Spoken Word Legend Saul Williams on Poetry, Art & Resistance

July 04, 2016


Saul Williams

spoken word artist. Twenty years ago, Williams won the title of Nuyorican Poets Cafe’s Grand Slam Champion. Over the past two decades, he has forged a career mixing poetry, music and acting. In 2014 he performed in the first Broadway hip-hop musical, Holler If Ya Hear Me, a musical inspired by Tupac Shakur. His new album is MartyrLoserKing.

In an extended interview, world-renowned spoken word artist Saul Williams discusses his career of mixing poetry, music and acting; reads some of his poetry; talks about how he became an activist; and describes the concept of his new album, "MartyrLoserKing."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In this holiday special, we turn now to one of the country’s best-known spoken word artists, Saul Williams. Twenty years ago, Saul won the title of Grand Slam Champion at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Over the past two decades, Saul Williams has forged a career mixing poetry, music and acting. In 2014, he performed in the first Broadway hip-hop musical, Holler If Ya Hear Me, a musical inspired by Tupac Shakur. He has just released his fifth album, MartyrLoserKing_. I recently interviewedwilliams Saul Williams and began by asking him about the title of his latest album, MartyrLoserKing.

SAUL WILLIAMS: It’s an obvious play on words. MartyrLoserKing, Martin Luther King would be one of many martyr loser kings—a martyr as in those who have either been killed because of the—you know, the work that they’ve done for the upliftment of humanity or what have you, or those who haven’t been killed who give their lives just through service to humanity. OK? So, a martyr is connected to the idea of sacrifice and those who give their lives or sacrifice the possibilities of wealth or what have you for the sake of humanity. The loser, basically what I’m referencing is the disenfranchised, those who identify as belonging to a disenfranchised group and, you know, not necessarily find pride in that, but can say, "Yeah, I belong to that group," or, you know, "I’m not handsome. I don’t have the fancy car. I don’t have any of this stuff. You know, according to social standards, I’m a loser. But I’m happy with my life." It is the screen name of a hacker. It’s a concept piece. In fact, the title came from me—I was living in Paris at the time, and I heard a French person mispronounce the name of Martin Luther King as "Martyr Loser King," and I reflected on it and thought, "That’s kind of brilliant," because there was so much going on in the world.

I started working on this, I’d say, around the time of the Arab Spring, and thinking about all of the people that were starting to protest and stand up, followed by the Occupy movement. And just there’s been so many protest movements, and, you know, that quest for democracy is worldwide. My story is based in Burundi, where there is an ongoing quest for democracy right now. There’s another character in my piece who’s from Uganda, who’s a refugee from the anti-gay laws there—her name, the character’s name, is Neptune Frost—another quest for democracy there. I’m American. We know what’s going on here. My family lineage is from Haiti. We know what’s going on there. There is a global quest for democracy. And I essentially wanted to create a modern parable where I kind of took all these social issues, where there’s so much to think about and talk about, and kind of dumped them in my drum machine and created this thinly veiled fiction where I could, you know, play with these ideas in the context of these characters and this story surrounding, essentially, a hacker by the name of Martyr Loser King.

AMY GOODMAN: So, "Burundi."


AMY GOODMAN: I’d like you to perform it.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s on MartyrLoserKing. And talk about why Burundi.

SAUL WILLIAMS: OK. Well, I’ll tell you a little bit about it first, because, in fact, I started working on this song way before what has recently happened in Burundi since their president, Nkurunziza, has changed the constitution and is now serving what some would call an illegal third term and is, of course, you know, suppressing the voice of journalists and of protesters. There’s been over 200,000 refugees that have left the country in the past six months. There have been hundreds of murders from people speaking up against the government. None of this had gone down when I started writing about it.

I started writing about it primarily because my wife is from Rwanda, and so, over the years, I’ve learned more and more about the Great Lakes region, of course. There’s lots of—lots of interesting things that happen there. One, like 80 percent of the cobalt and coltan that our technology is depended on comes from that region. OK? And as you can imagine, the story around those mines and the exploitation that occurs around those mines are the sort of things you probably don’t want to think about when you’re taking a selfie. You know, you really don’t—you know, it’s the sort of things that we don’t want to consider in larger industrialized nations when we think of the sort of exploitation that’s necessary to ensure our comfort, right? The story is not necessarily about that, but it starts there.

And so, from there, I chose Burundi primarily because Bujumbura, the capital, was sort of a destination for many people living in that region, the same way we may dream of going to Paris. People would talk about the music, the food, the night life and what have you. And so I started creating this like parallel universe and this fictitious landscape where our main character, Martyr Loser King, is from. And so, I’ll recite the song for you, and then we can talk some more about it. But it goes like this.

Runnin’ down a dark street app that got a flashlight
Nike swoosh on bare feet, Whitney Houston’s crack pipe
The greatest love of all, watch me rise to watch me fall
Contemplating, rent is late in houses that I can’t afford
Show my papes at Heaven’s gates, they ask me for my visa
Lived a life without no hate so tell me what you need to
Question your authority, genocide and poverty
Treaties don’t negate the fact you’re dealing stolen property
Hacker, I’m a hacker, I’m a hacker in your hard drive
Hundred thousand dollar Tesla ripping through your hard drive
Oh, Jesus, pull the cord, seat belt, what you standing for
Buckle up, let’s knuckle up and tell Mohammed bring his sword

Swoosh, I’m a candle, I’m a candle
Chop my neck a million times, I still burn bright and stand, yo
Vigil in the middle of your occupied locations
One that burns for haters, one that burns for Haitians
I’m a candle, I’m a candle
Chop my neck a million times, I still burn bright and stand, yo
Standing in the middle of your synagogue and chapel
Licking that forbidden fruit through bitten glowing apples

Factories in China, coltan from the Congo
Smuggled to Burundi hidden in a bongo
We beat a mighty drum, changes go before they come
Guns and ammunition pay tuition for the desperate young
Hacker, I’m a hacker, I’m a hacker in your hard drive
Hey, there ain’t no security, I’m hacking through your hard drive
Information highway, tunnel vision highway
Exit 17, yo, bring them mothermother my way
Virus, I’m a virus, I’m a virus in your system
[blank] your history teacher, I’ve never been a victim
I’m just a witness, Hitler can come get this
Rabbis in Ramallah throwing burkas on these [blank]es

I’m a candle

And so, essentially, this song takes a Rumi poem. It was inspired by a poem from Rumi, where he says, "I’m a candle. Chop my neck a million times, I still burn bright and stand." And I thought of that, because like when you think of even like the Black Lives Matter movement right now and so many, you know, social movements happening today, that are happening without singular leadership—and I think it’s actually brilliant, because we learned from COINTELPRO in so many past movements how it was so easy to knock out a leader and quell the movement. And so, now, through social media, through Twitter and all of these things, we’re able to mobilize without actually having a singular leader. And so, I found that poem inspiring and went on to create this song surrounding this character, which is, like I said, thinly veiled fiction really there to provide an alternative source of energy for those who are mobilizing to create democracy now globally.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Saul Williams, you left the United States. You went to live in Paris for four years.


AMY GOODMAN: Of course, James Baldwin comes to mind.


AMY GOODMAN: Most recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates moved to Paris. Talk about why you left the United States. And also, it gives you a different view of Africa, particularly the—


AMY GOODMAN: —former French colonies, like Burundi—


AMY GOODMAN: —and Rwanda.

SAUL WILLIAMS: Of course. And I spent a lot of time on the continent of Africa while living there, because it’s much easier to go, right? Well, you know, of course there are people like, like you said, like James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, that—the history list is long of those people who chose to go there. I can’t say that I chose to go there for the same reasons. I was living in Los Angeles and—and essentially just realized that if I—I was dreaming of doing stuff like that, living abroad. I had done it as a teenager, living in Brazil, and it really changed my perspective, not only of myself and of the world, but how I looked at the States, because it’s a different thing to look at the States from the outside.

And so, I decided to move to Paris primarily because, one, I had a 13-year-old daughter who I wanted her to have the sort of insight that comes from looking at her country from the outside and to experience another way of seeing the world. And because my first film, Slam, you know, won the Caméra d’or at Cannes, and my first album was released in France a year and a half before it was released in the States, I’ve had a good relationship primarily in France and across Europe, and decided to try it out, to try it out, and just to see what it would feel like.

And arriving there, it was interesting, on many—you know, like in many small-scale, but which are indeed large-scale, ways. For example, I remember my daughter getting a little bronchial cough. And I’m there. I don’t have healthcare there. And so, you know, there, anyone coughs, they’re like, "Oh, you should go see a doctor"—first time they cough. Here, you know, we’re like—you know, we wait 'til we're really sick to go see the doctor. "Go to see the doctor."

AMY GOODMAN: Pneumonia is the standard here.

SAUL WILLIAMS: Right, you know? Pneumonia is the standard, exactly. But everybody’s saying, "No, take her to the doctor." So I’m like, "OK, oh, my god, I know how much I have in my account. I don’t know if this is going to be cool." I took her to the doctor. The doctor, sure enough, "Yeah, there’s a little bronchial cough there." He wants to prescribe five different things I need to go to the pharmacy across the street to pick up. And then, you know, he’s like, "And I’m going to have to charge you for this visit." "How much is it?" "Oh, 25 euro." You know, 30 bucks. "OK. Thank you." I then go to the pharmacy across the street, and I get five different—you know, there’s a syrup and pills, antibiotic, all this stuff. It all adds up to like $6.50.

And it’s at that moment, essentially, that I realize that people who have like a single-payer healthcare system, they—it actually affects culture, life, in ways that here, for example, we actually can’t imagine. You know, we’re afraid of growing older and getting sick, for example, because we know we—I know people who try to keep their job because they need a way to pay for the operation that they know they need and all this stuff. And there, it’s a different thing. Same thing with education, you know? The idea of like you can be whatever you want to be, it’s not going to cost you so much just because you’re passionate about medicine and you want to be a doctor, or you’re passionate about law and you want to become a lawyer. It’s not going to cost you that much if, you know, you live in a sort of socialist country like that. And so, being exposed to this—you know, that reality and how it affected how people think, and what have you, was enormous for me, was enormous for me. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did it affect the way that you saw the African countries that you got to visit, being in Paris?

SAUL WILLIAMS: Well, yeah, I ended up spending a lot of time particularly in Senegal. I shot a film when I was over there, in French, in Wolof called Tey, or Aujourd’hui, and ended up spending about three months in Senegal and then traveling to other countries and other regions, as well. It wasn’t my first time, but it was the most time I had spent. And, you know, even in Paris, the African community there, in Barbès and what have you, is strong. You know, the thing that charged me is just the layers and levels of dialogue that I was able to have, about politics, about global infrastructure, and seeing how informed the average person is.

AMY GOODMAN: And how was it for your 13-year-old daughter to go to school?

SAUL WILLIAMS: She went to public school there. And, you know, first she’s in like French as a second language course, you know, when she starts off. And the first day, she comes back from school, and she’s like, "Oh, guess what. They have us translating Nina Simone songs in school to learn the language." Another day she comes home, and she says, "Today I was in class"—there’s, you know—like there’s tons of people going to France, so there was an Afghani boy in her class, who in the middle of class, he gets in trouble because his phone rings. He runs out and comes back crying. And the teacher explains—after he explains to the teacher, who was Algerian, what went down, the teacher explains to the class, "He’s crying because his family was just killed by your country." That’s what she says to my daughter. And so, she comes home and tells me this story. I say, "Well, what did you do?" She was like, "I sat with him at lunch and told him, ’I’m sorry. I’m not that kind of American.’" It makes me want to cry. But it was so bizarre for her to be exposed to, you know, the sort of reality that our foreign policy imposes on others that—you know, that we’re shielded from here.

AMY GOODMAN: Poet, activist and musician Saul Williams. We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In our next segment, we go to an address by the actor Jesse Williams when he received the Humanitarian Award at the BET Awards last Sunday. But in this holiday special, we continue with one of the country’s best-known spoken word artists, Saul Williams. He’s just released his fifth album, MartyrLoserKing. I asked him about a song on the album titled "Homes/ Drones/ Poems/ Drums."

SAUL WILLIAMS: That song, of course, is related to the story of Martyr Loser King, who becomes—he’s kind of like a virtual Banksy. He does these amazing hacks from this village that we call Martyr Loser Kingdom in Burundi. And, of course, because of like Western arrogance, they see the signal coming from there for years, and they don’t believe that it’s actually coming from there. They figure it must be somebody in London or Berlin or somebody throwing the signal. There’s no way that, you know, these crazy hacks have happened in Burundi. When they finally figure out where it’s coming from, he’s droned. He gets labeled as a terrorist. I mean, that’s what happens in the story. He gets labeled as a terrorist and is droned, is killed by, you know, U.S. intelligence. And as I said, this is a thinly veiled fiction for me to be able to talk about some of the realities that the world faces right now as we shift into a more technological reality and higher intelligence and all of these things, you know, that come about, security, as a result of that. So, that song, in particular, is essentially about conditions that people face when they are labeled or branded or just neglected by the powers. In that song, I reference a village that I visited in Palestine, Bil’in, where, once again, I saw the sort of raids that were happening. It’s like, you know, 30 minutes outside of Tel Aviv, but the difference between lifestyle in Bil’in versus Tel Aviv is like worlds apart. I reference Detroit in that song and the housing issues there. Yeah, it’s a mélange of ideas, that song.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about "Think Like They Book Say."

SAUL WILLIAMS: OK. "Think Like They Book Say" is a really fun song that chronicles the meeting of these two protagonists in the story MartyrLoserKing, Martyr Loser King and Neptune Frost. Neptune Frost is a refugee from Uganda. It’s someone who was raised as a boy, born with both sexes, internally identifies as female, and, when she leaves Uganda, finds the courage. Like, she runs away in order to find the courage to be herself. And she lands in Martyr Loser Kingdom, where she’s accepted and ends up playing an enormous role in the story. And so, yeah, "Think Like They Book Say" is about the meeting between those two characters. It also gives a bit away about who Martyr Loser King is, as well.

"Think Like They Book Say," here we go.

Met this girl on Friday night
Rocky Horror Picture night
Cuban stogie
Purple satin bra & tights
That’s what I was wearing
She was wearing red and purple light
White smoke had bright hopes
Keith Haring’s straight ghost
Flowed past
In topaz
We brushed hands. I took note:
James Baldwin once wrote:
"Love is not remote"

Girl, boy, we seek joy
We hurt none, we heart hope
Girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl
Girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl
Girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl
Girl, boy, we seek joy
We hurt none, we heart hope

Hope hollow as fear they say
Ça c’est pas écrit they say
Tudo mundo nesse mundo
Pense comme il veux they say

Think black them think gay
Think like they book say
Think like, they think like
They think like they book say

They cannot imagine if they do not see it in a book
Even when they see it it’s their book that tell them how to look

Think white them think straight
Think like they book say
Think like, they think like
They think like they book say

Met a girl on Friday and I did not see her in no book
Ain’t no Vogue or Cosmo that can tell me how she supposed to look
She was once a he, was once a argument against the book
Mommy and her daddy loved her she became the form the took

Think like they book say
They think like they book say
They think like, they think like,
They think like they book say
Think like they book say
Think like they book say
Think like, they think like,
They think like they book say

Truth is not a theory that can be imprisoned in any book
Word are sometimes. Prison sometimes prisms from the way you look

Think like they book say
Think like they book say
Think like, they think like
They think like they book say

Girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl
Girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl
Girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl
Girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy, girl

Voilà. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: "Think Like They Book Say." Saul Williams is about to go on a world tour with MartyrLoserKing. In fact, you used to call it Martyr Loser Kingdom, the previous tour, is that right?

SAUL WILLIAMS: Yes, yes. Martyr Loser Kingdom is this fictitious village in Central Africa. It’s a village that’s beside an e-waste camp, which is where all of our old technology goes to die. You know, like we oftentimes buy new computers, not because they’re dead, but because the new one has come out. And so, in fact, the ships that take out the coltan and cobalt come in with these piles of motherboards and monitors and keyboards. They bring them to places where scavenger culture is strong, so that they can, you know, take out the copper and anything that’s recyclable or reusable. And so—but there are people in need of shelter. And so what happens is Martyr Loser Kingdom is a village made of old computer parts. And that’s where the entire story of MartyrLoserKing takes place, in a village made of old computer parts.

AMY GOODMAN: Art and resistance.

SAUL WILLIAMS: Art and resistance. As you can see, like with "Think Like They Book Say" and all this, all this stuff I’ve talked about, we’re basically fusing this quest for democracy with, you know, issues that affect the trans and gay communities, issues that affect the impoverished worldwide, issues that come up through new technology and old forms of exploitation.

AMY GOODMAN: You also address these issues in your book of poetry, in US (a.).


AMY GOODMAN: Explain it, and also the US and the parentheses around the A.

SAUL WILLIAMS: Of course. Well, you know, this book was my first commissioned book of poetry. As I was working on MartyrLoserKing as a graphic novel, my publishers, that published all my previous books of poetry, Simon & Schuster, in fact, they don’t do graphic novels. They were like, "But, you know, we do want to commission you to do something. And you just moved back to the States after living abroad for four years. Could you talk to us about what it feels like to be back in the States?" And so, I had one year to jot down all the thoughts that came to mind about what it felt like to be back. Of course, right around the time that I started working on this book, there was the murder of Michael Brown and then Eric Garner—and we know that list of names that goes on and on. Of course, these aren’t new instances, per se, because I grew up attending protests against police brutality and what have you, where things were going down the same way then as they are now. But simply because of the technology that we have and our ability to record and spread the word and chronicle these things and document these things in new ways, that allows us to like shift the popular dialogue around it. And so, I had—

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you grow up?

SAUL WILLIAMS: I grew up in Newburgh, New York. And Newburgh is about an hour from New York City. And I don’t know, but if you look up Newburgh, Newburgh, for the past 40 years, has had the highest murder rate, crime rate, drug trafficking rate in New York state, with just 30,000 people. I grew up there. My father pastored a church there. And I was exposed to so much, from great teachers and rough streets, there. My mom’s a schoolteacher. And so, I got the best of many worlds and the not-so-best of many worlds.

AMY GOODMAN: How did poetry become your medium?

SAUL WILLIAMS: Through hip-hop and theater, you know? Like I grew up wanting to be a rapper. Once I discovered, you know, hip-hop and all this stuff, and simultaneously falling in love with Shakespeare, which I was studying in school, and started doing school plays at a young age—first one I did was Julius Caesar, I played Mark Antony. And once I kind of figured out all the layers of meaning and how playful you could be with language, I started applying that to my raps, you know, and just fusing those worlds. And so, my life, essentially, has been fusing that love of theater and music, you know, and performance.

AMY GOODMAN: You want to share a poem for us, with us, from US (a.)?

SAUL WILLIAMS: Sure. Sure, sure, sure, sure. In fact, I’ll recite one. Maybe I’ll do just part of it, but it’s one that’s in here that there’s a few ideas that are shared between this book and MartyrLoserKing, the project. And so there’s one that’s called "Coltan as Cotton." And it goes like this:

Hack into
dietary sustenance
tradition vs. health.

Hack into

Hack into the
rebellious gene.

Hack into doctrine.

in relation
to free labor
and slavery.

Hack into
the history of the bank.

Is beating the odds
a mere act of joining
the winning team?

Hack into
and loneliness.

The history of
and the marketplace.

Hack into land rights
and ownership.

Hack into business law

Hack into ambition
and greed.

Hack into forms
of government
systems of control

Their relation to suffering
and sufferance.

Hack into
faith and morality.

the treatment of one
faith towards another.

Hack into masculinity

what is taught
what is felt
what is learned
what is shared?

Hack into God

stories of creation
serpents and eggs.

Hack into nature

cycles and seasons.

Hack into time

its relationship to doubt
is it wired to fear
the notion of control
the space/time

the force of gravity
the opposite
of gravity
is freedom?

That’s an excerpt of the poem "Coltan as Cotton" that is—that kind of has a foot in both worlds, this book and MartyrLoserKing.

AMY GOODMAN: Hacking is a very important metaphor for you?


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about why.

SAUL WILLIAMS: Well, of course, first, because it speaks directly to the sort of freedoms that still exist right now while the Internet, you know, is still essentially free, in some ways. You know, there’s a huge fight to keep it free and open and to spread it to more people who can use it, because there are, of course, tons of people who have—who have been aided tremendously by this resource. I mean, the continent of Africa, for example, is the continent with the largest number of people connected to the web and the continent where—the only continent where the largest—where the majority of the population is under the age of 25. That’s part of the reason why I based this story there, because the idea of the future is so strongly connected to those two statistics, you know? And so, thinking of those resources, hacking—of course, with much gravity, I can also say that the first way that many of us started using the term "hacking" has more to do with a machete, right, than with the computer. And so, basing a story in the Great Lakes region, where we know the history there, as well, yeah, there are layers of meaning there. It’s delicate, the topic, but I use it as a metaphor in ways that many of us do. We talk about life hacks now, shortcuts for, you know, doing things and figuring things out. But there’s also, you know, the techie response, which is to say that there are ways of cutting through the nonsense and/or, you know, there’s the robin good—Robin Hood aspect of things. There’s the WikiLeaks aspect of things, you know, that brings us to Julian Assange.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden.

SAUL WILLIAMS: And Aaron Swartz.

AMY GOODMAN: And Aaron Swartz.

SAUL WILLIAMS: Yeah. Well, those whistleblowers—I guess is what we’ll call them—is also a big part of MartyrLoserKing and a huge part of the times and age that we’re living in, where we’re watching people be persecuted, go into hiding, simply for revealing truths that in fact the governments have gone on and apologized for and changed laws as a result of the exposure of those truths. Politicians speak of an age of transparency, but cower when things actually become transparent, you know. And those who find the courage, who are fed up enough to say, "Actually, I learned what’s going on behind the scenes, and I think everybody should know," end up being punished. Right?

And so, when you look the case with Julian Assange—and this is not meant to be any sort of, you know, apologist for the sort of things that go on with sexual abuse and what have you, but I think it’s also quite clear that, if you pay close attention to the case, that what’s going on with him and the reason why he’s in hiding has more to do with the fact that he knows—and I think he’s right—about the fact that Sweden will more than likely extradite him to the U.S., who would want to put him in prison for life for what has been exposed through WikiLeaks. And that has a direct connection to both Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

And as we know, what we know post-the PATRIOT Act, what we now know about the sort of surveillance and security measures that our government and many governments have taken illegally, you know, over their citizens, I mean, I’m thankful for that information. I’m thankful for the people who have the courage, you know, because I believe that Edward Snowden probably didn’t even expect to be alive. I mean, you know, like what’s revealed about his story, I mean, his grandfather was in the FBI, actually. He was in the military. He was an actual patriot, who was exposed to information that opened his eyes to like what’s really going down. Same with Chelsea Manning, you know, someone who really loved their country and their people, and at some point realized that because of that love of country, it was crucial that they share what they had learned with the actual American people. And we were watching these people be imprisoned. Chelsea Manning is in prison today, right now. Edward Snowden is in hiding right now. Julian Assange is in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London right now. And we, as everyday people, still haven’t necessarily figured out how to challenge our government, to say, "What are you doing? These people are heroes to us, actually."

AMY GOODMAN: Poet, activist and musician Saul Williams. We’ll be back with him in a minute, and we’ll hear the stirring speech of actor Jesse Williams. He’s known for starring in Grey’s Anatomy. But at the BET Awards, he was given the Humanitarian Award. Hear his address on racism. This is the Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In this holiday special, we’ll hear the address of Jesse Williams, speaking about racism in this country. Jesse Williams, the star of Grey’s Anatomy. But right now, we continue our conversation with one of the country’s best-known spoken word artists, Saul Williams. He’s just released his fifth album. I asked him how he would assess Barack Obama’s presidency.

SAUL WILLIAMS: Centrist. Centrist who, you know, exercises this modern sense of diplomacy, which allows him, on one hand, to address certain issues, while taking—certain issues such as like, let’s say, marriage equality, you know—now what, it’s solitary confinement, you know, some measures in the criminal justice system, slight, slight measures in the criminal justice system—but at the same time still being seduced by security measures that, you know, circle around overreach. I think that it’s—for me, it’s that sort of assessment and the reality of what’s gone on—I mean, think of Guantánamo, the fact that that was something he ran against—and looking at where we are now, looking at Afghanistan, looking at Iraq, looking at ISIS, not looking at Boko Haram, right? What I mean by that is the fact that we pay so much attention there and pay so little attention there. You know? I think that is what makes me certain that we don’t need another centrist or right-winger in office, you know? For me, that’s what makes me say we need to revolutionize our political system, because the middle road is in fact a conservative road.

AMY GOODMAN: Bernie Sanders is using the word "political revolution."


AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts on him?

SAUL WILLIAMS: He’s who I’m referencing. I think that—I think that he is the smartest choice and the most integral candidate that perhaps I’ve seen in my lifetime. You know? It’s not to say that anyone is perfect or what have you, but looking at his record, which is—does not involve a lot of flip-flopping in ideas or adjusting positions in order to appease, you know, citizenry or corporations, but really focused on what he has always felt, and those things being aligned with what I see as being true and just and for the best. I think he’s—he’s already shifted the dialogue during the election to an amazing place. And I also think, if we’re true to ourselves and we pay attention to the youth of this country, that we see quite clearly that the youth, they get it. They see what that could mean to them, to—I mean, just in terms of, as we referenced before, healthcare and education, what that can do to a culture, a culture that is supposed to, you know, be about freedom. We’re told that we’re free. We learned from the whistleblowers how free we are not. I think Bernie Sanders is—he’s definitely my choice, and I actually think he’s the most revolutionary and the best choice for America right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Saul Williams, I’m looking at a picture of your mother.

SAUL WILLIAMS: Yeah. You know, I grew up hearing about that picture for years. My mom and dad, both activists throughout my entire lifetime. You know, I grew up in Newburgh, New York, as I told you. One of the people that would sing regularly at my father’s church was Pete Seeger. You know? And I’d always be like, "Why is my dad inviting, you know, Pete to get up on stage again?" I didn’t know who he was. He was just a neighbor who was really nice and who played the guitar and sang songs that we sang in school. I didn’t realize that they were his songs, you know? But I grew up with people like that. And my mom, who’s the same person like when I came home at 8:00 after doing Julius Caesar and saying, "I want to be an actor when I grow up," and my dad saying, "Ah, I’ll support you as an actor if you get a law degree," and my mom saying, "Ah, then you should do your first school report on Paul Robeson"—that’s my mom.

That picture of my mom is from 1963, Brooklyn, when the construction workers in New York were not—they were segregated. They were—in fact, none of the New York construction companies were hiring blacks at that time. And so, people had mobilized to force the hand of the local government to hire black construction workers. Yeah. And so that’s what my mom was protesting in Brooklyn. And, of course, she’s being arrested there. And so, I had heard about that picture for years. And then, about two years ago, a cousin of mine was on eBay and was like, "Hey, isn’t that your mom?" And we were all like, "Oh, my god! That’s a picture of"—my mom is still alive. In fact, she just had her 75th birthday, so happy birthday, Mom. And yeah, that’s her. That’s her in all of her glory with her fist up, singing, in the arms of the police.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about Tupac, Tupac Shakur.


AMY GOODMAN: Holler If Ya Hear Me, the Broadway musical that you did.

SAUL WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah. The great thing about that play was that, you know, one, it was started—most people don’t know this—is that play was conceptualized by August Wilson before he passed. And what he did is he started taking all of Tupac’s music and then creating a story restricting himself to the texts that Tupac had written. And so, it’s a story that takes place in Middle America, and it’s basically a story about gun violence in Middle America. And, of course, it’s a very sobering story. It was not about Tupac’s life. It was a parable about gun violence in Middle America, about a guy who comes out of prison, comes back home, tries to stay out of trouble, is pulled back in, before he makes a decision that doesn’t only change his life, but changes the community around him. Right? And we had a rough time on Broadway because, essentially, the play was extremely political. And most people who came to see it, you know, would be standing and crying at the end. And so, when you’re choosing, I guess, between like Rocky the Musical and Cinderella and all these things, it’s hard to choose to go to the place where you know it’s going to make you cry. But it was powerful, extremely powerful, directed by Kenny Leon. And for me, it was a perfect fusion of my love of theater and love of hip-hop.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you end with "Amethyst Rocks," the poem—


AMY GOODMAN: —that brought—first brought you fame?

SAUL WILLIAMS: Sure. Let’s see if I remember it. Yes.

I stand on the corner of the block slinging
amethyst rocks. Drinkin 40’s of mother
earth’s private nectar stock. Dodgin cops.
’Cause Five-O be the 666 and I need a fix
of that purple rain. The type of stuff that
drives membranes insane. Oh yeah, I’m in
the fast lane. Snorting candy yams. That free
my body and soul and send me like Shazaam!

Never question who I am. God knows.
And I know God, personally. In fact, he
lets me call him me. I be one with rain
and stars and things, with dancing feet
and watermelon wings. I bring the
sunshine and the moon. And the wind blows
my tune.

Meanwhile I spoon powdered drumbeats
into plastic, bags. Sellin kilos of kente scag
Takin drags off of collards and cornbread
Free-basin through saxophones and flutes
like mad. The high notes make me space
float. I be exhalin in rings that circle Saturn.
Leavin stains in my veins in astrological patterns.

Yeah, I’m Sirius B. Dogon peoples plotted
it, lovely. But the feds is also plotting
me. They’re trying to imprison my astrology.
Put my stars behind bars. My stars in stripes.
Using blood-splattered banners as nationalist
kites. But I control the wind. That’s why they
call it the hawk.

I am Horus. Son of Isis.
Worshipped as Jesus. Resurrected like
Lazarus. But you can call me Lazzie. Lazy.
Yeah, I’m lazy 'cause I'd rather sit and build
than work and plow a field
worshiping a daily yield of cash green crops.

Your evolution stopped the evolution
of your technology. A society of automatic
tellers and money machines. What?
My culture is lima beans and tambourines. Dreams manifest.
Dreams real. Not consistent with rational.

I dance for no reason. For reason you
can’t dance. Caught in the inactiveness
of intellectualized circumstance. You
can’t learn my steps until you unlearn
your thoughts. Spirit/soul can’t be store
bought. Forget thought. It leads to naught.
Simply stated, it leads to you trying to
figure me out.

Your intellect is disfiguring your soul.
Your being’s not whole. Check your flagpole:
stars and stripes. Your astrology’s imprisoned
by your concept of white, or self. What’s your
plan for spiritual health? Calling reality unreal.
Your line of thought is tangled.

The star-spangled got your soul mangled.
Your being’s angled, forbidding you to be real
and feel. You can’t find truth with an ax or a
drill, in a white house on a hill, or in factories
or plants made of steel.

Stealing us was the smartest thing you ever
did. Too bad you don’t teach the truth to your
kids. My influence on you is the reflection you
see when you look into your minstrel mirror
and talk about your culture.

Your existence is that of a schizophrenic vulture
who thinks he has enough life in him to prey on
the dead, not realizing that the dead ain’t dead and
that he ain’t got enough spirituality to know how
to pray. Yeah, it’s no repentance. You’re bound
to live in infinite, consecutive, executive life sentence.

So while you’re out busy serving time, I’ll be in synch
with the moon, while you run from the sun. Life of
the womb reflected by guns. Worshipper of moons,
I am the sun. And I am public enemy number one.
One. One. One. One. One. One.

AMY GOODMAN: Poet, activist and musician Saul Williams.

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