Saul Williams is a radical, multidisciplinary threat. A poet, musician, writer, actor and activist, the New York native has garnered acclaim with all of his projects, from his breakthrough role in the 1998 Marc Levin film Slam! to his Trent Reznor-produced 2007 album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust. His words, written or spoken, are incendiary; his music, a hybrid of hip-hop, punk and tribal beats, is discordant and electrifying.
After spending the last few years living in Paris, he returned Stateside last year to star in the Tupac Shakur-inspired Broadway musical Holler If Ya Hear Me. He also got working on the just-released poetry book US(a), and a graphic novel and companion album, Martyr Loser King, which is scheduled for release in early 2016. Its eponymous protagonist is a Central Africa-based hacker who sparks a revolution via his computer, aided by his transgender girlfriend.
We caught up with Williams to talk about his latest works, reinventing the music industry and inspiring people to be “weird as fuck” before he hits Las Vegas for a book reading at Barnes & Noble and a performance at the Sayers Club in SLS, both on September 21.
US(a) is your first book in nine years. Why now?
Nine years? Fuck. Holy shit. It has been nine years. I never think of the time I’ve been away from releasing shit.
What can we expect from the book?
[The publisher] came up with the idea: “We want you to write a book of poems about America.” Michael Brown, Eric Garner and all this stuff that’s going on—I grew up in this America. Much of what I felt is what it’s always felt like; this shit is never changing.
The book contains more poems than I’ve ever released [at once]. … I was given a one-year deadline to write 40,000 words on what it was like to be back in the States. My approach was nonlinear in that I was writing poems, I was recording dreams, and I ended up writing scripts based on some of these dreams and ideas. The book itself is a quick glimpse into the workings of my head.
What inspired Martyr Loser King?
I conceptualized the story when I was living in Paris primarily because I was learning so much about the world, about different cultures. At the same time, I was looking at the stream of topics that were circulating globally and in the U.S., whether it had to do with transgender rights, racism, exploitation, the Occupy movement, gay laws that were passing, anti-gay laws that were passing in Uganda—all of these things. I just wanted to create a platform that would allow me to talk about all of these things within the context of the story.
What’s the connection between Martyr Loser King and Martin Luther King?
Just symbolism. The idea itself came from the mispronunciation of “Martin Luther King” by francophone people who, when they say his name, they go (speaks in a French accent) “Martyr Loser King.” That made me hear it that way, and also sparked the idea of what I could do with the “martyr.” We’re living at a time right now where we’re literally counting the number of people picked off by police and the number of people picked off by gun violence. There are several martyrs each day.
The “loser” is the idea of someone who does not identify with the capitalist conception of what winning means. If winning means a lot of money in terms of the One Percent, that makes a lot of us losers. [The character] identifies with being a loser in the same way that someone like Beck or Thom Yorke would be like, “I’m a loser, I’m a creep.” It’s a little tongue-in-cheek.
The promo messages from the Martyr Loser King rollout have been scrambled and mysterious. Why?
Because there’s a long pre-roll. Martyr Loser King is a graphic novel that’s gonna come out in 2016. The podcast and all the stuff that we’re doing is just playing with the ideas that are on the surface while not giving away too much. Even the album is scrambled in terms of ideas. I don’t know if you’d be able to piece together the whole story without me telling it to you. There will probably be a part two of the album that comes out when the graphic novel does.
When you dropped Niggy Tardust in 2007, you offered it as a name-your-price download. Did you know then that the industry would go in that direction?
It was obvious, in terms of people downloading, the access the average person has to music and the belief that we’ve always had, which was just that: If I have a choice between hearing it for free and not hearing it because I don’t have money, I’m gonna choose to hear it for free because I love music. Right? We can’t fool ourselves about that. It forces the industry to reinvent itself, but the listener is always gonna take the easiest route. I’d do the same thing.
What do you think might be the next reinvention in the music industry?
Compensating artists. (Laughs.) How about that? When I released Niggy Tardust, most of my spiel was about what it means to take away the middleman, and we still haven’t successfully taken away the middleman … You have to go to a site, to an interface, that introduces you to a lot of artists, like Spotify and whatever the fuck. So there are still middlemen, and the middlemen benefit greatly at the expense of the artist.
The huge question when you talk about reinvention has more to do within the culture of us realizing the value and importance of our arts in America. We’ve taken them out of schools. We’ve perpetuated a lot of bullshit in pop art. It goes in cycles, but I think a culture that really values the arts and the artistic voices of their citizens is truthfully the most progressive.
What can we expect from you in Vegas?
Performance for me is ritual. If I’m releasing something new into the world, then I consider myself traveling around and performing a series of rituals to welcome it. I don’t know what that means because, really, the night is gonna determine it. In a place like Vegas, I might be trying to end early so I can have fun at a slot machine afterward.
Speaking with only knowledge of your art, Vegas doesn’t seem like your kind of city.
Like my kind of city, huh? (Laughs.) I have been to Vegas before for concerts, and I have partied there. I don’t know if it’s my cup of tea or not because I don’t know the Vegas that goes to poetry readings, so I’m interested in that Vegas.
What’s your goal as an artist?
On one level, creatively, there’s a type of lucidity that I aim to reach, just being able to spew out art. Whether it’s through speaking or making music or performing, I like challenging myself to create. … The other side of that would be to reach people, to transcend critical acclaim and actually touch some hearts and minds with the work that I’m doing, and inspire a generation to be weird as fuck. Weird and thoughtful.
7 p.m. Sept. 21, The Sayers Club at SLS, $22, 702-761-7618.
Book signing: 4 p.m. Sept. 21, Barnes & Noble, 2191 N. Rainbow Blvd., 702-631-1775.
The Essential Saul Williams
Highlights from a prolific career
Slam (film, 1998): Williams stars as Ray Joshua, an aspiring inner-city poet who winds up in jail on drug charges. His fiery spoken word captivates those in the prison yard and in his neighborhood, inspiring them to break the cycle of violence. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Amethyst Rock Star (album, 2001): For his debut album, Williams enlisted legendary producer Rick Rubin to cement the foundation of what would become Williams’ signature eclecticism. Spitting his incantations over rock, jungle and drum-and-bass, Williams challenged hip-hop—and exorcised it.
Said the Shotgun to the Head (book, 2003): This third book by Williams features a single, epic poem told by a man who kisses a female messiah, spiraling into a spiritual awakening. Full of vivid imagery, he utilizes the font and layout of the text to move the poem and invoke emotion.
Saul Williams (album, 2004): Among his most accessible works, Williams continues to speak through a bullhorn to address topics such as race in hip-hop and U.S.-Iraqi relations. It’s still potent and abrasive, only with a few hooks you can sing along to.