In 2009, Saul Williams “voted for ‘change’ and skipped town,” opting to observe his country’s next hopeful, uncertain chapter from the outside. “America had so much to do with perception,” says the poet/MC/rocker-actor of his four years spent in Paris, France. While abroad traveling with his daughter (as his own mother had done with a younger Williams), he once again encountered the global perception of blackness, of Americanness, of “us.”
Upon returning to the States—enlightened by negotiating the foreign, and bewildered by the changes at home—Williams began writing his new book, US (a.), after being asked by his publisher to respond to the new American era. The thematic breadth in his fifth book of poems is nothing new for Williams, but the words may be less figurative and more direct—an unequivocal middle finger extended against the popular direction he see his nation marching towards.
EBONY: A few of the poems in this new book also function as song lyrics or text for your Martyr Loser King album and graphic novel project—pieces such as “Coltan as Cotton” or “These Mthrfckrs.” How do you intend US (a.) to work with the other projects?
Saul Williams: Martyr Loser King is a concept project, meaning that I’m writing in the voice of a character and telling a story. In US (a.), there are two scripts in there, and so at many points I am writing in the voices of characters. But I’m also writing poems as myself. To me, they take different points. Because in Martyr Loser King, all my energy and focus is fused through this one story with this one objective that covers a lot of territory. Whereas US (a.) was a work where I was commissioned to talk specifically about America. Maybe that’s the difference.
In Martyr Loser King, I’m not really there to talk about America, but to talk about these global instances of technology awareness and issues relating to anything from gender to capitalism and so many different things. In US (a.), I’m talking about the social situation in America. Although in the two scripts that are in there—one is kind of about Atlantis and the other one is kind of about Miles Davis in Paris—but the overall theme and what I am getting to is about our relationship to America. And I’m playing with the idea of how we connect that relationship to our dreams—only because I don’t know of many other countries where the dream is so much a part of the narrative of what the country is. People come to America to fulfill their dreams. We talk about “the American Dream.” In US (a.), I’m really playing with dreams and memories in relation to America.
EBONY: You pose this question in the poem “Fck the Beliefs”: “What is your mind’s/ immigration policy?/Do you detain/foreign thoughts/that may have entered/your mind illegally?” This is a recurring theme in the book: the unequally porous boundaries of the mind, the mind that may be, as you say, “colonized” long before it is even aware of its borders. We like to think of the imagination as the freest aspect of ourselves, but is it ever inherently liberated? Is the imagination the promised land or another space that, particularly for African Americans, must experience rebellion?
SW: I think it has to be freed like anything else. For example—you can think of it in really common terms—I used to critique rappers who I could tell only listened to hip-hop or to other rappers, because their references were so localized within hip-hop that it never challenged me or the genre, in my opinion. Whereas the rapper who was, let’s say, reading or watching anime and listening to Tchaikovsky and reading Philip K. Dick or Octavia Butler was suddenly coming with references a bit more interesting. Because they had traveled a bit more with their mind, and thus their imagination was a bit more developed.
Oftentimes, I feel like half of the sex, money and drugs talk in rap has everything to do with the limited imagination—like these are the three things we can talk about. Whereas you hear rappers who are playing around with Funkadelic, and suddenly the imagination goes farther, the references go farther, the references go deeper. So yeah, the imagination has to be liberated, because it’s clear that it oftentimes can reflect the limitations that we impose—or have been imposed—on our minds. And especially when we associate with beliefs, for example. We then start to place barriers on what we will or will not imagine, in the same way that you may place barriers around what is fair and unfair to question as a “good Christian” or any of these things.
So my question often is, are you operating off of boundaries that were given to you, or have you created your own boundaries? And if so, why and what are they, and why not expand them? Yes, the imagination has to be massaged. It has to be nuanced. It has to be picked like an Afro. It has to be nurtured.
EBONY: In your answer, there is an allusion to the importance of travel, which is also part of the impetus behind US (a.). Do you find travel to be one of the most effective of challenging and forcing the mind to grow?
SW: Definitely. It f*cked my head up in a right way. I was saying to a friend yesterday—we were talking about White privilege, kind of laughing. It’s funny, though, for Black Americans. Any Black American who wants to experience what we are talking about as White privilege just needs to get a passport and leave the country and watch as people look at your passport and go, “oh my God, you’re American?! Come this way!”
As you soon as you leave the country as an American, you’re going to experience this sense of American privilege that can be easily likened to White privilege as you go into Europe and Africa and several places. You’ll suddenly see the reaction to your passport and to your accent and to the fact that you’re from America. You’ll have doors opened for you, and you won’t have to wait in certain lines sometimes, and people will treat you differently and invite you to different places where they may not invite the Nigerian or the Ghanaian person who’s traveling. You will experience that.
So when you want to write about White privilege, for example, you then have something to pull from. You can broaden what you understand about it because, actually, you’ve experienced it out of context.
EBONY: How might you assess the relationship between the various diasporic activist communities and the hacker or hacktivist community? What do you think they have to learn from each other, and how do your new projects put them in conversation?
SW: I just think those communities need to join forces. When I think about the position that the modern day activist, hashtag activist even, find themselves in—who are receiving death threats, who face real dangers as the cost of speaking up about some sh*t online or showing up at marches… A lot of times, some hacker or anonymous kid is helping that person out by wiping away that location or wiping away the imprint that’s going to give these trolls power to threaten them, because it happens, in the same way that police can follow someone back to their car and arrest them there as opposed to spotting them in a crowd. I’m talking about police in the f*cked up sense. I’m not talking about the cool police. Let me make that clear. I’m talking about those corrupt, everyday police. They can extract information to corroborate evidence and to find certain people. I feel like hackers should be working with activists to help them out.
I use the hacker in Martyr Loser King because it allows me to explore the virtual world and contemporary times in a very surface and understandable way. I think a hacker serves a great metaphor, and a lot of the people I think about as hackers may not even have the real skill set.
EBONY: In the last script in the book, could art—jazz, specifically—be considered a hack? It gets Miles Davis out of the American racial construct, where he begins to see, as you have him say, “the world was bigger than my world.”
SW: Exactly. It is a hack. The jazz musician Kamasi Washington traveling the world right now with his saxophone. It’s 2015. That’s absurd. That’s a hack. He found something in the deep web that allowed him to pop off on some sh*t that the majority of the world would normally be ignoring right now. Of course it’s a creative hack.
You brought up the semantic differences in the word—the idea, the expression—of hacking, and that’s part of the fun as well: the idea of what a hack is and then the idea of these life hacks. And these life hacks are the dual essence of what we are talking about.
How do you go about it as an individual—achieving certain levels of understanding and clarity and awareness and success in your own life—while identifying with a group, while belonging to a group, while belonging to a culture, while being assigned a nationality, while being assigned the idea of a race or a brand or a religion? How do you find your own individuality? How do you progress the game? How do you find the courage to progress the game if you see the whole group on some aggressive, regressive shi*? And you see it but you’re scared to call it out because that’s the way is moving.
How do you find the courage to step away from the group, or find the power or wherewithal to inspire the group to move in a different direction? All of these things are creative hacks we’re talking about—alternate paths, alternate windows. Talk about Thelonious Monk finding the space between the beat, or the sounds between the chords. Or Jimi Hendrix finding the beauty within the noise. Yeah, of course we’re talking about hacking here. It’s the same sort of sh*t, metaphorically.
EBONY: As a commissioned text, what did completing US (a.) bring out of you that may not have come had you been working on your own artistic direction or schedule?
SW: I guess it gave me an opportunity to find a little more humor in this sh*t. Because overall, I think it’s kind of depressing to come back to America on some police brutality sh*t when you grew up with that sh*t. We can celebrate the fact of the new generation that’s waking up into this sense of consciousness and talking about White supremacy. But if you grew up talking about that sh*t and you’re just seeing it happen?
It’s also feeling like, “Really? We still have to talk about this? We haven’t figured this sh*t out?” We were trying to figure this sh*t out when I was 13. Now my 13-year-old kid is in the same position I was when I was 13. This is the same motherfu*king conversation. It know this information is new to you, but, ni**a, it ain’t new to me. It’s a damn shame we still have to talk about this shit.
So US(a.) gave me a chance to laugh at it a bit, because I think humor must play its role in this. There’s a reason why we all love Dave Chappelle. It’s because it’s crucial. We’d die without that sense of humor, and we’re not fed without it. We can’t see beyond ourselves or laugh at ourselves, which I think is crucial as well.
So I think it softened my resolve. Perhaps I would have been in some depression or something if I wasn’t observing with the idea of writing about those feelings as well. If I was only writing Martyr Loser King and focusing on that and living in New York and dealing with Eric Garner and all this sh*t, maybe I would have been like, “what the fu*k?” Instead, I got to write “what the fu*k” and laugh at it. It helped me extend that middle finger, but with a smile.
Kyle Dargan is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Honest Engine. He is the director of creative writing at American University and the founder of Post No Ills magazine. He can be found online at american-boi.com or on Twitter at @Free_KGD.