Saul Williams Pops A White-Head

(Author note: I first ran this in the Spring of 2004 in WAV Magazine, which eventually became Kotori Magazine, a music and culture print magazine I used to publish in a previous life. After seeing a CNN piece this morning on Saul Williams, I felt that, on the anniversary of September 11, it was only appropriate to re-share this one to take stock of how far, or backwards, we've come since that fateful day. It's a bit frightening how much of it actually still holds water more than a decade later. This interview took place at the Troubadour in Hollywood during what was billed a 9-11 tribute event.)

If you were looking for a heartfelt, emotional 9-11 tribute event, you most definitely got it. But if you were expecting flags waving and lit candles and prayers and long-winded speeches on defending freedom in America, you came to the wrong show. Don’t be quick to confuse this with an anti-patriotic or anti-American event…quite the contrary. This was as patriotic and American as it gets. The purest form of freedom of expression and display of truth this side of the Atlantic. This was pure poetry. This was painfully real. This was Saul Williams.

“Out of destruction comes creation.”

Dark…introspective…analytical…thought-provoking…no-holds-barred…almost offensive.

“This show is in memory of those that passed and in honor of those who live!”

He spent the first 5 minutes spitting out, in his trademark fluid-fashion, the carnage and atrocities that America has had its hands in at home, as well as abroad…the Middle East…Native Pre-America…Africa…South America….Europe…Asia. This sent the anxious sold-out crowd at the Troubadour in Hollywood, the very motherland of farcity and synthetic reality, into an immediate hush. It was not what they were used to, not what many of them wanted, but this was what they needed to see…what they needed to hear…what they need to carry with them almost in order for this version of the human race to survive.

I had the honor of speaking with Saul about a week after the show and asked him about his immediate thoughts following the events of 9-11-01. Without hesitation he exclaimed “My thoughts on 9-11 were the same thoughts I had when Bush got elected….WOW! Finally!”

Finally? Funny. Those weren’t exactly my thoughts.

“Those were my thoughts because I knew that in order for things to change, major things had to shift.”

His brutal honesty, vocal eloquence and scathing observations are what have helped Saul stand above the rest in a day and age where it is becoming increasingly difficult to question a blatantly subversive and authoritative environment. He goes on…”Bush’s election...I was excited because, well, I think of Bush as a pimple. ln order to get rid of a pimple, you have to dry it out, then finally when you get a whitehead, you know that pimple’s just about gone…that you’re very close to healing… and I saw Bush as the whitehead on the face of American politics…but the bad part about it is that after a whitehead, there’s usually a bit of blood. With 9-11, I saw it as the inevitable, not that it was predictable, but I knew that something had to happen to shock people into greater forms of relating to the world and themselves. When I think of all the stuff that America has been a part of...I just thought, it’s a matter of time before we experience something on our land.”

Saul wasn’t short on words regarding the subject of our country’s major makeover over the past few years. “It’s interesting because America is such a special and important country in the history of the world itself and all of the special things that we’ve grown to symbolize and be a part of. Then on the other hand, there are all of the atrocities that have become second nature to this country. In many ways we have an inescapable past… that I will not call unforgivable, but it’s inescapable. It is completely forgivable only because of people that have been in harm’s way as a result of our past are forgiving people.”

For example? “I did a reading in Boulder, Colorado and the place was really packed so I had to stand on top of a table on the stage so that everybody could see. So I’m standing on the table speaking and I referred to America as ‘stolen land.’ Well, a young Native American man raised his hand and he goes, ‘Saul, might I correct you? America is not stolen…we share it and continue to share it’. So I had to correct myself. I was like, wow…that is the spirit that we have manipulated. Why would we try to manipulate such giving spirits?”

So when did you realize that you couldn’t keep quiet anymore? That you needed to speak up and question all those things around you? “I’ve had several moments. One moment was when I was in the 7th grade. I had a teacher talking about blood types in biology class. So he goes, ‘If a brother was driving a Cadillac on a golf course and he hit a gentleman in a golf cart, how many people think the brother would help out the gentleman in the golf cart?’ I stood up, walked out and the teacher ended up getting a permanent file on his record. Another time, in Social Studies class, there was a multiple choice test and the question was ‘What is our motherland?’ The answer was supposed to be England or Europe or what-have-you. Well, my answer was ‘Africa’ and I got it marked wrong. So there ended up being a protest and they realized how problematic it was to have that question. There’ve been tons of moments like that. Those were the times that I realized you need to always question authority.”

Saul was definitely prepared with an arsenal of important voices on that chilling Thursday evening at the Troubadour. The impressive aural army he asked to join him onstage as his ‘supporting cast’ was announced only hours before the show, but there were still almost as many people stuck outside trying to sneak a peak into the monumental event behind the double doors as there were inside.

“I’d like to introduce a few of my friends who I’ve asked to join me this evening… please welcome…Zack De La Rocha!”

Yes, the Zack De La Rocha.

He walked out onto the stage to a rowdy ovation, proceeded to the mic and began ferociously reciting Amira Baraca’s 1200-word poem “Somebody Blew Up America.” For those of you who don’t remember – or most likely never heard – Amira Baraca was a Nobel Peace Prize winning poet who was stripped of her laureate after publishing this poem following 9-11. “Freedom??? Yeahhh…right!”

The crowd now knew that this was no sugar-coated, beat-around-the-Bush, night-out-on-the-town, shiny happy people evening. They got so quiet you could hear their heartbeats. Tonight, the stage was going to be shared by a group of fiery outspoken recognizable personalities who were and are courageously standing up for the honorable ideals that our great country was built upon. The same ideals that have been so diluted by dead presidents and aggressive marketing throughout our past. The very ideals that we are at risk of losing forever if we fail to do something about it now. Freedom. Saul Williams put it best when, after Zack was finished with his reading and on his way behind the drums (yes, the drums), he exclaimed “Guess who’s voice was banned by Clear Channel after 9-11!”

“Next I’d like to introduce…Serj Tankian!” He walked up to the mic, recited a piece of his own analytically socially-conscious truth, sat down and picked up a sitar (yah, yah, I know…a sitar?). And finally, “Please welcome…Money Mark!” As he finished a 30-second piece he scribbled on a dinner plate before the show and headed to the only remaining unmanned station on the stage…the keyboards…a stack of newspapers and books was dropped at the base of Saul’s microphone stand. They wasted no time. While Zack pounded on the skins with the same ferocity that we’re used to seeing behind the mic, Serj toyed around with his awkwardly chosen set of strings and Money Mark did his magic on keyboards. The stage was finally set to Saul’s
carefully arranged specifications. Improvisation at it’s very best. He proceeded to pick up the front page of the New York Times of that very day (9-11-03) and began reciting just the headlines. As the pace and intensity of the backing music picked up, as did his voice and his anger. It built and built and built until not a single negative, violent, scare-tactic headline remained…from front to back…of the nation’s biggest newspaper. This was not a show. This was simply what’s being drilled into our heads…our minds…our very being…day after day, story after story, headline after headline. This was a display of pure, raw, powerfully evocative, heartfelt emotion. You can’t script that…

“I introduced Zack and Serj the day before,” Saul explains. “We all met and they brought their instruments and we were all ready to rehearse for it, I mean really rehearse, but as soon as they started playing, within like 10 seconds, I was like, ‘WOW! You guys have amazing energy together and I don’t want to fuck it up…so just stop…[save it].’ We only played about a half hour, 45 minutes before-hand because it was so good, it was amazing.” And by the time the four hit the stage that chilling Thursday night, it was obvious that they were ready to explode.

After they powered their way through 4 jams, they met and embraced at center stage, then reluctantly walked off to watch the rest of Saul’s performance. They didn’t want it to end. They have so much of importance to profess and no matter how much they do, they know there’s still more. And they want to do it all. Saul couldn’t help but think out loud, “I feel like a part of something historic.” When asked about this, he humbly explained “That just really spoke to the fact that I was on the stage with people that I really admire, whose work that I really admire. Whose voices that I really admire. And that those voices had chosen to lend their voices to my vision for the night was an amazing compliment.”

And the lead voice that evening shines just as bright in his latest book, “said the shotgun to the head”…a beautifully structured, gut-wrenching book / poem that took him 4 years to put together. “Around 9-11 is when I realized the importance of the poem,” Saul explains. “It started out as somewhat of a love-story to the female messiah (who I had already deciphered as Kali, the Hindu Goddess of destruction and creation). At the time of 9-11, the whole idea of having to destroy in order to build had much greater weight, so at that time, I realized the poem itself would be book length. That’s when I set out to focus my work on the book.” All this focus on 9-11 and the face of American politics today seems to be the central theme for the strong message that Saul is trying to convey.

“9-11 was an alarm clock and if the alarm clock went off at 7am, I’d say it’s only like 7:50 right now. We’re still a bit groggy, we haven’t really had anything of substance to eat yet, we haven’t had our morning coffee, so we’re not bright -eyed. We could easily fall back asleep.”

You really think so?

“Yeah, I think so. Falling asleep means not giving a fuck. Falling asleep means not speaking up and letting Bush and whoever do whatever they want in the name of counter-terrorism. Falling asleep means not raising questions.”

He paused thoughtfully before concluding:

“If we’re not careful, we’ll end up exactly where we’re headed.”