Q&A: Tuning in with Saul Williams
Rachel Cernansky, Satya Magazine
Saul Williams is a poet and spoken word artist who is not new to the performing arts scene, but has garnered a wider audience since becoming involved with the Not In Our Name project. He helped write their Statement of Conscience/Pledge of Resistance against the war in Iraq, and wrote songs for the project's soon-to-be-released CD (which are also available for download at NotInOurNameMusic.com). Saul co-wrote and starred in the film Slam after winning the Nuyorican Poet's Café's Grand Slam Championship in 1996. His latest book is a collection of poems entitled "She" (MTV Books, 1999), and he is currently starring in the play Tibi's Law.
Saul Williams recently shared some of his thoughts with Rachel Cernansky on art, artistry, and, inevitably, current events.
How do you describe yourself as an artist?
I describe myself as a student and I consider myself an artist. I think that an artist is a vessel and that it's our duty to cleanse and make ourselves as open as possible so that things can enter us and we can filter them out. People relate to [art] and find themselves in it. I often encounter people who say, "Thank you for putting in words something I've been trying to say or have wanted to hear expressed." People relate to the sounds that they've been yearning to relate to, and the people who are able to articulate them through whatever artistic instrument they use -- that's their duty.
How did you get started?
I started out wanting to be an actor. As an eight year-old kid, I enjoyed not only the attention, but the release it allowed me. As I studied acting more over time, I got into the idea of being able to embody a character. Then, studying philosophy and acting, I started realizing that the greatest thing we can do on this planet is come to know ourselves. You can't portray a character without raising the questions that the character raises for yourself. And so I started seeing acting as somewhat of a martial art, where you have to find your center and move from there. Acting allows you to tune in and tune out simultaneously -- you lose yourself and find yourself.
Through practicing that, I eventually started writing my own stuff, and I started writing poetry. I also wanted to be a rapper when I was young, maybe ten or 11, and I started writing rhymes. So it all unfolded over time and turned into what I'm doing now -- which is reciting poetry, writing poetry, but more so, living poetry.
Living poetry -- how so?
I don't believe that poetry is just life on the page. I think that we have to find a way to connect our words with our actions and our actions with our will. When I say living poetry, I mean we have to be courageous in our endeavors. We have to be willing to go places. And sometimes we have to be willing to follow, and I'm not speaking of other people. There've been times when I've written things that have been beyond my own belief system and it's like, Okay, I've been led to this. It is a sort of mathematics -- you're led to a new answer. And it forces me to reevaluate my entire life.
I'm highly inspired by aesthetics -- beauty. I aim to create beauty, because I think that it is perhaps our greatest teacher. A beautiful song or poem -- which may have its harshness, its cruelty -- allows people to pull from it, and grow from it.
Do you feel that politics is inextricably linked with being an artist?
I think that being alive is linked to politics, there is no separation. That's the greatest illusion of humankind, we think that things are separate from each other, that chemistry is separate from biology, and politics is separate from spirituality or what have you. It's all connected. Even for someone to say "I'm not political" -- that's a political statement.
In the realm of artistry, especially in America, where we're dealing with artists (like myself) that encounter the media (like yourself), the question of responsibility comes into play because it is a question of power. The fact that I open my mouth and people listen puts me in a powerful position. Thus I need to think about what I say, because I know that people are affected by it.
When we deal with the current scheme of politics -- war and people like Bush and the current regime and all of these things -- it's extremely important for artists and people themselves to speak up and connect their beliefs to their actions and to their artistry. Especially when the media is on the side of and owned by the corporations. The government, the regime itself, is controlled by corporations. So we have a greater responsibility in this day and age because the government is not doing its responsibility. It no longer truly represents the people, it represents corporate rule, and the demands of supply and demand.
So we, artists, now become the true representatives of the people. People flock to us in connection to our beliefs -- if they believe what we say, they listen to us. Or sometimes it's not that, sometimes they like the beat, or the energy, or think we're cute, or whatever. But either way, we are in positions of power that are no less authoritative than a president or a secretary of defense or what have you. The people are in control, whether the government recognizes that or not -- it's only a matter of the people recognizing that and taking the control which is rightfully theirs. So it is up to the artist, or whomever has the microphone, to remind the people of that power -- to remind the people of their power.
Indeed. It's just that people often tend to underestimate their power and impact as individuals.
Yeah. I think that is because we've been programmed to do so. Radio, TV, media, it's all brain programming. And unfortunately in America our minds have been programmed perhaps worse than the rest of the world; we think we're free because we're told that we are, that America represents freedom. But we have not fully claimed our freedom, because we have not freed ourselves from the stuff that tells us we're free. The greatest Americans -- the most renowned ones that have represented America in the truest way throughout history, the Henry David Thoreaus, the Walt Whitmans, the Martin Luther Kings and even Abraham Lincolns -- have been people that have roamed the wilderness, tuned into their spirits, tuned into nature, and pulled their messages from that. And that's where they've understood freedom and the responsibility and power that comes with freedom.
Right now it's like we are unable to imagine world peace. Why? Because our imaginations have been stolen from us. We can imagine World War III because we've seen it in every movie, every TV show, etc. We cannot imagine world peace because we've never seen it before. We have to start seeing and imagining for ourselves. As prisons and schools are becoming privatized, it's our responsibility as individuals to privatize our imaginations, and once again start imagining and envisioning things for ourselves. People think being American means "I'm free, free to watch as many shows as I want, to play Playstation, to do all the stuff I want to do as much as I want." But that freedom requires responsibility. And your responsibility is to educate and become in tune with yourself -- your highest self. We're talking about something beyond religion and reporting to any synagogue or church or mosque. We're talking about reporting to yourself and to your connection to the universe. Because we are connected and we do affect people. We have to be aware of this and then act consciously.
What advice do you have for people to do that?
Well there are several practical ways. The first is to throw yourself out of your comfort zone; and that can mean many things. It can mean instead of picking up a newspaper, pick up a blank book, and write. What is the news of today? You write it. Turn off CNN. Turn off the TV. Turn off all these external forms of ingestion. Sit in silence, for an hour. Try to still your mind -- not think about anything, anything. We're afraid of silence; but there's nothing more powerful than silence.
That is not always the answer, but in the face of so much propaganda and so much bullshit, that seems to be the answer for us today. Once people realize their individual power -- to love and to love each other -- then humanity is changed for evermore. The greatest resistance to war is love, and love is not resistance. Love is love. It's crazy, we resist love. We're afraid of it, afraid of getting hurt, of being open, afraid of being vulnerable.
How do you explain what's going on to your seven year-old daughter?
I've taken her to several rallies, and she understands what's going on in Iraq to the extent that most of us in America do, which is that there's a war going on and people are dying. She believes it's all about oil. But she doesn't see it. She's at school right now having fun and she doesn't feel impacted by it, except when she sees me angry, responding to what I've heard.
Kids I think across the board are not for war; kids do not want to live in a violent world, you know? So in many ways they're disappointed in their parents or in the adult world that we would allow things to get to this point.
Can you explain your involvement with Not In Our Name?
I helped to write their Pledge of Resistance, and I've written some music for them. I have been speaking non-stop and working with them in saying, We don't condone the atrocities that are occurring by the American government in our name. Since we are tax-paying citizens, anything the American government does, they are basically doing in our names; and if we are not in agreement, then we have a right to stand up.
We don't want people killed in our names, and unfortunately that is exactly what is happening. Here I am, 100 percent against the war -- I'm not one of those people who is saying, Let's just get Saddam out without any warfare -- I'm not thinking about Saddam, to me Bush is a bigger threat, a bigger terrorist. Whatever Saddam has done, he's done to his people; Bush is aiming to impose terror on the world, on humanity itself. Countless Iraqis are dying at this very moment, as we speak, and I'm sitting at home, chilling. And not only civilians, but soldiers, I don't want the soldiers dead. If you really want to support our troops, don't send them to war, don't ask them to fight.
What are your thoughts on the current state of hip hop?
I think people are definitely growing tired of the bullshit -- whether conscious of it or not. Hip hop is reflective of America. And artists are slowly being forced to realize that they have to speak on what matters, because whatever they speak on becomes matter. Slowly but surely, people are turning their ears to the "alternative" hip hop groups. Even the commercial hip hop groups are starting to have alternative alignments -- Jay Z or Eminem with the Roots backing them up. So I'm optimistic that things are shifting for the better, it'll only be a matter of time before hip hop once again is able to feed the people that listen to it as opposed to poison them, which it's been doing for the past, I don't know, decade.
What work are you most proud of?
I don't know, I don't really associate pride with the work [that I do]. I guess I'm most moved by the book that I just finished, which is called, "Said the Shotgun to the Head." It comes out in the fall through MTV Books. It's a love poem -- about 200 pages -- to all of the things that are decaying and destroying the values and ideals of the West as we know it. I think it's the most beautiful/conceptual/political thing that I've ever written. I've worked on it for four years and I can't wait for people to have the opportunity to read it.
Who are your role models?
People like Mohammed, Jesus -- those are the biggest role models. Then there are people like Paul Robeson and Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman has a beautiful quote: "I would have been able to free a thousand more slaves if I could only have convinced them that they were slaves." Which is crazy, to think there were people that did not even know they were enslaved -- during the times of slavery. They just thought, "That's life, this is how life is."
Then there are people like Alice Walker, Jimi Hendrix, Thom Yorke [of Radiohead] -- all types of people, wonderful people -- my daughter, my son. My mom.
Rachel Cernansky is Assistant Editor of Satya Magazine and is finishing up her undergraduate degree in Politics and Nutrition at New York University.