In Aujourd’hui, Saul Williams plays a pensive man negotiating the reality of his last day on earth. Set in Senegal, his character lives in a society where death announces before it comes calling. In an interview with The Con, the actor, musician and poet talks about the search for something new in each of the artforms he practices.
I don’t know whether you care, but have you interrogated how your work has been interpreted by your lineage, as far as hip-hop is concerned. How do you think your elders perceive where you are taking the artform?
I have no idea, I think like many artists I play around with the idea of feeling misunderstood, because it is fun, but truly, I have no idea. I mean I can hear my influence at times, and people are going to latch on to different aspects. Some people might hear everything that I do and the way it influences them is like: “I’m gonna do something clear and enunciated.” They could be saying pure bullshit. But the influence is there, like: “I know it’s gotta be said like this.”
It comes from every angle. But even throughout history you will find examples of people latching on to one aspect of something and taking that away from it and leaving other things that other people take away or are inspired by. I don’t fixate on watching that. The only thing that is going to make me feel good about what I do is knowing what I put into it and knowing what’s there from my perspective. What someone takes away from it, I don’t know.
Sometimes I try to put in secret messages, you know coded language here and there but most of the time it’s not so coded. It’s usually clear or not, I’m unclear when I want to be. Or it’s something where I am not trying to bring about clarity. Or it has something to do with just saying: “Aren’t all these things crazy, to think about at the same time?” Where it’s not about the clarity, it’s about the announcement of all these things existing at once, like: “I don’t know about you but that’s crazy to me.” Like when you think of bling culture and the history of diamonds in South Africa and Sierra Leone. And these are all in black people. You know simple things. It could be any of that. There is so much.
One of the things you said when you were in South Africa for the first time (probably twelve years ago) was that you felt like hip-hop had gone somewhere to get resurrected in a Jesus sense. What is your view about where hip-hop is now?
I don’t remember saying what you said but I know that my critique of hip-hop has never so much been a critique of hip-hop as it has been a critique of pop culture. Hip-hop came into my line of fire when it became pop culture. You understand? My critique is of pop culture. The same critique I would give to a hip-hop artist say nine years ago is the same critique I would probably give to a reality show today. It’s just on what I think we can do with pop culture. How we can feed as opposed to drain society. It’s really that. In terms of hip-hop, whatever, it’s a culture, it’s a form of music, it does whatever it wants to do, just like I do whatever I want to do.
But when I see people really taught and educated through pop culture, and on the other hand, mis-taught and mis-educated, that frightens just because I see the susceptibility of the youth. When you look at something and you go, “Wow that’s shiny!” or “Wow, that’s cool.” I have two kids so there’s been tons of time when my kids have been like, “Wow, so and so has such and such, isn’t that cool?” And I’m like, “Actually…. No. It’s not necessarily that cool.” But I’ve also been a kid. So if I was fourteen looking at somebody’s blah blah blah… you know.
Do you think there are forces that control the projection of what a black artist can represent?
Yes! Us. We control it. I’m not about pointing fingers in terms of, “they want us to put out music like this.” If they want anything, they want money. And if we make anything popular, then that’s where they go. So it’s us who control it. And it’s us who carry it forward or leave it stagnant. It’s us. It’s always been us. It’s us.
You have interacted with Hollywood as an actor. Can you speak about your experiences as an actor in that realm, and maybe how you go about choosing your roles and your interaction with that culture?
My main thing is that, basically, we’re all shaped, formed, spoiled, whatever, jaded by our experiences. My experience with art is stuff that moved me. I grew up on political theatre and really political music, you know, Public Enemy and all that stuff. I grew up not only loving that the beat was amazing or the sleeve design was great, but also that it was the perfectly crafted middle finger to the establishment. And that it was important and that it was necessary. So up into my film Slam, in which I invested that same energy of wanting to impart something, wanting people to leave the theatre moved, confronted, inspired. So when I was given opportunities to participate in something and I couldn’t figure out what the purpose of it was for. I’d see scripts like: “we’d like you to be the funny black guy next to the handsome white guy… in a cop movie.” And it’s not that I don’t understand the importance of laughter, but I also realise the importance of archetypes and stereotypes. And change. You know, the importance of just seeing really different shit, of changing the equation, of breaking the formula, of creating new formulas. Of not wanting to see remakes of all the shit that I grew up with in the Eighties and wanting to feel like I’m a part of something new. And if we can feel that “This is important because this is what is happening in society and we are making a statement about it.” You know because that’s the reason I came into theatre. When you start to write a play you are pretty much aware that you are entering into a zone where you realise you may never – the same with poetry – you realise you may never adequately earn much based on what you’re gonna do, so you invest for a different reason. I can’t really say the same is true for a lot of films and TV shows. It’s entertainment and sometimes it feels like, “Ok, you are doing this movie because, you guys have a schedule and you need to put out a number of films this year and you don’t really want to change anything, and you don’t want to really engage, or get an interesting director or do something new, something fresh, something exciting. You don’t want to push any envelopes or any buttons.” That’s just boring to me. I grew up loving actors and loving acting and loving artists.
I did not study theatre so that I could sign a five-year contract to be a lawyer. Why, because I really like acting and if I’m gonna play that role that means I’m gonna spend the next five years being a fucking lawyer or a detective or some shit I don’t wanna be.
Not that I only want to play actors in movies but I’m saying that a lot of times it’s like, “we are playing a doctor”, you know what I’m saying. It’s cool but a lot of the time I’m not as fixated on things that come my way so a lot of times it’s just pointless. But if you’re an agent or manager, a lot of the times people are like, yeah, but it’s a cool pay cheque. If and when it gets to that, then I kind of lose some steam, because I’ve seen nice pay cheques come from meaningful stuff.
Not to say that stuff is meaningless, I think it all serves a purpose. Our entertainment and all of those things are important and I choose what I want to participate in based not only on its value, because you see this or hear this and next you’ll find out that I’m doing some comedy with Jamie Foxx. And I’m not opposed to any of those things. I’m not opposed to it. I just need to feel engaged in some way and I’ve turned down stuff that I didn’t feel connected to. I don’t want to perpetuate any stereotypes, that’s for sure and I didn’t get into acting to feel like I’m in a nine to five where I’m begging people: “please take me for this job.” If I’m gonna beg for something to come out I’d rather beg for a book that I’ve written to come out that has some shit in it that I really want to be out there than beg to be the driver or secretary of the handsome dude.
The afro-punk movement in the States. Do you think it serves a purpose to brand punk culture or rock music in a racial sense?
I think it’s the sort of thing where there’s a necessity on the one hand. We grow in phases. There are poems I have like Sha Klak Klak and Amethyst Rocks that were essential for me based on where I was in my thinking at the time, and I needed to write something kind of racially motivated but that spoke beyond the idea of race because that’s where I was then and I was trying to step away from something. But I feel like the idea of labeling something afro-punk, is actually kind of old and antiquated in this time when we are trying to get beyond these social constructs like race. Bad Brains might be an afro-punk band but the Bad Brains were the originators of punk itself. So we don’t need to throw an afro in front of that. You know, it seems like a Seventies/ Eighties movement. However, I think its fun. But I also feel the same way about terms like “slam”. You won’t catch me referring to myself as a “slam poet”. I would call myself, I guess, a poet. The new titles sometimes limit the thing. But what I do value about the afro-punk thing, is what they are trying to do. Which is to explore the idea of a quote unquote urban or black alternative. Which is to say: “we don’t all have to pump this music in order to be down. We are also fucking around with these guitars, we are also speeding up these fucking drum beats and screaming our fucken asses off and don’t think for a minute that we are…, you know, don’t let all this shit go R&B on us.” And I’m with them 180% percent on that. I feel the same way with poetry. People associate poetry with neo soul, Jill Scott, or something like that. My association with poetry was straight up punk rock. I’d feel the same way like, “don’t associate us with that”, because I’m not a big R&B fan. Modern R&B, of course.
Turning back to hip-hop, you’ve often had, strangely, only good things to say about 50 Cent, a Gucci Mane or a Jay-Z? what ewould you say you’ve learnt from those artists?
Aside from the marketing genius that is 50Cent, aside from the idea… the type of survivor spirit that he has, surviving what he did and living to rap about it, I picked up on the little practical things like, ok, the New York rapper that finds a balance between a Southern style delivery and a New York style delivery might get more flow and recognition in all territories than the one who just sounds like he is more New York. 50 Cent to me was really a more interesting strategic move. He sounded like Biggie and Tupac in the same body. As an artist, that’s what I was listening to. I was listening as a New York rap lover, saying, “OK”
But Tupac’s from New York anyway…
Yeah but it’s about that double time flow. I’m talking about just that flow. New York styles of rapping were just like be bop; really fast [mimics fast rapping]. Listen to Dipset – all that shit. There’s really a thing there. And the Southern style, what you’ll hear there if you talking Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy, or whatever… If you take it back to UGK and even Scarface or any of these Southern cats, I hear a confidence and something that I associate with the blues. Where I hear New York cats say, “but these guys are not really saying anything?” I’m like, “It’s not what they’re saying it’s how they’re saying it. Do you hear how he’s riding the beat?” It’s very very different to how Noreaga or Mobb Deep would ride a beat. That’s what I learnt from that shit.
And someone like a Jay-Z?
A lot of stuff. The biggest lesson I learnt from someone like a Jay-Z, through all of it, is watching him mature up to now. Like watching him say: “Oh I’m not gonna use the word “bitch” anymore because I’ve got a daughter.” The biggest learning point for me is watching him transcend Jay-Z. He’s been trying to do that for years. I love and respect his work, I just haven’t been able to bump it because I haven’t been able to meld with it politically. You know, Jay-Z, those six summers that he ran are the same six summers that Bush ran in America.
What do you think of the accusations of Masonic influences with him and Kanye?
To me that shit is old school. I read Behold A Pale Horse back in whatever year, back in 1992. If you wanna ask me, “Was AIDS created in a laboratory?” I will say yes. But if you wanna ask me, “Do these guys belong in any secret organisations?” I will say of course they do. It’s called the VIP section. But I don’t see a grand conspiracy, just more in terms of, people with shifted values or different values in positions of power can do a great deal of destruction. Or not, depending on whether they realise the power of their presence and the effects of everything they do, even without some strategic logic behind it. Even the lack of strategic logic behind it where it’s just “get money”. That can be fucking deafening for an entire generation. You can hold an entire generation back.
One last question, about Volcanic Sunrise. I mean its got its happy poppy moments, some people have even said that it’s your attempt at a commercial breakthrough. Would you agree with that assessment, I think it’s quite balanced in that it has its dark moments…
To me it’s a pop album, but not because I tried to do that. You know when I listen to my music or study what I’m doing, it’s like someone studying their stool. It’s like “Oh, I ate corn.”
I watched the album come out of me and it was like, “This sounds like a pop album.” I’m the audience member too and I’m the first one who called it that. Every album that I’ve made has been what I wish to hear at that moment and what I cannot turn to anybody else to provide for me.
My sense is that you had some misgivings about Amethyst Rock Star, you’ve spoken about Rick Rubin and the mixing….
It’s only because I was trying to learn the industry. I just didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I mean I was super intent on not letting these Hollywood motherfuckers shift my message or what have you. But I didn’t know anything about making music, about making beats, mixing an album, recording an album. The difference between how you need to project when you’re on stage and how you don’t need to project when a microphone is right in front of your face in the studio. So being a performance artist versus being a recording artist. There’s a lot of reasons for me why Amethyst Rock Star is like “Oh it’s still good but I was going through a lot of things.”
You know it’s just early experience for me where I can see my mistakes or what have you. But at the same time I can still acknowledge that there is not much that sounded like it at its time and I had to fight for that. I had to fight tooth and nail for that album to even come out because I had label people with power saying: “This is not hip-hop”. And me saying: “What gave you the impression that I was even trying to make a hip-hop album in the first place. Is it because I’m black, young and from New York?” I was like: “I told you there’s gonna be violins and cellos from the beginning. Why does this surprise you?”
If you talk about Amethyst Rocks Star and Volcanic Sunlight, the main difference you’ll notice is song structure. And when I did my first album, Rick Rubin was trying to teach me about song structure. If you listen to Amethyst Rock Star and regardless of how you might like something, you’ll realise that I didn’t know shit about song structure.
Which was something that worked…
Yeah that’s what worked. That’s what worked about it. I was like, “fuck song structure, this song is one long chorus with a list of ninety names, deal with it.” And that’s where I was at the time, Volcanic Sunlight is me doing for myself like, Oh, this is how a structured song works. And so it was important for my own growth to do that for myself and also to realise that I’m capable of writing like that now: “Holy shit, this is the chorus, this is the bridge, this is the second verse, oh wow, it’s coming together like that now. And that’s how I kind of like process what I’ve learned. Every recording experience for me has been with like a producer who has served as a mentor for me. When I worked with Trent Reznor, I learnt a lot about how to take avant garde sounds and fit them into a pop music format and so that’s what you see me kind of practicing in Volcanic Sunlight in the same way that that is what we were doing on Niggy Tardust. It’s just what we’re doing without Trent’s signature sound in there, like back on my own like in the albums before.
Thanks dude, its been an interesting career, we are still going to watch what you do next.
The next thing is the best thing.
Saul Williams photographs taken by Madelene Cronje at Bushfire 2012