Poet, rapper, singer, songwriter, musician, writer, actor, activist.
Saul Williams’ artistic pursuits are many and varied, but from his beginnings at mid-90s poetry slams through a handful of albums and poetry collections, his focus has remained unchanged: using revolutionary words to remind audiences that the personal is political. Later this year, Williams will release his fifth album, the evocatively-titled Martyr Loser King, and his diatribes are as timely as ever, with protests about police brutality, government control and economic disparity erupting around the world.
Martyr Loser King tells the story of its eponymous fictional character, a Burundian miner-turned-hacker who starts a revolution from his computer. Williams fuses his progressive poetry and lullabies for liberals with melancholy melodies over an industrial-tinged palette of polyrhythms and breakbeats, building towards frenzied crescendos as he hybridizes rap, dance, punk and more. In that way, the album is closer to the Trent Reznor-produced The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of NiggyTardust than 2011’s genre-agnostic Volcanic Sunlight. For many of Williams’ fans, it will be a return to form.
We spoke with Williams by phone about the meaning of Martyr Loser King, staying focused during frustrating times and his musical approach. We’re also premiering “Coltan As Cotton”, the first in a series of poem-videos that will be released in conjunction with the album. Martyr Loser King is due out on September 18 on the FADER Label.
What was your thinking behind the title Martyr Loser King?
Full disclosure: the title comes from hearing my wife — she’s from Rwanda and Francophone — and other foreign people pronounce “Martin Luther King.” [laughs] It hit me, “Martyr Loser King,” that’s crazy. It wasn’t something I thought of, it’s something I heard.
I thought of “martyrs” as the other one percent. I was really engaged with the Occupy movement in Paris and I was really excited about talking about wealth being held in the hands of the few and being used to control the lives of many, especially with regards to first world comforts and third world exploits. I thought of people like Thomas Sankara and Benazir Bhutto, artists from Jim Morrison to Cobain to Amy Winehouse, whistleblowers like Aaron Swartz, and people who have given their lives without dying, like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Thinking of how few they are: people who really dedicate their lives to the service of humanity and are either murdered or imprisoned by governments. Martin Luther King fits that definition. There are so many.
I thought of “loser” very similarly to the ways the black community has embraced “nigga” in the modern era, post-Richard Pryor: making it sexy and a term of endearment. The lowest rungs, the disenfranchised, the people who don’t matter, who are brutalized or displaced, and the way you take that back and say, “Yeah, I’m a nigga, I’m the baddest motherfucker you will ever meet.” [laughs] I also thought of the Christian ideology of the sinner, “all sinners saved by the grace of God.” I thought of the white boy, indie rock meaning: “I’m a loser, I’m a creep.” We’re all fucking losers and if we don’t identify with the idea “I just want to make a lot of money and have a fast car and a lot of girls,” the rags-to-riches scenario, instead of thinking of ways of alleviating poverty instead of just escaping it. I thought of those who identify with the disenfranchised and don’t want to consider themselves free until everyone is free.
“Yeah, I’m a nigga, I’m the baddest motherfucker you will ever meet.”Saul Williams
“King” isn’t there for any sense of monarchy, but the idea of royal blood. I started thinking of about the Martyr Loser King thing heavily when I was performing and living in Swaziland, which is the only monarchy left in Africa. It also has the highest ratio of citizens with AIDS and AIDS orphans, so I started comparing the ideas of royal blood with tainted blood, thinking about how the taint of royal blood taints society. When we think about royal lineages — and it doesn’t have to be royal, it can be Bush or Clinton or Kennedy — and what happens when we apply power that way, if everyone doesn’t have the right to become that? Like when you contrast Buddhism and Christianity: in Christianity, no one can become the Christ, everyone is a sinner; in Buddhism, everyone has the possibility of reaching enlightenment and becoming a Buddha.
Martyr Loser King is the screenname of a hacker living in Burundi. It’s timely, it’s crazy to look at everything that’s happening now, where the president of Burundi is vying to have a third term by breaking the constitution and people are protesting in the streets. They held elections for their parliament and it was the lowest turnout ever, but the president called it the highest turnout ever, and the protestors are being called terrorists. All I was trying to do was to center the story in a place many of us hadn’t heard of so it could work allegorically for all places across the world. I wanted to talk about all these things: the one percent and the other one percent, globalization, gender, identity, technology. That was the purpose, to find away to talk about everything that’s going on under the slight veil of concept.
With all these things going on at once, how do you stay focused as a person and as an artist and not throw your hands up in exhaustion?
My focus is much the same and it’s pretty solid whether as an artist, a poet, or an activist. Even before it was actually a goal of mine, what I found I was doing was connecting dots: trying to show the similarities between this emotion and this experience, or between experiences in different places. There’s that beautiful moment in Slam where Sonja Sohn says to the prisoner, “Freedom isn’t out there in the world, freedom is in here,” pointing to her chest. You don’t have to be a prisoner to identify with that message. We’re all prisoners to gender roles, to all the ideologies that we’re born into and perpetuate before we even start thinking for ourselves and questioning societal authority that we’ve given power, whether you’re a teenager and that’s your parents, or whether that’s against society at large.
Like anyone else who’s alive today, I’m flabbergasted — I’m completely overwhelmed by what I see. On one hand, I’m excited to see progressive discussions about privilege, supremacy and escaping the gender binary. But it’s really simple: we’re not free until everyone is free. You see the slow crawl to justice, and you see how strong the pushback is. We started these discussions in the 20s, the 40s and the 60s, and every time society has been on the cusp of stepping to a higher plane of understanding, the superpowers that do so much to control our fear and comfort levels, so that we stay working and business stays booming, they push back.
“The realization that I’ve had is “fuck it.””Saul Williams
The realization that I’ve had is “fuck it.” [laughs] I’m going to give my fucking all to inspire a generation to point a middle finger in the right direction. The angst is already there for any teenager, to want to rebel. I can use rappers, for example, who think they’re rebelling by talking about selling drugs or pushing bricks, until you figure that the government is responsible for bringing crack and heroin into the community, so at that point, you’re not rebelling against society, you’re no different than a government informant, because you’re essentially working for the CIA. There’s nothing cool about that, and if your idea of rebellion is “look at my car with the suicide doors,” and you’re identifying so heavily with Trump and a group of people who could not make a billion dollars without exploiting people, you’re not rebelling, you’re actually conforming.
If I’m just saying all that, then I’m preaching, but if I have Martyr Loser King demonstrating that through his crazy, somewhat narcissistic actions, then maybe something more can be conveyed through the character. That’s how I’m processing everything that’s going on today: I’m putting it through the filter of this story, and I’m letting it play out there. I’m heavily inspired by graphic novels — Transmetropolitan’s Spider Jerusalem is someone Martyr Loser King would look up to — which is why I’m working with First Second Books and Ronald Wimberly on a Martyr Loser King graphic novel that will come out in 2016.
I know I’m not alone here. There are tons of artists and activists and even CEOs pushing for the same thing. I consider myself to be doing my part, which is the most any of us can do. That’s been my way of processing what’s going on: by incorporating these ideas into the message of the album. It is extremely timely, even though I started writing this three years ago, and the messages will probably still stand 10 years from now, because the fight is enormous. That fight against the one percent isn’t just something that came around in 2008. As Howard Zinn points out, George Washington wasn’t just the first president, he was the largest landholder and the richest man on the continent, and that’s what led to him becoming president.
What was your musical approach on this album?
The music is everything. It’s funny: I’m talking about issues all day, but my first ideas are always musical. It has everything to do with the interface between traditional, polyrhythmic music — the music that comes from Central Africa — and the digital. With polyrhythmic music, there aren’t many strings, and you’re dealing with minimalism and repetition, but the way that they’re placed over each other, it feels like a vortex — a trance. What I’m looking for is the quickest way to evoke that trance-like medium, breaking that “sound barrier” that allows you to escape the exterior world and go deep, immediately.
What I’ve been working on is how to make music where the beats are implied and invisible: where the voice falls in the pocket of the rhythm gives anticipation of where the beat should be, but the beat may never arrive. You feel the beat so heavily, it’s in you. That’s what I’m getting closer to but by no means have executed on this album. On ‘Groundwork’, there’s just bass and guitar for the first half of the song, but the idea of the beat is there; same thing with ‘Horn Of The Clock-Bike’. Everybody has a heartbeat, I don’t need to deliver that beat: I’m just going to frame where the beat should drop and the rest is going to be in your head.
If we talk about politics, it’s going to get really heady, which is why I try to balance it. My music is pure feeling: it’s all the first ideas that come and what I put on top of it. It’s always been like that; I’ve just achieved a little more grace and confidence as I’ve done more albums. It’s the sense of what we have ourselves, and what we can apply to the process. It’s music as the drug: when you take that DMT or molly or weed, the drug is not going to provide the experience. You get to determine how you apply it — whether you paint or turn on your musical equipment, that’s up to you. The drug itself will put you in the state that will affect the experience. Go to sleep, wake up, burn something down. [laughs]
“We could use this song while we march and burn this motherfucking shit down.”Saul Williams
Honestly, all I’m trying to do is to apply that alternative burst of energy. I’m assuming that most people and most kids have that rebellious energy already. I look at all these people in the streets in so many countries demanding very similar things in really diverse places. Three weeks ago in Argentina, women speaking up against the murders of women, or Black Lives Matter here, or in Canada around indigenous rights. I understand pop music as entertainment, as escapism of “rich niggas to the left” and “feeling myself” — I understand the need for that. I’m making an attempt to balance the equation of what music can represent.
I see those songs about celebrating personal wealth as a waste of opportunity, the guy bragging about not knowing how much money is in his bank account. It’s like, fuck, man: you had rhythm, you had the perfect flow… if you took one moment to think about the opportunity you had, we could use this song while we march and burn this motherfucking shit down. To be clear, I’m using hip-hop as an example because I know it so well, but I mean pop music in general. Allen Ginsberg wrote heavily about Yellow Submarine. It was released in 1969, when people were extremely engaged around the world in one of the biggest “fight the power” moments in history, and the Beatles were playing with light escapism.
Tell me about the poem in this video.
That poem is called “Coltan As Cotton.” Coltan is a precious stone that is found in Central Africa, China and Russia, roughly the same places you find diamonds. It is what distributes power in our cell phones and laptops. As you can imagine, the stories around those coltan mines have a direct lineage to the stories of rubber, sugar cane, iron, oil, gold, diamonds. We know how those companies become rich: by exploiting natural resources, usually in the third world, and how the power breaks down. This is a stone that distributes power, like the distribution of wealth. I’m holding it in my hand as I talk to you on my iPhone — we all have it.
Martyr Loser King is someone who worked in a coltan mine before he became a hacker. The question is, how do we break the cycle? Of course, there’s nothing wrong about extracting minerals and using them to progress society, but if the same sort of exploitation takes place on a regular basis, if it’s the same people benefitting and the same people not benefitting. How do we apply modern technology — meaning awareness and consciousness, because these things are reflections of our consciousness — to the enrichment of society or the eradication of poverty?
That poem is simply things to ponder, things to question, things we need to be thinking about as we step through life. What is the role of free labor and slavery in the history of the bank? They’re not necessarily rhetorical questions. It’s looking at history and not being overwhelmed by it, but saying, okay, this is what we’ve built until now, this is what we should keep, this is what we should destroy, this is what we should be protesting. Figuring out how do I live my life, have fun, and do what I want to do, but also finding ways to not always perpetuate the cycle. Because there’s no real escape. Even for the so-called independent artist like me, I have deals to publish books and distribute albums, and there are unanswered questions about how these things will come about. We all participate, I’m just trying to see if I can weigh the stuff I’m sharing more heavily than what it has to go through to get there.