Born of Beats and Blood
Interview by Sunfrog
Summer 2002: Driving through Knoxville where the free radio station
shares bandwidth with some fundamentalist preachin’ self-hate
propaganda, imagine a cross-fade from damnation to the rap “September
12th”: “You built your empire with natives and slaves
/ Like the truth don’t resurrect, waging war from its grave.”
In the face of pessimistic do-nothing-ism, Saul Williams takes
the slogans of the antiwar movement and mixes them with brutal
beats, raw passion, crucial compassion. “R.I.P. to the powers
that be / Overcome by the powers of being.”
Summer 2003: I heard Williams reciting rhymes in Detroit’s
St. Andrews Hall; the place always reminded me of church. The night
I connected with Saul Williams, he was the preacher and headliners
Mars Volta were the choir. Sweaty white kids from the suburbs approached
the MC to thank him for making poems from their secret revolutionary
Saul Williams takes us on a political and spiritual journey from
hardcore to the heart’s core. An “Om Nia Merican ...
born of beats and blood,” Saul Williams opposes repression
without the cynicism, guilt, and separatism that sabotage so many
otherwise subversive endeavors. Against the hopelessness and hate
mongering of imperial hell — on earth, he freestyles analogies
and metaphors for prophetic anthologies. Like an eternal Malcolm
after his visit to Mecca channeling a feminist Chuck D, Williams
is hip-hop’s Ginsberg chanting oracles to dissolve the demons
of war, machismo, and greed.
First noticed by many in the late ‘90s for his role in the
award-winning movie Slam, Williams re-defined rap with his 2001
release Amethyst Rock Star, an album that brings political hip-hop
full circle to its roots in the late ‘80s when revolutionaries
first discovered Boogie Down Productions and It Takes a Nation
of Millions to Hold Us Back.
In a family of popular rants and jams that includes Ani DiFranco’s “Self-Evident” and
Michael Franti’s “Bomb the World,” Williams’s
work on the Not In My Name EP has provided yet another soundtrack
for our direct actions against the Bush administration, against
the invasion and occupation of Iraq. But DiFranco, Franti, and
Williams are not alone in the movement to end war and de-throne
Bubba Bush; even old schoolers as diverse as Crass, REM, the Beastie
Boys, and Midnight Oil have joined the international chorus of
rockers and rappers against the new imperialism. Yet few artists
combine conscious activism with the poetic, free-associating divinations
that Williams does.
For sure, we find humility and solidarity — not arrogance
or ignorance — as he invokes his own family of mentors, deities,
and saints in “Coded Language.” In that fierce declaration
of revolutionary cultural intention, his list of teachers includes
Robeson, Whitman, Coltrane, Hendrix, King, Guevara, Kali, Medusa,
Biko, and Baldwin.
Indeed, in learning to become ourselves, we are who we emulate.
And a new generation has added a name to that litany of radical role models:
Saul Williams. Sunfrog interviewed Saul Williams for Clamor in Detroit in
Clamor: Tell me about the Not In Our Name project
and maybe in particular what it was like to be in New York City
on February 15 and get to speak at an event of that magnitude.
Saul Williams: That was crazy because we almost didn’t get
to speak. I flew there for that, and the police had so many streets
barricaded that we just made it to the stage on time. I was escorted
to the stage after I told a cop at a barricade that I was scheduled
to speak. He said, “I’ll walk you to the stage. But
if your name’s not on that list, you’re under arrest.”
The past year, the focus has been on countering the energy that
America’s been putting out there, countering with strong
resistance, brave feelings of love, and informing people as much
as we can. It has been a very powerful and strategically planned
year. We didn’t stop the war, but we informed a lot of people.
Now, we’re informing troops; they don’t have to follow
those orders. They’re allowed to think for themselves.
There’s an archetypal theme through all your
work, invoking gods, goddesses, mythology. How does that arrive
in your work?
I believe that modern or contemporary society is subject to all
those mythologies. We’re laden with them. It’s on our
currency. It’s in all the numerology that took place in the
building of Washington: the thirteen arrows, the thirteen feathers.
There’s strong numerology and astrology and all this stuff
that’s deeply embedded in the undercurrent of America and
of the West. What we are experiencing in contemporary society is
not only the result of materialism, it is also the result of Christianity.
It’s the result of the crusades. It’s all connected.
Slavery. It’s all connected. The Salem witch trials. All
of that is connected to this time and this era. There’s no
coincidence that we have a fundamental Christian perspective here
and a fundamental Islamic perspective there.
But you’re invoking entities outside of that...
Because we need to look outside of it for the answers.
What led you to refer to the divine as a goddess?
We have to shift our perspective. ... In Christianity, Jesus was
Jesus because he invested in his feminine side. He was a good listener.
He was Dionysian or something?
That’s what made him special. Everyone else was like, “I’ll
chop off his ear.” He was like, “No, no, no. Give love,
compassion, nurturing.” But why get that from a man when
it comes so readily from a woman? That’s not to say that
divinity is truly engendered. But perhaps we need to shift our
There’s such a warmth and humanity there.
Have you received hostile reactions from other people in the political
community or the hip-hop community?
I have not gotten any responses that go that route. I don’t
think of myself as the creator of these ideas. These ideas are
out there. When I speak, I notice that people recognize them and
people often say, “Thank you for saying what I’ve been
trying to say. I’ve been thinking that there must be more
to reality and religion than what’s been given to me.” But
it’s funny, a lot of times when Christian fundamentalists
approach me, there’s almost like this cloud over my writing:
a lot of Christian fundamentalists think of me as a Christian fundamentalist
in some weird way. I have no idea why. They’re like, “Praise
the lord.” Then, there are Islamic five-percenters that are
like, “You’re a five-percenter.” Then, there
are Buddhists: “Wow, you’re a Buddhist.”
And here I thought you were a Pagan!
I’ve studied all of these things. And I am all of these
things just as I am not any of these things.
What’s up with the ecumenical approach? Here’s
a debate I’m very privy to in the white political community:
what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate when we
are trying to learn from other cultures? An example would be white
people doing a sweat lodge or praying to a Hindu deity. What do
you think of that whole question?
I’ve been in a sweat lodge. I’ve prayed to a Hindu
deity. I’ve been in a synagogue. I’ve been in all of
these places. If we are going to think as Americans, sweat lodges
are important because of this land. Perhaps we all need to do that.
We all need to investigate. We all need to embody the Native American
culture that we annihilated. It’s our responsibility to embody
that. As far as the Native American culture, it’s up to us
to bring it back to life.
Would you embrace a more multi-cultural approach
or are we only allowed what our ancestors did?
Sometimes we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, but oftentimes,
we stand on their necks. The only way society is going to survive
is by looking at what feeds you. Find what feeds you. A lot of
times, we get upset as African-Americans when we see white people
emulating that which is “black.” But on the other hand,
I’m like, “Shit, you better investigate that.” How
else are you going to respect it if you don’t immerse yourself
in it in some way? Investigation is deeper than imitation. But
there is a power in imitation just as there is in imagination.
While we’re on the question of mythology,
you’ve got a new book, said the shotgun to the head, and
it sounds like it’s very invested in building its own mythology.
How are you working in that mode?
It doesn’t really create its own mythology. More, it’s
a deconstruction of the mythology that’s been handed to us.
Its purpose is primarily to look at the current state of American
society in particular and western society at large and say, “We’re
facing these problems. Warfare and all of this stuff. Perhaps it’s
connected to our view of religion and women. Perhaps it’s
connected to that. And love. Marriage. Proprietorship. Let’s
evaluate our view of things.” In an abstract way, this book
deconstructs these entities.
When we started the conversation, we focused on
the last year and our efforts to stop the war and now the occupation.
What do you think is going to happen? What’s your gut feeling
about where we’re going? How are we going to get out of the
I’m going to pray and meditate. I’m in love right
now, and I’m going to stay in love and surround myself with
it and be very mindful of the energy I put out and see how much
of that energy I can put out so that it affects others. Aside from
that, I know how manipulative the government is. I’ve been
thinking recently, “He [Bush] probably has Osama and is waiting
until right before election time to say ‘Look what I’ve