Saul Williams:
Confessions of A Dangerous Mind

Hacking the links between racial politics, social media, police brutality, Jay Z and Bernie Sanders


Saul Williams is a renaissance man, one who has worn the hat of poet, rapper, actor, musician, and activist. Last year, he took the lead role in Holler if Ya Hear Me, a Broadway play based on the music of Tupac Shakur. This accompanies a long list of accolades, such as appearing in the film Slam to recording an album with Trent Reznor and touring with Nine Inch Nails. This week he releases his sixth book of poetry, US (a.), and is putting the finishing touches upon his fifth studio album, Martyr Loser King, which will be released in two parts in 2016. Cuepoint caught up with Saul while he was in Las Vegas, to touch upon a number of topics, including identity politics, police brutality, the return of conscious hip-hop, Jay Z’s faux pax and the best candidate in the 2016 election.

Cuepoint: I first saw you perform live with Nine Inch Nails in 2005, before a crowd of goth kids. You had a really poignant quote right before you performed “Black Stacey.” You said something along the lines of “You put on your black t-shirt to come to this show, but when I go home…”

Saul Williams: Yeah, I remember what I said. It was “This is what happens when you take off your black t-shirt and you’re still black” (laughs).

Yeah, it was interesting because the goth crowd is known for the dyed black hair, the painted black fingernails, and like you said, the black t-shirts. But it also says something about the Iggy Azaleas of the world, who want to appropriate black culture when it is convenient, but not necessarily when it isn’t.

It wasn’t so much about appropriation. I never felt that the goth kids were trying to be black, they just dressed in black. But I felt, essentially, there’s a kind of way of looking at the world, that comes with that attitude, like stoicism, cynicism, or nihilism. I just felt like, if you want to look at it that way, and you think it’s bad, imagine it worse (laughs).

I remember the crowd kind of had a eureka moment after you said that, like “huh!”

Well yeah, goth kids often walk through high school being picked on or for being weird and identifying with the sub-genre. But imagine if it was not how you dressed or how you chose to identify, but something that you were born into and something you can’t take off. It’s not that we walk around feeling devastated or morbid about blackness, not at all. It’s usually aligned with pride, however you can read perception and reception from others. You see people clutching their purses, locking their doors, or looking twice. You know that sometimes not only until you open your mouth — and even once you do — there are assumptions that come with the brand. Either you work towards alleviating those assumptions which is what some people call “respectability politics” or you’re like “fuck it, I don’t have to change my style of speaking because I am in your presence. Don’t front like you don’t get it, I know what music you listen to when you are alone, I know what excites you,” and still I am not going to live up to whatever the assumptions are. I’m unique, I’m an individual. I’m more than you could ever imagine and less than some things you might imagine.

And that applies to any and everyone. Because I can look at the goth kid and think “Oh, yeah, yeah yeah. Tool, huh?” I can make assumptions about what they are into or what they’re about, and they can surprise me too. Same thing with the Asian kid or anyone. It’s such a strong thing in America, identity politics. There’s always been so much of our social discourse surrounding questions of identity politics. And sometimes people become overwhelmingly self-consumed talking about identity politics.

The “American” brand, which we all wear when we step out of the country, has its own identity politics internationally, and it’s fucked. We’ve screwed a lot of nations. Our comfort comes at the cost of a lot of exploitation, many of which we are unaware of. I feel like sometimes if we were more aware of the role that our government was playing outside of the country, and the role that U.S. corporations play, the role that U.S. tax dollars pay, we’d maybe have more to talk about.

Your forthcoming album is called Martyr Loser King, which kind of rolls off of the tongue like “Martin Luther King.” Are you trying to draw a parallel between those two figures?

Well, the name “Martyr Loser King” like “Niggy Tardust” is me playing with something that’s known and bringing up the unknown through it. It’s kind of like a tag, it’s screenname of a hacker in this story that I’ve been conceptualizing. The idea came from someone with a French accent mispronouncing the name “Martin Luther King” and that sparked my idea. At the time, I think the Arab Spring was going on, there was all of this talk about all of these martyrs that had died for the sake of freedom in Egypt and Tunisia. I was thinking of the martyrs, even in the states. The Mike Browns, the Aaron Swartzs, the Trayvon Martins, the Chelsea Mannings. Martyrs aren’t always dead, but they have given their life for something bigger than them. Sometimes the punishment is death, sometimes the punishment is fucked solitary confinement.

Then I thought of the “losers,” in the way that maybe Christians think of sinners, like “we’re all sinners in the grace of god.” I thought of us all being losers in a sense. Most of us don’t have the cars that the rappers have in videos, we don’t have the pull to walk into the restaurant, we don’t own Ciroc. Most of us are more connected to the idea of being a loser. We don’t have the looks to get the girl. We don’t have the standards that the media propaganda applies to the idea of “winning.” But we identify heavily with the desire to win. That’s part of the American way, right?

But I thought of how it would vary outside of the country, where people don’t get the screen time, coming from places you’ve never heard of, because we are geographically incompetent (laughs). So it’s the idea of being able to identify as a “global loser,” in the same way the blacks might identify with being “niggas.”

So living in Paris, I’m sure you witnessed a lot of the recent police injustices in America from the outside. It seems like we’ve reached a point in which we are hearing about some new incident every week or every other week. As someone who was raised on hip-hop, the idea of “police vs. black folks” is not at all a new concept. But now thanks to social media, the mainstream media is just now starting to pick up on it. So with you centering your album around hacking and technology, it seems like these things are all tying together. Everyone is connected now, the internet is not something that just reserved for “nerds” anymore.

It all ties together. The reason why police brutality is where it is now, is because we can — justifiably — decide that we are going to make something trend. So Twitter has been crucial for social justice in modern times. I point specifically to that, because I think of Tahrir Square in Egypt, I think of the Arab Spring, I think of the Occupy Movement. But I think there was a moment when we went “holy fuck, here is a way we can be faster and outthink the police,” or whoever the fuck is chasing us.

Now, of course, they’ve gotten a little wiser with surveillance, I see that in Ferguson. I see the police following Twitter streams of the activists and setting them up. But nonetheless, it has been useful in bringing age old issues to the forefront of the discussion. That’s everything that Martyr Loser King is about. It’s to say that technology is awareness first.

I’m using technology as a metaphor, in a way, but I think it's pretty astute. This technology that you are holding and that we use is really a reflection of our own consciousness. The character Martyr Loser King uses that and comes from a place where he is under-observed, misunderstood, and ignored. As a result of that, he has a lot of insight into the workings of society, as anyone who is unobserved in a room or space might be. Because no one is paying attention to them, they can pay attention to everything.

It brings up another interesting point. Ten years ago, we didn’t all have cameras in our hands. Now everyone has the internet in the palm of their hand at all times…

Which is very different than surveillance. I see the camera there, for example, in this room that we are in. It’s very different than that because like you said, it’s in our hands. They can misconstrue what they share from their footage. But we now have our own personal footage and that’s something else that they shouldn’t have done (laughs).

It’s leveled the playing field a bit. I don’t know if you saw the recent video that just came out last week, with the kid being arrested at school for walking in the street? He’s crying and isn’t doing anything and is tackled and taken away by nine cops. It’s fucked up.

Oh, the jaywalking dude? I didn’t watch it, I just saw the still. Like you said, these issues with the police.. It happens with everyone and those types of assumptions on one’s character. But when those assumptions are held by someone with authority and a gun, it is carried out in a different way. Instead of locking a door, they are unlocking a trigger, or something like that. So the effects are drastic. Having this power in our hands, this camera, and the ability to share it immediately, enables us to show the sort of shit that we have been going through for a long time.

It seems also that the other thing social media has brought to the table is the shift in what kind of music that we want to listen to. For a long time, the major labels controlled or filtered what kind of hip-hop we would get. I was there in ‘88, ’89 with Public Enemy and Eric B. & Rakim, but there was a turning point with 2Pac and Biggie, in which more or less everything had to be cut from that cloth.

What I’ve seen lately is that there’s been a revival of conscious hip-hop, with artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Run The Jewels. I don’t even want to call it “conscious,” because that carries it’s own stigma. But these artists are at least much more socially aware and that stuff is working. And I see this as a direct result of both social media and what is happening with the police and black communities.

Yeah, it’s working. It could have worked a long time ago. I think a lot of artists are at fault for just conforming to the dumbed-down. And that was a conscious choice that a lot of artists made. I continually point to that lyric where Jay Z’s like “I dumbed down my lyrics and doubled my sales.” It seemed like that was the moment where he was like “Oh, that’s how the populace works.” Basically calling fans stupid to their faces.

So, is he wise for doing that, I mean…?

Depends on what your values are. Everybody appreciates money and the ability to earn. Earning at a certain point and in a certain way. When it comes at the cost of exploiting either ideologies or the mindsets of a generation or the actual pockets of the people, then you have to weigh those things. It’s a question of values and how you want to go down. At the end of the day, Jay Z is a really talented rapper. A really talented rapper who is a great artist who did this thing where he chose to identify the artist as a businessman. In that sense, he kind of “trumped” the game, all puns intended. And as you look at [Donald] Trump and his position now, at the end of the day he’s a showman, who is playing to the dumbed-down. He is winning, but at the cost of progression.

Who do you think is the best candidate for 2016 of our choices at this moment?

So far? I’m still enthused by the possibility of Bernie Sanders. That’s where I’m at right now. I think many of us, if we weren’t so programmed to step into double-talk when we start talking about socialism and all these things, identify as socialists. When we say that we want free healthcare and think it would be cool if we could go to college for free and all of that, we are asking for a socialist system. I identify with that as well. I think it is super-courageous for a candidate to come out and say “Yo, that is what I identify with.” To me, that could really help push America in the right direction. I think it’s awesome to be able to step up to the corporate giants with middle fingers and everything and say “Nah, let’s get this shit straight.” If you ask me, I would say yes, that’s what we need right now. Of course, there’s no telling where he is going to come out on certain issues as time progresses, we’ll see more. But as of right now, I see that as the most solid choice, for me.

Given what we know, one of the things about him is that he’s against the Super PACs, so he won't have all this unlimited funding from corporations. But that being said, with the advances in social media with Twitter and everything, does he actually have a chance?

We’ve already seen that happen with hip-hop. We’ve seen independent artists take over the game. That’s the same thing that he’s trying to do, like “No, I’m not going to take that Jimmy Iovine money. No, I’m not going to take that Russell Simmons money. I’m going to do this straight ahead the independent route.” More power to him.

I’m glad you brought up Jay Z, because on your new track “Horn of the Clock-Bike,” you say “Who’s presence is charity…”

Ahhh… (laughs)

…which I believe is a nod to Jay Z recently telling Harry Belafonte “My presence is charity.” What can you tell me about that.

I’m Team Belafonte, right? I say that primarily just because he, like Paul Robeson, like Sidney Poitier, like Nina Simone, like Bob Dylan, like Fela Kuti, like so many has identified the most iconic and powerful relationship between art and power. When I heard Jay Z call Harry Belafonte a “boy,” on record, that just made me sad. It made me sad.

It just makes me think, “Oh, you must be unaware of what sort of positioning that this human being has had,” in politics, through music. The power that he wielded is because he was the first African-American, the first black musician to go platinum. That’s Harry Belafonte. He used that power to make huge social statements and to help fund and be a part of what we know as the Civil Rights Movement all the way up to the release of Nelson Mandela. It’s enormous.

When it comes to something like that, if he chooses to criticize me, an artist, for not being more socially responsible, I’d have a meeting with Mr. Belafonte and say “What do you think I should be doing, Sir?” (Laughs)

But I love Jay Z. I think he’s dope. But simultaneously, I think we have a generation of kids that grew up with a bunch of idols that worship money. If you study the stolen generation in Australia, you hear about a lost generation. If you learn about what happened in South Africa in the apartheid era when so many students and people were exiled, you hear about a lost generation. I think that we have a similar sort of thing that was prompted by ourselves, which is crazy here, by having these rappers with skewed values. But I don’t blame them, it’s just reflection of the corporate structure.

But that is all we were getting for ten years…

Right, that’s all we were getting. Those six or seven summers that Jay Z brags about are the same six or seven summers that Bush was president. It all came hand-in-hand. At the end of the day, it just kind of made me sad. It is to offer a critique, but not because I’m not enjoying the music, but just because I am imagining more. I imagine what music could do if it could give us more than just give us that escapist moment where we imagine ourselves as rich. I’m imagining something more practical. All of that stuff is what was controlling the charts, when I was working as an artist, as a musician, as a poet, trying to explore. It’s what I observed from the outside the same way I observed fucked up reality shows and super-hero franchises. Just Like someone who was observing Westerns back in the day, questioning “Who the fuck are you making a hero? It surely ain’t the cowboy.”

What you are saying reminds me of that Nas’ song “Poison,” which was released at the height of reality TV’s popularity. And it is all poison.

It is, but a lot of journalists point out that we have unfair expectations of hip-hop because it’s really just reflective of the shit that is going on everywhere else and it’s true. Alternative music was no better, nothing else was any better. For me, coming from that same hood, knowing those same projects, growing up with those same kids who flew birds down south and all that, knowing the reality of what COINTELPRO did, what the CIA brought into our communities, and what we in turn sold for them and the contras. I can’t look at that without thinking like, “Well, basically, you were working for them.” If you music is about that, then your music is about the time you spent working for them.

Once again, I would say, sometimes it saddens me. I think there has always been a great potential for those of us that are disenfranchised by whatever it is they are born into. I often point to the Yoko Ono quote when she said “Women are the nigger of the world.” There’s no way that women don’t look at the workings of the world with more insight because of the way they can see that they are overlooked or overstepped. It’s the same for any disenfranchised group. When you are in that position, you should be able to see and understand even more. Which for me, means I’m not going to contribute to the game in the same way, because of my complexion, because of what that has afforded my journey. I know what it feels like to walk into a store and literally be treated like I’m homeless or told to get out before they realize what could possibly be in my pocket. I know these experiences first hand.

But I feel like [Jay Z] is also responding to that same thing, talking about walking into Barney’s with all that money in your pocket. That feels a particular way too. I can’t say that when I’ve made money that I didn’t explore some of those same things. Kanye wrote songs about that and contemplating being in between and I made choices to not necessarily write about that, but instead what kept me awake at night. I think at the end of the day, every artist has to play their position. I can’t say that these artists aren’t. My critique comes with respect, I’m just kind of like saying what I think and how it always struck me.

I think there is something also to be said about human nature and duality. One might think about things a certain way, and then find themselves in a situation that goes against everything that they stand for.

One might say that about me doing a Nike campaign for example.

Or like Dr. Dre “I don’t smoke weed or sess,” and then doing The Chronic. As kids we were like “He contradicted himself!” But the reality is that people change their minds about things.

Yeah, yeah yeah! I mean, I heard Prince say that he’s never gotten high before, so… (laughs).

You covered U2's “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” with Trent Reznor. That song, their version, has its own political implications. I’m curious why you chose to cover it and what it means to you?

It’s funny, I started listening to U2 when I was living in Brazil, it was right around the time of that album with “[Pride] In the Name of Love,” and about how it was about Dr. King. So I went back and listened to their old shit, War and “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” My first thought was that I knew what it was about. I then learned about the Bloody Sunday in Ireland and the people that were murdered in that time, but the parallels have always been there. So I just thought it was the perfect song to sing from the other side of the parallel. It’s the same way that I think blacks and Jews, or blacks and Palestinians have found parallels, as well.

Thanks for the interview. I feel like everything we touched upon built upon the same ideas and that these themes will come into play on your upcoming album, Martyr Loser King.

I think to me, the quietest part of my journey is how much of a hand I have in the music. Each album it has been more and more, my first album I did a great deal and I didn’t know how to write or program, so I would have to hum things to musicians. My second album I programmed a lot more on songs like “Black Stacey” and “List of Demands.” With Niggy Tardust, I had a great time playing around with stuff that Trent gave me. Very few songs were stand alone shit that he produced. It was often stuff he gave me that I then remixed and revamped to sort of find the rhythms that I wanted. The album I recorded in France, Volcanic Sunlight, was purely my vision, really wanting to explore something different a bit. Now, Martyr Loser King is the most of my production that has ever happened in an album and is the least I’ve ever given a fuck, in terms of song structure. No one is really thinking about radio these days, so I just feel there is a bunch of freedom to be taken advantage of and so I am. Musically, it’s the essence of what I’ve been working towards over the years since the beginning. It kind of hollers back to Amethyst Rockstar and everything else, but has a real modernist edge, as those albums did too. And then there is “part two” of it as well, which will follow.

And how much of the Martyr Loser King character is based on you or your own experiences?

None of it really. In terms of I’m putting words in this character’s mouth. But I don’t share his experience, it’s really fictitious. This is someone who was born and raised in a village in Burundi, who became homeless, who then had to construct his own shelter using old computer parts. That is not my story (laughs). However, you can find elements of me filtered in for sure, in terms of perspective of this character. But I play with characters often times because there are some things that I might be more shy about saying. It’s easier to relate to an idea with one generation removed. It’s a story — it’s not my story — which was written and will now live on forever. It’s quite different from my story, and so it gives it a life of its own.