Of all the artists to play this year's Standon Calling, I was perhaps looking forward to seeing Saul Willliams the most. The enigmatic rapper/poet/actor had toured his fourth album, Volcanic Sunlight, earlier in the year and despite best arrangements, I had lived to regret missing it. Here then was a rare chance to see Saul entertain a festival audience, and it was a pleasure to meet with him earlier that afternoon. Saul Williams has been an outspoken figure, demonstrating a political self-awareness throughout his work across music, poetry and film. Given the context of what had been a tumultuous week in British politics/civic order, to say the very least, this seemed the perfect opportunity to converse at length.
405: Good afternoon Saul. How are you?
SW: I'm good, thank you. Woke up in Paris this morning, now I'm here in this beautiful field.
Glad to hear it. First up, could you talk us through your latest record. Is there a concept to the record, an overarching message?
The goal of the album was to create a record that sounded exactly like the title, Volcanic Sunlight. Besides that, I can't say that there's a common themality except for in my approach to it. And that approach was simple: I didn't feel like writing any songs borne out of anger. And anyone who is familiar with my previous albums will know that, well, anger and I have been pretty tight!
I think of your early work, which was almost driven by that very directed, pointed form of anger.
Yeah, we've had an intimate relationship in the past, a healthy one. But this time, I wanted to do something different.
I wanted to talk about this anger briefly, in reference to previous releases like the Not In My Name EP, or songs like Act 3 Scene 2. This politically motivated anger often found inspiration, if I can call it that, in the policies of the Bush presidency. How do you feel about Obama, and is this record a reflection of your changed attitudes?
How I feel about Obama is how I now feel about politics in general. I'm a bit further down the road now, and I see that for what they are politics, politicians, governments play their part. They do as much as they can do. I don't believe in the idea of martyrs or individuals having more power than the people themselves, I believe politicians are there inherently to reflect us. Obama, symbolically, holds his ground well. Nonetheless, I understand the dissatisfaction from, for example, the left- who often seem like they'd prefer him to be a dictator for the left, for socialist egalitarian policies- in the same way perhaps as some might interpret Bush's actions as him being a dictator for the right. I do think the more sage response would be less of a dictator and more of a balance between the two, but that would be and is very upsetting to the left. And not satisfying to the right either.
Is it a question of whether the end, in this case policy, justifies the means, i.e. totalitarianism?
Partly. It's also a question of time, how much time does it take to pull out of Iraq, for example? Policy takes time. All these bullshit equations we wake up and find ourselves in, no different than you or I born into a family that has a religion, or that has a socio-political background. Man, we're born into that and we're raised to believe it until we come of age and question “Do I have to perpetuate the ideals of my father and mother?” In the same way, I think a president is born into a situation and has to navigate their own growth. Thus, I think the more interesting Obama would be in his second term.
Regardless of policy, I think a lot of people are hoping Sarah Palin runs against him- if only for the broadcast television debates and subsequent YouTube-worthy moments.
Haha, yeah. On the whole, there are so many issues in American politics which sadden me, that surprise me, that stop me and make me take notice. Are we still dealing with that? There's an actual frontrunner in the Republican ticket whose husband thinks you can teach gay people how not to be gay. You know? This is the 21st century, the world over, and we're still just there? It's a fucking shame. And it's for those reasons I say “politics plays its part” because people and ideas are evolving at a quicker rate than politicians can possibly keep up with.
The discourse catches up with itself eventually, as an idea gains in popularity. Perhaps it's ironic then that our so-called leaders do little at a time like this but 'respond'. That's a good link to my next question actually, on the recent UK news. I wanted to ask if you'd seen much of the country's rioting and the Government's subsequent response.
Yes, of course. To me, it's not even a matter of opinion. The facts are there. It's obvious to all that there is this unspoken tension in the younger generations and it's come out like, yeah, what the fuck. Otherwise, if it wasn't there, that wouldn't be the response.
There seems to be a willingness in this country not to acknowledge our shared responsibility towards that underclass, to not understand but rather to now punish and condemn. Many people have been reminded of the Martin Luther King quotes about the riots being the voice of the unheard.
And it is, essentially that. And it remains that. Anyone who says there isn't a class system in England would be foolish. It's evident through history. We all just celebrated a wedding, a national wedding of royal blood.
And we all paid for it, too.
Yeah, exactly. And of course, so there's going to be people who just look at that and think, “Ok, so now what about us? What about these streets?” So yes, voices have to be heard. And if people are slow in moving, slow in responding then more voices will need to be heard, and they will go about it in ways we can't control, using whatever means they have available to them. And sometimes it might seem easier to burn the first car you see in front of you than to get on the phone with your local congressman. Do you guys have congressmen?
MPs. We have MPs. And I think you can email them.
Yeah, right. Email them. Of course you can.
I wanted to ask you about beat poetry and hip-hop in general. How do you see those two disciplines interconnecting, or rather, where does one end and the other begin?
Well, to tell you the truth, I started out as an MC in New York. My relationship to poetry came through rapping primarily, and then through studying theatre. When you're reading a play closely, you dissect the language and of course when you listen to hip-hop, you use a similar form of deconstruction. So many playwrights were rhythmic, in their metre and stanza, line for line. And so, I grew like this: hip-hop and classical theatre. I wrote songs before I wrote poems, but I became known in the public eye through poetry. That gave me the opportunity to make music, which was my first love. Of course my first first love, before all that, was acting, was theatre. In all of these cases I feel like someone who happened upon something, I didn't grow up saying I wanted to be a poet or an actor, I just grew up reading poetry. I quit rapping when I was 16 because I wanted to be the youngest rapper alive- when I got to 16, I was all “Fuck it, it didn't happen”.
When you perform onstage to a crowd, is that an extension of theatrical performance?
And how do you, if at all, separate the notions of art and entertainment?
I'm an entertainer. But it's like, I believe, I was entertained when I was growing up, I was heavily entertained by Public Enemy, I was entertained by playwrights like Amiri Baraka, I was entertained by South African playwrights like Athol Fugart. These were things that had serious political weight, but the end-point of Public Enemy was to make you dance. As they say, “Make you jump along, make you dance along to your education”. I never thought I had to be false or commit to a stupid idea to enjoy myself at a party. So when you close your eyes and you dance, and you hear 'Poker Face' or whatever, you could just as easily contextualise that as something profound, something driven and serious, like Rage Against The Machine you know- which is just as entertaining.
That post-structuralist Death Of The Author idea, then.
Yeah, I can totally accept that. Hahah.
Great. Thanks for spending time with us today Saul. Looking forward to your gig later.
Me too. Catch you then.
First published in the405