Saul Williams has often been described as a “poet, rapper, singer, songwriter, musician, writer, actor, and activist.” He, however, sees himself rather as an artist traveling in many fields.

“The poet laureate of hip-hop” (CNN), has published a variety of artistic works, has performed in over 30 countries and read in over 300 universities, with invitations that have spanned from the White House, the Sydney Opera House, Lincoln Center, The Louvre, The Getty Center, Queen Elizabeth Hall, to countless villages, townships, community centers, and prisons across the world.

On stage Williams has a strong presence. When you go to YouTube, he usually comes along as a young, angry, dark-skinned man screaming excitedly into the microphone. This sometimes obscures the view on his poetic texts which have a lot of provocative potential. Since the majority of his texts are not spontaneously understandable, the individual topics are preceded by information that allow a better understanding of Williams’ “universe”.

About Saul Williams

Saul Williams was born in Newburgh, New York, in 1972 and grew up there. For the preciding 40 years, Newburgh had had the highest murder rate, the highest crime rate, the highest drug trafficking rate in New York state, with just 30,000 people. His father pastored a church there. His mother was a schoolteacher. Thus  Williams was exposed to two worlds: rough streets and great teachers.

He received a BA in acting and philosophy from Morehouse College in 1994, as well as an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in acting from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1997.

He left the United States and went to live in Paris for four years. Because, one of his reasons, he had, back then, a 13-year-old daughter whom he wanted to have “the sort of insight that comes from looking at her country from the outside and to experience another way of seeing the world.” (Democracy Now (April 22, 2016)

After four years abroad, Williams returned to the United States.

His concept of art

Williams tries to combine poetry, theater, music and performance.

Saul Williams
Artist’s Official Homepage 
Slam (film) – Wikipedia
Amethyst Rock Star (2001)
“Coded Language”
“Saul Williams Revisits „Coded Language“ 15 Years Later.

At first he wanted to be a rapper, discovered hip-hop, but he was also fascinated by Shakespeare, whom he was studying in school. (In Julius Caesar Williams played the Mark Antony.) He “figured out all the layers of meaning and how playful you could be with language.” And so, his life, “essentially, has been fusing that love of theater and music, … and performance. (Democracy Now (April 22, 2016) 

His Works (Selection)

Slam
The film tells the story of Ray Joshua, a gifted young MC trapped in a war-zone housing project known as Dodge City. Unable to find a job, Ray copes with the despair and poverty of his neighborhood by using his wits and verbal talent.

Amethyst Rock Star

It is his debut studio album, released on May 8, 2001.

MartyrLoserKing

Titles for Williams are “jump-off points”. His fifth album is about a cyber hacker living in the East African country of Burundi. Why Burundi? Williams started writing about it primarily because his wife was from Rwanda. There were lots of interesting things that happen in the region: “80 percent of the cobalt and coltan that our technology is depended on comes from that region. the story around those mines and the exploitation that occurs around those mines are the sort of things you probably don’t want to think about when you’re taking a selfie.” (Democracy Now)

US(a.)

After four years abroad, Williams returned to the United States and “found his head twirling with thoughts on race, class, gender, finance, freedom, guns, cooking shows, dog shows, superheroes, not-so-super politicians—everything that makes up (his) country.” In US (a.) he presents his ideas, observations, realizations, dreams, and questions about the state of America, the American psyche, and what it means to be American.

Subject Areas

1. Being Dark-Skinned in America (“Black Stacey”)
Stacey is Saul William’s middle name.
Excerpt:

“I used to use bleachin’ creme … I dreamt of being white and complimented by you
But the only shiny black thing that you liked was my shoes …
Back Stacey, they called me, “Black Stacey”
I never got to be myself ’cause to myself
I always was, Black Stacey, in polka dots and Paisley …
you thought it wouldn’t phase me but it did ’cause I was just a kid …
I never got to be myself ’cause to myself I always was ‘Black Stacey’.”

In concert Saul Williams stated that the song wasn’t about being black, but about “being yourself regardless of what others see in you.”

2. The Complex Issues of Sexuality and Gender

In MartyrLoserKing there is a character named Neptune Frost. Born intersex, she identifies herself as female, but her family decided to educate her as a man.

Excerpt:

Girl, boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl
Girl, boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl (see lyrics)

3. Natural ressources and exploitation (“Coltan as Cotton”)

Coltan is a precious mineral, like titanium, aluminum, gold, silver, nickel, iron, all of which are listed on the stock market. Coltan is found in smartphones and laptops. What Williams is talking about is – as “Coltan as cotton” suggests – an analogue form of exploitation. “The looting of Africa for precious resources is what colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, have been based on for hundreds of years. And it continues on through our technology.”

4. Hacking as disruption

For Williams there are multiple ways to civic awareness and participation. “We can go the long way through elections and running for office but there have to be shortcuts and those shortcuts are protesting, standing up, releasing information they don’t want us to know, forcing the hand of transparency before they’re willing to make it transparent. That’s what I’m really talking about when I’m talking about hacking: I’m talking about disruption.” (Saul Williams, interview with Chris Garrard)

5. Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism refers to a literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science-fiction, fantasy, Afro-centricity and magical realism with non-Western cosmologies. In music, literature and comics since the 1990s, artists have developed utopian worlds that oppose images of a white future with the possibility of a non-white future. The title character of MartyrLoserKing is an example.

Conclusion

“Poetry is a radically re-humanizing force,” said Tracy K. Smith, U. S. Poet Laureate (Washington Post) “because it is one of the only generally accessible languages that rewards us for naming things in their realness and their complexity”.

The lyrics of Williams are very complex in their “reality”. Often, they appear as “stream of consciousness” texts, seemingly disordered sequences of consciousness content. On closer inspection, however, you can see a plan. They are worth reading or listening in, especially against the background of digital activism.

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