Poetry in Motion
Saul Williams has a tip for the Department of Homeland Security.
"If I was an FBI or a CIA agent, I'd be stationed at a poetry reading," says Williams from his monastic loft in Los Angeles. "That's where young people are empowering themselves. They're not marching on Washington. They're finding out new ways of thinking and articulating their new version of reality.
"Spoken word, like hip-hop, is a perfect reflection of what's going on in America, for better or worse," he adds. "If you want to know what's happening in your society, you've got to check out what's happening with your artists."
Williams's own art is a many-splintered thing. Though he's primarily known as a spoken-word performer -- one of the form's few celebrities, thanks in part to spots on Def Poetry Jam and MTV -- he's also an MC, poet, actor, producer and politico. At 32, Williams is often cited as the latest voice in a continuum that includes politically combustible black artists like Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. Williams doesn't deny those influences -- he wrote liner notes for the Poets' 2002 release, The Last Poets/ This Is Madness -- but he's just as likely to cite quotes from Buddha or the Bible as calls for revolution. On Amethyst Rock Star, an avant-rock and hip-hop album he recorded in 2001 with Rick Rubin, he draws from a dizzyingly eclectic constellation of references to check everything from Ayn Rand to the Lord's Prayer.
But if Williams's output is inconsistent by design, his activism is not. The concept of art as a key to consciousness is a thread that's run throughout his career. Last year, he paired with DJ Spooky to produce Not in My Name, an EP inspired by a movement to musically galvanize global opposition to the war in Iraq. His latest book of poetry, , said the shotgun to the head, is a meditation on modern consumerism, Western waste, imperialism, bloodlust and Bush. In interviews and writings, Williams has been openly critical of the Bush administration, likening the occupants of the White House to terrorists, warmongers -- and zits.
"I tend to think of the current state of affairs as a period of puberty for America," he says. "So, like a teenage kid, we've got all these toxins that have to come to the surface. The mindset of a Bush, of a Cheney, it's like acne, like a big whitehead. It's gotta come up so we can get rid of it. And we've got all this other, this related stuff going on -- angst, awkwardness -- that's all reflective of a teenage kid.
"The question is, how long does puberty last? And how are we going to come out of it?"
This week, Williams takes such musings on the road as part of the Plea for Peace tour. The goal of Plea for Peace, which was founded by former Skankin' Pickle frontman Mike Park in 1999, is to raise awareness about the importance of voting -- not to endorse specific candidates or views. Though Plea for Peace has historically been a punk-centric affair, Williams will appear without a band or accompaniment. He'll simply take the mike and roll.
"Spoken word actually is a form of punk rock, in the fact that it totally affronts the senses," he says. "It completely operates on the shock value of the words, the audacity of the situation. You've got this loud voice with no accompaniment, and you can actually hear what's being said. The attitude is punk rock: Who cares about the venue? The whole point is to make you think."
Williams's work -- and his worldview -- is a thoughtful mix of street wisdom and book smarts, informed by academics as much as by the underground. The son of a preacher, he grew up in the suburban upstate enclave of Newburgh, New York. After attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he received degrees in acting and philosophy, he pursued a master's in acting at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. In New York, Williams found his first real artistic arena in the spoken-word scene. In 1996, he won the title of Grand Slam Champion at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a hotly competitive venue often credited with helping to ignite the spoken-word movement nationwide.
In 1998, he co-wrote and starred in Slam, an independent film that quickly gained cult status, as well as accolades from the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. Williams's contributions to the Slam soundtrack flowed with a fresh, measured MC style that reflected his love of wordplay, alliteration and consonance. His delivery was moved more by the rhythm than the rhyme, and his lyrics were written to work on the page as well as the stage.
"A lot of spoken word is written to be performed, to be heard, and not so much to be read on the page," he says. "And the same is true of a lot of MCs who are writing for the rhyme. Try reading some of Jay-Z's lyrics; that's going to be very elementary. But there are plenty who break that mold; Eminem comes to mind. I like the idea that you could read my work, then see it performed, to bring your own interpretation and also see the writer's intent."
Williams is often described as an iconoclast and a Renaissance artist. But from the beginning, he's made little distinction between rapping, writing and acting.
"I've always seen the forms as being very much connected," he says. "In acting, for instance, the object is becoming -- becoming the character and losing yourself. The essence of many art forms is about losing yourself in order to find a higher definition of yourself. They're all related. So it always just made sense that if I was, say, waiting on a film set for my turn to shoot, it would be very natural to pick up my journal and write a poem or a piece of music."
That fluidity has allowed Williams to bob and weave through genres and mediums. He's collaborated with KRS-One, Blackalicious, Karl Denson and drum-and-bass producer Krust. (Williams contributed the title track to Crust's 1999 breakthrough album, Coded Language.) In September he'll release a followup to Amethyst Rock Star; the new album will be a tech-heavy assemblage he describes as "industrial punk-hop."
Yet despite his credentials in music and acting -- Williams is a celebrated stage actor and also makes regular appearances on the WB sitcom Girlfriends -- he considers himself a writer above all. , said the shotgun to the head, which was published by MTV last September, is his third volume of poetry. His work has been published in the New Yorker and the New York Times, among others, and included in university curriculums -- though Williams knows that the work of spoken-word poets still falls outside of what's considered "real" poetry.
"Poetry began as an oral tradition," he says. "Anytime someone tells me that spoken word isn't poetry, I have to remind them that their favorite poets more than likely read their work aloud.
"I think spoken-word artists and even MCs have a lot to learn from higher education, the so-called academic poets," he continues. "But at the same time, the Œpurists' are kidding themselves if they don't acknowledge that hip-hop has introduced a whole new vibrancy and syntax and vernacular to the language. They're really falling behind."
Fortunately, the same can't be said of Williams. A few days before hooking up with the Plea for Peace caravan, he's still reeling from an art show he saw in New York a few weeks earlier, a multimedia installation where an artist scratched DVDs like records, creating the visual equivalent of a breakbeat.
"You see things like this, it just gives you a sense of optimism that we're entering a new era, digging a little deeper, getting some of our vision back," he says. "It's like we went through a ten-year period of apathy, and now that's over. It's like, 'Okay, let's see what's next.'"
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