'The only responsibility I feel is to fight': Saul Williams on art, love, activism and fear

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Saul Williams is the mouthpiece for the unheard. The 43-year-old poet/rapper/actor is seven albums deep into a his half-literary half-musical career which boasts collaborations with everyone from Nine Inch Nails to the Fugees. After seven studio albums, two films, and one tour on Broadway, Williams plans to release his eighth album, MartyrLoserKing, this summer. Without a doubt, Williams is one of this generation's most penetrating correspondents — one who functions as a freewheeling cultural anthropologist, recording his notes in verse. Fusion spoke to Williams at his Harlem residence about the latest entry in his public conversation.


Fusion: You just wrapped up a tour in the US and a short run in Europe. How is the new material being received?

Saul Williams: I wanted to try out the songs before releasing them. And before the tour I decided I wasn't going to do any old or familiar material and the audience would just have to live with it. It's turned out to be as fun and provocative as I'd hoped it would.

Fusion: Any memorable moments?

Saul Williams: We actually did a show recently at the British Library, and during a time that marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. The original document was there and also displayed were the Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights. So to perform all new material in the presence of those manuscripts was wild.

Fusion: That's historic.

Saul Williams: Yeah, it's been cool. And just with all that's been going on even more so. I feel like everything I've wanted to say is coming through me more clearly than ever before — but also like I'm operating with a certain curse.


Fusion: A curse?

Saul Williams: I see the news and the global discussion with the protests and the travails, the capitalism and the exploitation everywhere. The world is at a point of synchronization with what I've been doing as an artist. What's happening now is like a continuation of Fred Hampton and Angela Davis. But the police can't stop us from capturing and incriminating them in their actions anymore. Some things are finally beginning to work in our favor, in that we're able to document the injustice and release it. At least until they find a way to control it. They've slowed our progress for a long time but we're just not having it anymore. It's been like a YouTube video waiting to load, the slow crawl of justice.


Fusion: It's been roughly four years since the release of Volcanic Sunlight, a project that you once said did not come from a place of anger. Now with your 5th full-length LP MartyrLoserKing coming, how do the emotions and the thematic elements reflect the current cultural climate? It seems like this album, perhaps more than any of your previous work, would be justified if it were to come from a place of anger.

Saul Williams: Absolutely, and it does. MartyLoserKing was made from a place of anger and complete exasperation. Like, I feel strongly connected to humanity. And I grow tired of how we are being coerced. I have long said that I don't give a fuck and that's what this is about. It's exasperation.


Fusion: But you do care. And the raw energy of “All Coltrane Solos at Once” and how unsettling and manic it is only goes to show that.

Saul Williams: That's the thing. Of course I care. But there are two parts to it. The hook says "Fuck u/Understand me," yes. But “please understand me” can quickly turn into a “fuck you” when you feel like you're not being heard. The ribcage says “fuck you” to protect the heart. As humans we're made of these parallels, and it all comes down to the heart. We have to shield ourselves with a ribcage, because it's the shell that looks after the soft core, protects it.


Fusion: There's a lot of talk about white privilege these days, and social media has been the biggest catalyst in pushing that discussion forward. There's a line in “All Coltrane Solos at Once” where you say that “to imagine hell is privilege.”

Saul Williams: Yes, and that's for the armchair revolutionary, the one not engaged firsthand with the struggle. Maybe they agree with the movement but they're just imagining it, seeing it from the outside. There is privilege in being able to only imagine it. It's one thing to live it and another to sympathize with it. But then again, I too am privileged.


Fusion: How so?

Saul Williams: Look, it's a privilege to have the chance to be in a studio and say anything. Compared to my ancestors, I'm highly privileged. So even as a black male facing so many things, I myself still hold an aspect of privilege. Just the simple fact that I'm a man in this society can be looked at as a form of privilege. Any black male walking the street understands the truth of white privilege, of course, but we ourselves still benefit from male privilege in a patriarchal system. There are many intricacies to this battle but the goal at the end of the day is to be harmonious, to be my best self, to overcome ideologies.


Fusion: You come from a strong line of protest poets. I think of Gil Scott-Heron, Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka. Is there someone who's struggle and sensibility you identify with the most as an artist?

Saul Williams: Well, I wouldn't put any word in front of the word poet. And anyway, I consider myself more of a punk than anything. I grew up listening to more Jim Morrison than Gil Scott-Heron. But I identify more with Ginsberg than any other poet.


Fusion: It's interesting that some of the most esteemed writers in history first tried their hand at poetry, with forgettable results. Faulkner, for example, considered himself a failed poet. And Hemingway was an awful poet. I've heard you say that early in your career it was hard for you to call yourself a poet.

Saul Williams: Really, I consider myself a failed actor. In the beginning, I wanted to find amazing roles and just do that. It worked out differently. But then, poetry manifests itself in different forms. Jimi Hendrix didn't identify as poet but in sound, he was one — through the power of music. Poetry transcends understanding and harmonizes ideas like nothing else. The poet observes the disconnect and tries to connect what might not be so obviously connected. John Keats said “poets are the midwives of reality.” It's that trickle down theory, the poets receives first and then delivers. The poet is the midwife.


Fusion: Do you feel the weight of that responsibility?

Saul Williams: The only responsibility I feel is to fight. I've just moved back from Paris and, being back in New York, I realize that I have to speak up against a lot. I look at the policing of transparency and the policing of the disenfranchised and, yes, there's a sense of responsibility to be felt because I'm concerned. What are we doing, what are we spreading? What role are we playing in our own demise?


Fusion: It sounds like there's an element of fear, too. Fear of what's to come.

Saul Williams: The only thing I fear is regression. I fear that a generation will have to fight the same fight as opposed to a new fight. Personally, I'm full of fears but I can't ever act on those fears. Fear is what sells insurance and alarm systems. For me, the urgency of now is everything. We have to utilize anger and have a sense of urgency, do a sort of emotional fracking where we use our fears to make change.


Fusion: So President Obama just got himself a Twitter account. Are you following him?

Saul Williams: Not yet. But I'm following the Burundi situation and what's going on there — with President Nkurunziza trying to get a third term. I'm seeing all of the unrest. It's crazy. And it's all about fear, like what happened with Mayor Bloomberg. Fear is why Bloomberg was given a third term and nobody did anything. It's fear, man.


Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR and a contributor to Esquire, VIBE, and The Daily Beast. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove