Wednesday, January 6, 2010

An interview with the feather man for

While on the Afro-punk 2009 tour, I had the pleasure of interviewing Saul Williams, the headlining musician for the 20 city black rock experience. Needless to say Saul is an amazing performer- I watched his show at least 15 times and would probably buy tickets to go see him perform again- and it was inspiring to hear conscious poetry blended with rock beats produced by top rock musicians in the game. Here is my interview with Saul Williams that was conducted on a rainy day in Portland, Oregon- this is part of an extended interview. My complete interview and pictures of Saul can be found on afro-punk's website.

Saul Williams- the man behind the feathers

For a man who's name evokes intensity with a shield of mystery, Saul Williams' single presence can quiet an entire room packed with people crossing all racial demographics. Making history with Afro-punk as the headliner of the 2009 U.S. tour, Saul Williams seemed like the perfect candidate to represent our idea of freedom of expression fused with tossing out racial boundaries and social norms. At 37 years-old, Saul has touched every aspect of the entertainment industry, ranging from his lead in 1998 poetry documentary, Slam, to working with MTV to publish a collection of poetry books, to touring with System of a Down and Nine Inch Nails. Throughout the Afro-punk tour, he performed music off of his 2007 album, "The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust," (produced by Nine Inch Nails founder, Trent Reznor) and spent an hour using MAC make-up before each performance to transform into his alter performance ego, Niggy Tardust-- a colorful persona he adopted from David Bowie's 1970's character, Ziggy Stardust. Saul's character was accompanied with equally theatrical band mates, including an electric pianist, Kwame Brandt-Pierce, who looks like a skeleton vampire with a cape and goggles, Davin Givhan on guitar, who rocks a bright yellow tuxedo jacket and bow tie depending on the night, and Saul's college friend who was also a performer on the tour, CX Kidtronik on electric beat machine-- who performs like a mad scientist in a lab creating the perfect formula to Saul's off the wall lyrics. Thanks to Niggy and to Saul, Afro-punk interviewed our man of the hour to reveal if his serious stage persona trailed into his personal life and why his songs such as "List of Demands" and "DNA" take such a tone of emergency.

Interview and photos by Whitney Summer, "@fro$punky"

Afro-punk: Do you ever get tired of interviews?

Saul: Not if the questions are good.


Afro-punk: We noticed after your performances, you casually walk off the stage and hug audience members and it never seems like it's for the camera. Why do you do that if you don't have to?

Saul: To break the wall. I think because of the work that I do and because some of the things that I say or what have you, I think that sometimes people can take it to some level where it's not necessary. So it's a mutual exchange. Because if I don't do that, one, I would have left an empty room behind the stage, walked onto a stage with four people, performed in front of an audience and gone back to that empty room. I don't think there is anything more lonely than touring. A lot of times I look into audience and say, man it would be nice to meet some of those people. And if I have enough energy, it would be nice to meet some people. It also depends on the venue. With me touring with Rage Against the Machine or Nine Inch Nails or System of a Down, that individual reaction is just lost.

Afro-punk: While on the Afro-punk tour, have you had a chance to speak with people who consider themselves a part of the Afro-punk community?

Saul: Most of the people that I meet at these shows are learning about Afro-punk through me. That's who I end up meeting at these shows.

Afro-punk: Do you feel like you have a responsibility to the Afro-punk movement because of this.

Saul: Yes and no. When I'm doing Lollapalooza, I don't feel like I have a responsibility to represent Lollapalooza. I've toured with tons of festivals, at least 12, and performed at least 100, where there is no personal investment. This differs because there is a personal investment. I think it would be cool if more people were involved. But I don't like for people to feel alienated. So I am always questioning the idea and the process, on every level. Even with using the term, "afro." But I know that some people who come from the afro experience kind of need that sometimes to feel like it's theirs. So I think the incremental stepping stones are cool, but do I feel a responsibility... the responsibility that I feel comes from my own personal ideals on being a human being. There is tons of shit that would be different if it were Saul Willams presents Afro-punk as opposed to Afro-punk presents Saul Williams.

Afro-punk: Knocking our beacon of perfection? In what way would it be different?

Saul: For one, the placement of sponsors. There was one show where I said, you can't put the sponsors name over the stage when I am performing. It has nothing to do with accepting finances from a corporation, but there is no reason why their name, this big, needs to be hanging over the stage while I'm performing. I just see no purpose in that because I know I'm not getting any money from them. Or, little things, like, the amount of meat on the bus. If it was my experience, then we would have vegan chiefs at every point along the way. It would be a much greener experience. The last tours that I have done have been with bio-diesel fuel. The only stops you make are at whole food stores.

Afro-punk: Is there anything else you would do to shake up the tour experience?

Saul: The main thing is, what is the difference of a movement and a lifestyle campaign? The first movement that I was a part of was the spoken word movement and I watched what that movement did and there were lots of corporations that sponsored poetry readings, but no corporation, not even HBO, can say that they were significant in forming the movement. Because it wasn't a lifestyle campaign, it was a movement where people felt the need to speak up. And we learned to listen and use hip hop and poetry. Our generation would express ourselves in a way where we don't need music, we don't even need stages. You see it now when you see Brave New Voices and all of those 14-year-old kids who speak up. It's like lyrical skateboarding. (Poetry) was like a movement. Even with Afro-punk, the way I see it is a safe haven for kids who may feel singled out for being exceptional or different or for not wanting to wear the uniform and feeling ostracized for being different. For wanting to find a place where they can come and gather and get into the stuff that they're into and I think as a movement, that's important. As a lifestyle campaign, I could give a fuck. A movement promotes and instigates change.

Afro-punk: Why did you decide then to work with Nike and allow them to use your song, "List of Demands" in a commercial ad?

Saul: Because with Nike, one, I have owned Nikes, several pairs. So, part of it was just keeping it real. Secondly, I thought that it is was essentially going to reach people that I normally wouldn't reach. They weren't telling me what to say, they weren't asking me to write anything new, they wanted to use something that was four years old that was already written and embedded in who I am and what I believe in. So basically I felt like Nike was doing a Saul Williams campaign. And based on sales and charts after the commercial, Nike's sales didn't spike, but mine did.

Afro-punk: A lot of the lyrics in your music are extremely controversial and in your face. There are no subjects that you'll shy away from in regards to race relations. During this tour, there have been quite a few white people in the audience and they are singing all the words to your songs. Your lyrics don't even seem appropriate for white people to sing.
Saul: Well for one, that's because you are black. But I would say it's written just as much for them. When I decided to do music the way that I have, I knew that I would essentially be in the process of alienating a certain group for part of the journey, that some people wouldn't be ready yet. It's the same way people look at Afro-punk, like, that's cool, but, it's not hood enough, or whatever they may think. With the poetry, the most hoodest of cats were like, yo, I rep for that. The audience, depending on if I'm doing a poetry reading or a music show, tends to fluctuate. But it's been like that for years, so in writing the songs, I think what would be the craziest thing to hear white people say.

Afro-punk: So, you're thinking this as you are writing?

Saul: Yes, I'm talking directly to them. Because I want to see it come through their mouths. Because I know that the process of reciting it will probably be the closest that they will ever come to getting into my brain. It's not only written for them (white people), but I think it's as essential for black people who learn it and recite it because it's beyond pro black, I think of it as meta-racial- using race in order to step beyond it. I think that there are as many, if not more, black people caught up in racial politics than white people perhaps in America and it's detrimental to our health and growth, although it is necessary in the incremental process of growing. My music and lyrics are set up for the process of catharsis. The part of the process of rebirth. I sometimes set up (my lyrics) for white people to be confused whether they could or should say it, so they can think about how retarded it is that they had to think about that. I set it up the other way so black people could see the confusion in it too, because at the end of the day, what the fuck, these are words.


Afro-punk: One of your songs that elicits the most response from the crowd is called, "Black Stacey" where you talk about a guy who humped his pillow at night and used bleaching cream because of his insecurities. Who exactly is Black Stacey?

Saul: Who I was when I was 13, 14, 15. I never went by Black Stacey, I went by my middle name, my name is Saul Stacey. I grew up an hour outside of New York City in a very troubled, poor, black neighborhood, but there were no other black guys named Stacey. Black was there, I was never called that to my face and I just always knew that's how I was referred to. I thought it was funny, but as a kid, I went through so much because of my complexion. Especially juxtaposed with the way that I spoke. Especially juxtaposed with what I chose to speak about.

Afro-punk: What were you talking about at 15?

Saul: I mean, I was reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, I was just on one. Big time. The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey...and I would just read these things and be like, don't you know you are perpetuating the blah, blah, blah. I was on the most black political front that one could ever be on, and be 14, and articulated in a way that would make black people say stuff like, why do you sound so proper or so white, but they would look at me and be like, you are the blackest nigga I know. So, you're so black, sounding white, talking all that super black shit. If you want the essence of why my songs have that sort of weight and why I'm comfortable with putting things in the mouths of all of those people it's because of that experience as a kid and I see what it did to me. And basically what it did to me was it opened me up.

Afro-punk: How long have you been growing out your hair?

Saul: I have no idea. I've had locks I think five times. The first and second time were probably the longest about shoulder length, the second time I grew out locks, it was around the time of Slam and from that point forward, I've just always.
Afro-punk: When did your self realization come into play, when you were like, I am this complexion, and I'm okay with it?
Saul: Well politically, it was there in words when I was 14 and 15. My favorite past time was cracking on people and what was hard was that people loved roasting on me. But I remembered all of the jokes that they could say and only a few would have the comebacks where I was like, fuck. I started feeling comfortable with myself, well, it's an ongoing process, but when I started growing locks. I didn't spend a lot of time in the mirror.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's great how open he was during the interview. I always thought Saul seemed like one of those intellectual pricks, but after reading this, I've changed my mind.