yourself as a kid, without realizing you were leading towards something.
We never had schools like that, especially in the 80’s.
It was a pretty amazing time, we were all excited to be there, there was an energy. We also felt like we were involved with the new music that was being made in NY.
Were you a bit of a nerd?
Not really I didn’t get astounding grades, but I found school work relatively easy. I knew how to get good enough grades, without having to give too much work. I was really there for the social structure, and to battle as a rapper and a break dancer. That was what I really loved in school.
From you cadence, is any of your family from the West Indies?
My mother’s family is originally from Haiti, but they came here in 1917. So I do have a Caribbean background. That’s definitely there.
If you were forced to choose, what’s your preference, film, TV or theater?
Probably theater, I really like acting for film, however it’s wonderful to connect with a live audience. To feel that energy in the room and let that lift you through it. Where the space gets transformed in a different way, every night. You are yourself 24hrs a day, but then with the amount of time you spend playing the character. Before I was old enough, theater was the first way I travelled.
Have you heard of the term “Blipster”?
Blipster, what is that? (laughs loudly)
It’s a name some clever clogs came up for "a black hipster."
Oh yeah, yeah, I did hear that. Well you know terms, when they are funny enough, or sharp enough to pinpoint an idea, can be cool. Are you insinuating that I might be a Blipster? (laughs)
I wouldn’t call you that, well not to your face. No, no, you aren’t. I’m not a “hipster fan,” regardless.
I think it’s kinda absurd to throw the word black in the front, to distinguish it. Being that they didn’t need to use black to qualify it, weren’t the first ones into the US hipster scene black anyway?
I see the humor of creating your own word, but then what’s a Chinese blister? Tell me about your book "Chorus."
It’s a lot of peoples book, I worked with a 100 poets. I put out the word on social media and I received 8000 poems. I chose 100, once I got them I put the title and authors’ names on the book, like film credits. Then I concentrated on the texts, trying to find a through line, to connect the poems so they read like chapters. Then using words that were on the page, I created one poem. One voice, using parts from the 100 voices, highlighted. So it’s a funny a book, because it demands more than one reading, to get it all.
That’s a very complicated way to go about things.
It’s a literary mix tape (I can hear him grinning, widely).
Do you believe poetry should live more aurally?
No not at all, I believe in the page, but I think we get misguided by a lot of professors. In Homer’s time, 90 percent of people were illiterate, they didn’t read his work, they listened to him. Reciting from person to person, so I just used that to argue the value of spoken word and that it’s not new to poetry. So academia shouldn’t discredit that type of poetry’s relevance, it’s ancient.
Do you think the academia does discredit spoken word poetry?
I have no idea, but I do have “imagined enemies” sometimes (cracking up). I guess I have that in common with all the rappers, eh.
Yet there’s no beef, or haters, just sneaky professors. Hanging by the library, waiting to attack with their monocles and corduroy blazers with elbow patches (snickering loudly).
Exactly, they are coming for me.
Best rapper of all time, or is it too hard to choose?
I could say Rakim, but that’s because I was there, and I know what it felt like to say what he said at that time, in that climate. Taken out of context, you might come up with someone else. I could just as easily say Pos De Nous, one of the most playful rappers ever. Or Del The Funky Homosapian, what he can do has blown my mind, repeatedly. Or Kool Keith, I was in love with what he was doing when I was 15.
I liked he had been to a mental asylum.
There is that.
Tell me 3 of your favorite poets?
I have 3 poets I love. Hafiz, a Persian Sufi poet. Rumi, another Sufi poet and Khalil Gibran. Now they are all spiritual poets, I found those 3 really exciting. Gibran has less of a sense of humor though, but Rumi and Hafiz are hilarious. With Hafiz being the most irreverent, he isn’t beholden to a traditional idea of God. He talks about "God on the table, lifting her skirt." I enjoy that kind of irreverence.
Your father was a minister, did that make you spiritual?
Well I’m not a religious person, but I would say I’m spiritual. Yeah I think my father’s interest and what was important to him, spilled over, but it also put me at odds with him about the institute. He was a Baptist minister, me I don’t see myself belonging to any church or religion.
Reality TV, thoughts?
I have a lot of TVs but they aren’t attached.
They aren’t plugged in?
I use them to watch films mostly, so it’s not really on my radar, but I don’t watch a lot of TV anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had days when I’ve been sucked into The Kardashians. Where I’ve come across that channel, or been in a hotel room and meant to watch an hour and I’m still there 5 hours later, vegetating. That’s happened, but at home I feel like I got enough TV in as a kid. There’s no rebellion against TV, I just have already spent a lot of time doing that.
Not so much the talent competitions, I don’t really look at them as the “Reality TV” genre.
Talent competitions can be fun and in many ways I came through the more traditional ones, but a lot of the people that I have loved creatively, like Bob Marley weren’t perfect musicians. He wasn’t the perfect guitar player. I’m just not sure if he would be judged properly on Jamaican Idol, if you see what I mean. I would like to think Nina Simone could have won the first American Idol, but if they didn’t think she was “whatever” enough, she wouldn’t get through the first couple of rounds. So I’m always thinking “Fuck you” to the judges in a way, they are like the professors. I don’t really give a fuck about those people in those chairs, not for what’s important to me musically.
Some of them have no business being musical or vocal judges, in my opinion.
I would beat all their asses with Miles Davis’ trumpet and spend time in prison gladly (giggling). At the same time do I shed a tear when someone has a breakout performance, I love it, I’m human. I’m just not a fan of the candy wrapper, that everything has been nicely packaged and polished for a US audience. What would have ever happened with The Ramones or Bad Brains? I’m gonna stick with Bad Brains, y’know.
A lot of Brit bands never made it over here, because they weren’t attractive enough. I’m amazed America embraced Radiohead!
Yeah we need more of that. We need to remember what beauty can be. I’ll take Thom Yorke’s voice over Kim Kardashian’s face and body.
You say that, but you were also married to one of THE MOST beautiful women in the world.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, but in that area, in my romantic history I’ve been involved with people that to me have a great deal of content. Women of intelligence and talent too. I can stand behind everyone I’ve been involved with in that regard.
I’m thinking, of one in particular.
(I refer to the patron saint of gorgeousness, my desperate obsession, Persia White).
I know who you are talking about.
(Good, that pleases me).
Describe your music?
Uhm, uhm, uhm.. hah ha.
If you had a handful of weed, stuffed into the mouth of a saxophone, then lit it - and stayed up all night blowing through it. That’s about right.
Tell me about collaborating with Erykah Badu and Trent Reznor?
I use to do poetry with Erykah, she’s a wonderful poet. She sang in her poems. Collaborating with Trent Reznor was awesome, he feels like a big brother to me. I feel I learnt a lot from him.
He makes me think “Your a big man, who could do terrible things to people.” I find him slightly terrifying.
Really hah ha. I have some friends like that, you can tell they are warriors, but well mannered warriors.
Art is so subjective, do you think that there is “bad art”?
Well, there’s things that don’t move me. That are cheap, or are not my personal taste, it depends. What appeals to me, may not appeal to someone else.
(He’s very diplomatic with all his answers, which I have to say doesn’t feel forced to appease).
Some folks are just shocking for shocking sake. Without any creative merit behind it.
For me, if it’s not for me, I think where is this shit going? Why are they trying to sell this to us, not the artist, but the industry behind it.
At this point (unfortunately) I went on a slight mad-one about enfant terrible Dash Snow (RIP), the class war, and how a hamster ball in a hotel room is considered art by the elitist establishment. When in fact it’s also just some rich kids mess that was cleaned up by a working class, middle aged maid, after a 13 hour shift!! Perhaps I was a little “too involved” in this description.
I’m getting the sense you are very angry about(laughing).
Do you have any opinions on the Tyler Perry vs Spike Lee debacle?
I’ve been deeply inspired by some of Spike Lee’s films, to me he’s a trailblazer, how he values cinema, playing into stereotypes to break them. I don’t see Tyler Perry movies in the same way. I’ve only seen the one film, and it’s a genre that isn’t for me. I have friends and family members that LOVE those movies, I can’t claim I’m a fan. A lot of his takes on religion and sexuality, are kind of “old world.” The only new world aspect, is the money that’s being made and what’s being done with the money. Building a studio outside of the Hollywood system, I can applaud that business acumen. His style is not for me though, but I would never diss him for that. He could probably create something that would be more appealing to me, but why should he, that’s not his job.
I look at Madea like Mrs Doubtfire, silly and cornball. Sometimes I want silly.
Silly is good, I LOVE silly. If Tyler Perry was silly about christianity like Will Ferrell, in Talladega Nights, that would be hilarious. He’s not though. Did you see that?
When he prays he has to put all the brands he’s sponsored by, in his prayers!
Yeah he’s kinda religious, so that’s probably never gonna happen
That might be his problem.
I dunno why, but I never expected Saul Williams to be particularly funny. He’s sharp zingers crackle like fireworks.
Do you think education has become under rated in the US?
Did you enjoy episodic TV when you did “Girlfriends?”
I did, I wanted to do it to smash any misconceptions I may have had. It did that. When I was there, it was a very female driven production and crew. It should have won some awards across the board. It was a very progressive set, I really enjoyed my time on that show.
Did you fall in love with Paris?
I’m happy to be here, but I didn’t have a romantic notion of Paris. I just knew I had been there a lot and it felt cool.
Are you living there still?
You’ve probably never looked at the MIMP site have you?
And I never will.
"Oooh Muriel, you are terrible Muriel."
And with that we cackled like banshees one last time and I bid him adieu.
Next summer Saul can be seen with TV On The Radio, Deerhunter and Spank Rock at “Pontin’s Camber Sands Holiday Park” ATP Festival in the UK. He also stars in Alain Gomis’ new film “Aujourd’hui” set for release in January 2013.