Fuck you/ Understand me—a lyric taken from his song “All Coltrane Solos At Once”—is the throughline that runs through the work of poet, writer, musician, actor and activist Saul Williams. Working across many mediums, the importance of being woke drives his multidisciplinary approach to art. There is a fist raised to power in his film Slam, a 1998 Sundance hit which he wrote and starred in, as well as in his four volumes of poetry and six industrial rock-tinged hip-hop albums. Born in Newburgh, New York, Saul has lived in New York and Paris, though he recently relocated to L.A. to soak up the scattershot energy of the city’s digital underground scene. The artist’s new album MartyrLoserKing is a continuation of his ongoing interest in power that hums with this jazz-like energy, filtered through harsh polyrhythms that mimic the sound of the digital universe he has created.
When I met Williams this February in London, he was dressed in all black, with heavy silver rings that clanked on his coffee cup whenever he gesticulated—which was a lot. He was eager to chat about the changing landscape of black culture in America, around the world, and online. We talked about “whatever the fuck is going on”—technology, exploitation, austerity and militarisation and, of course, pop culture—the subjects his work has been chronicling for the last two decades.
Your new album MartyrLoserKing is about a fictional miner-turned-hacker. What is it about digital culture that you find interesting?
I think what digital culture represents today is what drug culture represented in the ‘60s. When I think of the last huuuge movement, that’s ’68; globally, something happened, and it was preceded by the popularity of LSD, weed, and drug culture. Drugs were a connector, and now we have technology as a connector. Twitter, Facebook—all of these things are having the same kind of effect. These things are our new drugs. We’re addicted to them. But there are ways in which it is empowering us.
Do you think #BlackLivesMatter is as much a digital revolution as it is a direct action movement?
What I like about #BlackLivesMatter is that they are rooted in an anti-imperialist philosophy that is beyond digital culture, but empowered through digital culture. Simply because of the fact that we’re able to expose, chronicle, and connect on such a huge scale, certain truths become self-evident.
What do you think about that movement being galvanized through social media, and how that’a actually translating into people like DeRay Mckesson running for office?
There are a series of social experiments going on—DeRay running for office qualifies as one of them—and I think it’s wonderful. I have no idea whether the people of Baltimore will yay or nay it. I think there is a difference between what he was able to do in Ferguson—which is a place that he came to after things went down—versus Baltimore, which is where he is from. I think that’s maybe, in a sense, things coming full circle.
You said that you made the song “Ashes” the night Eric Garner died. Can you talk about how you wrote that song?
First of all, even with writing poems, I started writing in nightclubs. My favorite places to write were always my favorite places to be. And in the club, when the music was amazing and you’re dancing, you’re doing these aerobics so to speak, there’s all this blood and energy circulating, and ideas would pop up. After a while I started carrying a little five dollar journal with me, and writing those ideas in the dance club, and so it would be a mix between writing either when my favourite song was on, on the dancefloor, or when the music slowed and I didn’t really like what was being played.
Cut to living in New York, recently, and literally being home and preparing dinner and checking social media and being like, they’re marching—wait, who was killed? What happened? Watching the video and finding out that people were marching right outside my door, running outside onto the West Side Highway and finding like 10,000 people outside, and marching with them. I remember, we were by the Triborough Bridge and I did a die-in with my wife—like we literally put the kids to bed, ran outside, like we’re gonna go! We’re just like, we’re gonna do it, we’re here.
The energy’s incredible, the police are in formation and—I’ll never forget this because I ripped my favourite jacket—we’re doing the die-in on the sidewalk, and the police are dying to touch us. Finally they get the go-ahead and they run to the sidewalk and rip those of us near the front off of the ground, and they grab me, and my wife screamed her fucking head off, so much that the sergeant turned to the cop that had me and was like, 'Let him go.' We hopped in a cab, went home and I turned on the machine, just like that, because that’s what I’m trying to capture.
“The first time I heard about what the fuck is happening in socialist countries, even taking class trips to Canada, I was like what? For real? That’s real?!”
In her book Citizen, the poet Claudia Rankine writes that “words work as release—well-oiled doors opening and closing between intention, gesture.” That sounds to me to be very much the way that you write.
Exactly. Before I went to that rally, I was home playing with music, and I was listening to At the Drive-In and I looped—just for myself—dancing on the corpses’ ashes [from the song “Invalid Litter Dept”], and I loved that. “Ashes” is really just chronicling the book that I’m reading, the songs that I’m listening to, the moment I’ve just lived through. It’s really simple. Maybe because of that song, but I remember that day now. Now I have a lot of days like that, because those are the days I choose to record on.
MartyrLoserKing seems to reflect the digital revolution sonically—there’s a futuristic sound to a lot of the songs. Was that intentional?
It definitely was intentional, though I could also argue that it’s kind of inevitable. I’ve been inspired by projectionists in music, by visionaries.
Who is a visionary, in your opinion?
I’d label Tricky as a visionary; Massive Attack, Portishead and Afrika Bambaataa were visionaries; Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad were visionaries, Kool Keith and Del tha Funkee Homosapien were visionaries. I’ve always looked to the U.K.—a lot of grime producers [are visionaries]. M.I.A. is a real fucking visionary, and I might give love to M.I.A. than I would to say, a Diplo or something. Björk has been a fucking visionary, PJ Harvey. Kanye has been a visionary.
I think Beyoncé has it right. She’s been getting more gritty and grimy. And her daughter! [Does a perfect impression of Blue Ivy’s shoulder shrug in the “Formation” video] That’s what I’m talking about!
I wonder, seeing as you’ve lived in Paris, whether you kind of see the American cultural conversation around race reflected in Europe?
I do see it reflected, of course, but I think all of those movements could be even larger if we broaden some of the stuff we’re talking about. For example, I know when I’ve spent time in certain countries, in Africa or in Haiti or pretty much everywhere I’ve gone people are like, 'Fuck the police.' Even in countries where the people and the police are all the same color, the people are like 'Fuck the police.'
Is it because Hillary did the dab on Ellen, and you were just like, “Fuck this shit”?
[Laughs] Hillary dabbing is a prime example of how much… Here’s the thing. Bernie is the freshest and most consistent candidate I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. I think that Bernie is sincerely thinking about impoverished people and shifting America in a way where the people I’ve grown up with—my friends in the hood, and in academia, and in life—have always wondered out loud when we’re gonna have free healthcare, and more accessible higher education and all that. I’ve been asking that question my entire life, from the first time I heard about what the fuck is happening in socialist countries, even taking class trips to Canada, I was like what? For real? That’s real?! I know people in the States who keep a job because they know they need surgery and it’s the only way they can cover the cost. I’d like to see that challenged. I’ve been living to see that challenged.