Poet and rap artist questions power and advocates for social change through music, literature, film and theatre
I first got into Saul Williams via Rage Against the Machine. An heir to the sonic barricades of Public Enemy, Saul Williams is another artist who masterfully takes on issues of social justice in a lyrical form, but with an urban voice and a little bass. I had the chance to see him open for The Mars Volta in 2003. As a solo spoken word poet opening for a guitar solo-loving experimental rock band, I’d heard rumours of “boos” in his direction on the tour. But I arrived late. And the venue staff seemed blown away. I knew I’d missed something special.
Musically, Saul doesn’t just avoid the self-absorbed consumerism that the mainstream music industry is devoured by. The issues that are present in his lyrics are the big hitters: violence, oppression, identity. Issues that, given the events in Baltimore and other US cities in the past few months, are still unfortunately universal for sections of the populace. As an author with several published books, Saul also has a leg-up when it comes to getting a story down in words. Several songs are versions of previously-written poems of varying styles. Rapid fire stanzas and call and response couplets contrast with the rhythm of a dream-like journey.
Reacting to the issues that face the black community in the United States (and the downtrodden worldwide), Saul has produced lyrics and public statements bemoaning the state of hip-hop, asserting that hip-hop was originally the invention of the oppressed and has mutated into name-checking Rolexes and criminal rap sheets. The idea being that not only are we physically gentrifying our cities by moving rich outsiders in, but also what was once “outsider art” – the aural resistance of the marginalised – is now being co-opted into the mainstream, wrapped in a prettier package (more palatable to those doing the gentrifying) and sold in a form that is easier to market. In essence, this is a red herring that distracts us from issues of more relevance than how many car brands can be crammed into a three-minute track.
Saul has always been one to take the opposite path when it comes to pigeon-holing. He created a first album that struggled for a release for being “insufficiently hip-hop” (though eventually Rick Rubin produced it) and a third album inspired by David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” (he certainly isn’t averse to a little facepaint and dressing like a 70s astral superman). Growing up in a rough part of upstate New York, rather than rapping about the “reality” of inner-city crime and getting rich (or dying trying), he chooses to rap about the likes of the reality of fighting on the frontline of the USA’s 21st-century oil wars. Issues of international conflict become local when it’s the young men from your neighbourhood in the trenches. Saul isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of what hip-hop is, or what exactly he is as an artist.
After four years of living in Paris, Saul recently returned to New York to appear in Holler if Ya Hear Me on Broadway. In an industry where the highest grossing shows of 2014 were Wicked, The Lion King and The Book of Mormon, it was a brave move to take on the lead in a play about gun violence backed with music from Tupac Shakur. But Saul seems to revel in staying far from any comfort zone, bringing a new audience to the theatre and bringing new material to an old Broadway audience. The experiment may have failed, but it is not likely to be the last time a hip-hop musical is rolled out.
This summer sees the release of Martyr Loser King. Showing off his deep-rooted interest in Africa, the album was inspired by Saul’s trips through Senegal, as well as Reunion Island and Haiti, and tells the story of a hacker at an e-waste site in Burundi being tracked and watched by the CIA. With Burundi in the news at the time of writing, following a coup attempt to overthrow President Pierre Nkurunziza, Saul Williams proves he is an artist in touch with his time and in touch with the realities of the global community.
Saul Williams is the headline act at the British Library, London, on Friday 15th May. It’s a rare appearance by Saul in London, and one not to be missed. For information and tickets, please visit the British Library event page: LATE at the Library: Freedom of Expression featuring Saul Williams and Tongue Fu.
Photo Credits: Saul Williams, who will perform at a special Magna Carta Late at the Library
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