Saul Williams is a writer, a musician, a poet, a composer, a performer—an artist in the fullest sense of the word. While he says that most people’s attempts to label his work fall short, expressing himself has increased his ability to understand and exist in our world. If that’s too intense for you, go ahead and stop reading. New York photographer Onaje “Nashish” Scott sat down with Williams to talk writing, the influence of social media in the art world, and the inspiration for Williams’s work.
What first got you into writing music and poetry?
Hip-hop and Shakespeare. I discovered both as a kid and loved the idea of punch lines and hidden meaning in language. The first play I did was Julius Caesar. I played Marc Antony. In breaking down those speeches he gave, subtly inciting the masses against the murderous traitors who let him speak, I understood something on a profound level. Simultaneously, I loved dancing. I loved the drum. I was a breakbeat scientist way before I was introduced to calculus or chemistry.
Can you briefly talk about your upcoming project Martyr Loser King—what inspired you in make this project?
Everything. I wanted to find a creative way to talk about everything. I wanted a particular vantage point that was not my own to illuminate ideas and ideologies…realities. It’s a broad concept with a very focused departure point: a hacker living in Burundi.
If you search “Coltan as Cotton” on Google, it shows that you posted it back in 2013 on your Tumblr. Was it a one-time project that turned into a full album? When did it come into fruition?
I’ve been working on this album since 2012. I take my time building, dreaming, composing, writing, reading…I believe in the marination process.
The first single in Martyr Loser King is “Burundi” and then is followed by the powerful video “Coltan as Cotton.” Will we be seeing a mix of spoken-word videos in your upcoming graphic novel album?
I have no idea how to label what I do, but for those who have followed my work and growth as an artist, you will definitely see all of the elements that have come to define me.
What’s your take on the today’s ever-expanding social media platforms in conjunction to your poetry video “Coltan as Cotton?”
I’m inspired by the connection. I see our ability to manifest changes using [social media] racing with the super powers’ goal to control and exploit it. We need to turn the parts of the system that don’t work on their heads. But we have to use our heads and escape The Matrix in order visualize and embody the integral outcomes. It’s like Thelonious Monk trying to poke his way around an impossible scale, finding new harmonies, setting new standards, all while keeping folks on the dance floor.
Poetry, music, visual performance, and so forth are all forms of art. With technology evolving and the internet becoming more accessible to everyone, do you think there is a direct link between art and the opportunity to express yourself through social media? How has artistic expression played a part in social media?
Look at the way great performances circulate. Our ability to share experiences has increased exponentially. Our ability to create experiences through interface, design, and programming have also increased. We haven’t quite defeated the system through creativity, yet old systems have been forced to redefine themselves and align themselves with the new model…our new freedoms.
Who are your favorite artists right now?
Yoko Ono. Haleek Maul. Arca. A Tribe Called Red. Conan Moccasin. Hank Willis Thomas. Sarah Kane. Anisia Uzeyman. Nicholas Jar. Alain Gomis. Maya Deren. Virginie Despentes. M.I A. Stromae. Warren Ellis. Leon Misael. Hilton Als. Kara Walker. Daedalus…
The presidential election is coming up soon, which candidate are you leaning towards?
I can’t reconcile what I’ve learned about the Clintons’ behavior in Haiti, for one. And I find [Hillary’s] positioning difficult to trust as in many cases it has been more political than unwavering. I’d cite her position on gay vs. traditional marriage before the tides changed as an example. Sanders identifying as a socialist democrat is interesting. I’d say I’m leaning towards him for the moment. A dream team would be Sanders/Warren. But I don’t fool myself on the fight ahead regardless of who’s in office. The naysayers, the xenophobes, and the corporate interests have money and we’ve given much of our power by worshipping it. Religious zealots fuel their fire. Today, even much of what passes for entertainment fuels their fire. The work ahead of us is immense and I don’t doubt the positive effects of charismatic visionary leadership, but I also fear that we will have to pay for the short-sighted bullshit we’ve worshiped and celebrated. The hypocrisy, the stubborn ignorance, which equals stupidity—all of these things cost us time, hardship, troubleshooting, sometimes generations, before they are uprooted.
Lastly, is there anything you would like to say to fans out there?
Stay tuned, #staywoke.
Photos by Onaje Scott