saul williams and the politics of poetry

As we get an exclusive listen to the first cut from his new remix album, we catch up with the provocative hip-hop poet.

by Felix Petty
07 July 2016, 1:30pm

Saul Williams' work effortlessly slips between performance, poetry and hip-hop; his most recent album, Martyrloserking, was a concept album, set in Central Africa, that explored protest in the age of the hacker, a kind of globally conscious hip-hop Matrix, that took in the bleeps and blasts of industrial music, and paired them with Saul's unique use of language. His is a poetry that marries raw anger with experimentalism and emotional heart. As Martyrloserking gets the remix treatment, we caught up with poet laureate of New York hip-hop to talk words, music, and touring.

Hey Saul, how has your tour been going
The tour has been exhilarating and exhausting. The show is like a performance art piece where the collaboration is with many at once. It's hardcore.

Do you feel European and American audiences bring different reactions to your work?
Yes, there are cultural differences that are sometimes subtle, and at other times glaring. In Ireland, for example, poetry is a rich part of the culture, absorbed and adored by the masses. In England the grime kids take note of the rhythms. Variance is part of the fun.

Why did you want to do a remix album of Martyrloserking?
The album is an experiential vortex. The remix is another entry point through which the story begins. They're a part of the story.

How involved were you in its creation? Was it a fun thing to work on?
I reached out to some dear friends and sought introductions to others. It was super fun. Each time I'd get one back I'd blast blaze and listen repeatedly, taking note of what they heard and how. Georgia Ann Mouldrow has always been so far ahead... same can be said for Thavius. Daedalus is one of my favorite people. CX remixed three tracks before the album was even released. Sol Messiah and I used to dance in CX's group in ATL. Dawit & Masego are the future. Mono_Poly is an architect.

Are you interested in how different sounds bring different meanings to your words and poetry?
I'm interested in variations on silence, space, tones, colors and their relation to time, structure, cadence, and meaning. I also just love music and the correspondence between sound spirit ideas.

The album is more or less a "concept album" does it change that at all, remixing it?
You could lay out this story like tarot cards. The album is like that too. There are only moving parts. It's part of the reason I first decided to develop it as a graphic novel, because of the wormholes. This is the poem in the poem. The "jump back and kiss myself" in the middle of the make out session. We have reprises, repeated themes, and neon memes. Dressed for the occasion. Perpetual conceptual.

The album is "set" in Central Africa, how important was it to take the politics of your work into a global setting?
It was inevitable. Pulling back from my perspective ("with what?" you might ask - well in this case, I've borrowed your eyes) and seeing how it connects to broader questions, ideas, realities, finding the thru-lines, noting my blindspots, conjuring epiphanies... scrapes the fat off the ego. Or rather it was better to begin by reminding myself that whether I was paying attention or not my words/work were a fixed part of a global setting so why not reach that pen into the darkest/richest ink?

What is your primary concern with putting your words to music?
Well in most cases I'm putting words to my music, which may mean there was an idea floating, waiting to be declassified, hiding behind something, some sound, some inclination now finally ready to be put into words. I hunt them down. I set traps.

Do you think music can bring the political content of your work to a wider audience than poetry?
Only people can do that.

What can you tell us about "down for some ignorance"?
Brexit? Trump? ISIS? Boko Horam? Wall Street? Koch brothers? Murdoch? What do you need to know.

Which version do you prefer?
I wish they didn't exist.


Text Felix Petty
Photography Geordie Woods

Saul Williams