Can a Poet Save Hip Hop? Meet Saul Williams

“I’m not a crusader for hip-hop, or for language, even though I deal with words. I deal with words to point at the spirit. You know what I’m saying? I’m more concerned about the evolution of humanity. And the music that I make, be it hip-hop or rock, and the language that I use, be it spoken or written, is aimed at invisible things that one can only connect to through prayer and meditation. and my concern is seeing that meditative state becoming reality in all of our lives so that we can live peacefully; not just with each other, and not just in some government standardized version of the Martin Luther King dream way, but in a way that is harmonious with the universe and that is beyond militarism.”

It’s nearly impossible to categorize Saul Williams, and what he does, with a conventional label … which is exactly what he wants as he fights to tear down the walls and eschew all labels. Born February 29, 1972 near Albany, New York (after his mother went into labor at a James Brown concert), Saul began writing rhymes as a young child, influenced by hip hop — particularly T La Rock?s “It’s Yours.” in order to keep things fresh and cover untouched territory, young Saul would consult a dictionary and use words he?d never before seen in his rhymes. Saul?s early years also provided his first acting role, playing Marc Anthony in the Shake Hands with Shakespeare Club’s production of Julius Caesar. He was in third grade.

Eventually Saul moved from writing rhymes into the realm of poetry. “hip hop is a rhythmical, musical derivative of poetry, like the child of the traditional sense of poetry, poetry being the mother. I grew up with the child and after a while I was like, ‘wow, you’re really cool, I’d like to meet your parents.’” With poetry, Saul felt he could focus more in introspection, philosophy and metaphysics — topics that were sadly being phased out of the ever more image conscious, braggadocio style that was overtaking hip hop. Drawing from a vast well of influences (including Kahlil Gibran, Allen Ginsberg, Rumi, Hafiz, Gil Scott-Heron and Jim Morrison) Saul began to develop his unique poetic voice blending elements of astrology, eastern mysticism, philosophy and social consciousness. He even took to incorporating hip hop?s art of sampling into his poetry. Meanwhile he graduated from Morehouse College, having majored in philosophy and acting.

Shortly after entering New York University?s graduate acting program in 1994, Saul attended his first poetry reading in Manhattan. A year and a half later he would blow audiences away at Brooklyn?s Moon Cafe when he took the stage and debuted his poem “Amethyst Rocks.” From that point on Saul managed to pick up a number of gigs and take the slam scene by storm with his electrifying stage presence and poems that took listeners’ souls to the furthest reaches of the solar system and returned them with adrenaline-fuelled hearts. It all paid off in April of 1996 when, shortly after the birth of his daughter Saturn, Saul won the coveted Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe grand slam championship. He and the Nuyorican team would go on to place third in the team standings at the national poetry slam in Portland, Oregon. The team’s road to the championship was the subject of the Paul Devlin film Slamnation.

Saul’s graduation from New York University in May of 1997 allowed him more time to focus on his artistic output, which began with the film Slam, directed by Marc Levin. The film, which Saul co-wrote, centered on a young man who used poetry to break free from his given reality, and was a huge hit, winning awards at both the Cannes and Sundance film festivals. During this time Saul?s first book of poetry, The Seventh Octave, was released by Moore Black Press. By the end of 1998 Saul had penned deals with MTV Books and American Recordings, and was well on his way to hitting the market with his enlightened and enlightening language, taking the attitude that the only way to change something is to become it and do so from within.

Since then Saul has released two more books (s/he and , said the shotgun to the head.), the Rick Rubin-produced Amethyst Rock Star CD, and a scathing anti-war EP titled Not in My Name, as part of his continuing effort to expand the consciousness of the people, and show them the importance of language and art, as well as rescuing his hip hop roots from the over-commercialized self-mockery that is permeating the current market. “We’re always saying ‘word up’ and ‘word is bond’. Gang Starr’s first fucking hit was ‘these are the words that I manifest.’ hip hop is about the power of word and when emcees forget that, they forget themselves and they become fucking caricatures of themselves, living out some dream that is not theirs. it’s just buying into the American dream.”

Whether you’re drawn into Saul Williams’ web through the intricate wordplay or mystic truths of his poetry, or through the genre-mashing sounds of his band mixing hard rock guitar riffs with heavy funk bass and turntables, one thing is certain — you will be left thinking for yourself, which is exactly what Saul aims to do.

“We have socialized ideas of what it means to be conscious; we have a certain way that we expect these people to look and behave, certain things we expect them to say. I normally just tend to remember who Al-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz was, versus who Malcolm X was, and I try to remember the transitions like that in people’s lives. A lot of people are walking around screaming about Malcolm X, but if Malcolm X was still alive, he’d be Al-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz and he’d be on some total other shit than the people who think they’re practicing what they think Malcolm X would be doing?you know what I?m saying? So it’s important to honour those transitions in ourselves, and I speak of the universe and the universal aspects of truth and understanding because that’s what we’re aiming for. That is the goal. If at the end of the day I?m just a great black poet, then something has been missed.”

2 Responses

  1. My teacher showed my
    My teacher showed my slamnation last year. He walks a very fine line between being prentious mystic and a guy who maanges to keep it real, and be serious about the art at the same time. I’m not a fan of spoken word as much, but he really uses it well, probably because he has a strong background in acting, something that everyone who wants to try spoken word needs before even getting up to read. In fact I think all poets can use an acting class or too, to help fit into the role of a “Bard.”

  2. i have neither heard, read
    i have neither heard, read nor listened to saul williams untill recently, and what i’d wish to add is that he ability to engage and speak to audiences about matters less prefered has put to just and action the inactions of those who could have previously spoken out or acted, but rather remained quiet. big ups.

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