Saul Williams On The Politics Of Race And Poetry In America
"Poetry has always been there for me when I needed it."
Saul Williams is an entertainer who wears many hats: actor, rapper, musician, artist, and writer, to name a few. We've seen him star in the 1998 film Slam and take the lead in the 2014 Broadway show Holler If Ya Hear Me. Williams has also performed alongside artists like Erykah Badu, The Fugees, and Nas. But he's arguably at his best — his most raw and true form — when he's Saul Williams, poet.
When the author was originally commissioned to write his latest poetry collection, US (a.), he was expecting to reflect on the country's elation over electing Barack Obama as the first black president. But as time went on, Williams' task to write about America became increasingly difficult due to the numerous deaths of black teenagers at the hands of police officers. As a result, US (a.) portrays the complicated identity of what it means to be an American and how race heavily influences everyone's experiences.
BuzzFeed had the chance to catch up with Williams and discuss police brutality, his new book of poetry, and his family's activist legacy. Here’s what he had to say:
When you were commissioned to write a book about America, what did that mean to you?
Saul Williams: On one hand, to be commissioned is an honor. Who the fuck asks anyone to write a poem? I was commissioned only once before to write a poem for Nas and Kelis's wedding. For this book, they threw out big names like Ginsberg and Whitman, saying this could be my big American poem like they’d done before. On the other hand, I was offended because I thought, What do you think my other books are? Aren't I critiquing America in them, too? Regardless, it didn't seem like it was going to be a hard task, but then suddenly the country erupted over the killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others.
How did those events change the direction of the book?
SW: I was a childhood activist out marching with my parents at 10 years old screaming, “Fuck the police, fuck the police!" My parents raised me talking about all of the craziness that goes on in society, and now I’m the adult with kids who are asking, "Did you hear about those fucking police?" Holy hell, that's hella depressing. I thought, Oh yeah, you want me to write about fucking America? I'll write about fucking America! That explains some of the middle-finger-themed poems.
What’s the biggest difference between US (a.) and your other projects?
SW: My other projects come out of my own head, but this book was commissioned. The publishers gave me nine months, I handed it in, and the next day I expected them to be like, "You're brilliant! This is beautiful, I love the titles of the poems!” But they were like, “This is only 12,000 words, did you look at your contract?” They were expecting 40,000 words, which is funny because as a poet it's all about economizing language; if I had gone back to the poems in the book that I had edited then maybe we'd be at 40,000 words, but I edited the fuck out of them because we don't need all those words. But they wanted 40,000 words, which for me is about 120,000 words before editing. That is America in a nutshell: It asks you to do something that's an honor and then be like, “It’s not enough.”
How I look at America particularly has a lot to do with what I learned when I was able to step outside of it.
Is there significance behind the way you used punctuation and capitalization in the title?
SW: It’s rooted in the idea of “us and them.” There actually isn’t any disconnect between us, in the same way that scientifically there's no real such thing as race. I thought about the divisions that exist in America and all of the perspectives that I could write from: men, black men, middle-class men, men from the ghetto, Americans, people who went to college, all of “us.” I also figured that in my truest form, I'd probably have to write multiple books to do a complete observational analysis on America, so the little (a) symbolizes my first installment. Who knows, maybe I'll come up with (b).
In the foreword you wrote that you “voted for change” and then almost immediately left the U.S. Was that intentionally planned?
SW: It just so happened that that opportunity came. Obama got inaugurated in January and I had a friend who offered me a place in Paris in February to move in June. It was cheaper than where I was living and I was like, I've always wanted to do this, I should fucking do it. I moved to Brazil as a kid and I knew that so much of how I look at the world and how I look at America particularly has a lot to do with what I learned when I was able to step outside of it, observe from the outside, and also communicate with people who are not from here.
What was it like to watch most of Obama's presidency from outside the United States?
SW: I think as we saw when Obama was elected, there was a celebratory mode that people were in. They thought it was really cool and it was a good look, especially after Bush. But I was interacting with a lot of North Africans and Middle Easterners who still brought up topics like drone warfare and the discovery of how much of a centrist Obama was, especially in his first term. Now it’s nearing the end of his second term and he's met with Native American communities 10 times more than any other president ever has. It's little things like that that might be the legacy. Simultaneously, when you get something like that happening all of the nonsense comes out of the woodwork, like the tea party, Donald Trump, and white-power type of shit. I think people witnessing the tea party found that crazy, but at the same time they couldn't find it so crazy because we were in the middle of a fascist uprising across Europe as well. Fuckshit's happening everywhere.
You included a photo of your mom in US (a.) where she’s getting arrested at a protest. Why is the picture important to you?
SW: In 2013 my cousin found it on eBay. The photographer was selling it and just described it "Black woman at protest Brooklyn, 1963.” My cousin who lives in St. Thomas was like, "Isn't this Aunt Juanita?" He sent it to me first and I burst into tears because I knew this story; we had grown up hearing about this photo because supposedly it was on the front page of the New York Daily Herald in 1963. I heard my parents say, "Your mom was on the front page and she got arrested for protesting.” My dad was like, "I got arrested too that day, but it wasn't in the paper.”
How did your parents inform your understanding of politics and social change?
SW: When I was in the third grade, I thought I either wanted to be an actor or a lawyer when I grew up. My mom told me to do my next school report on Paul Robeson, and it was that; it was the fact that my parents threw around names like Paul Robeson, invited guests to the house like Odetta, and someone like Pete Seeger was a regular member of my dad's church where he was a pastor. I grew up around these people who always aligned their artistry with protest and so I just thought it was normal. The connection between protest and art always made sense to me; it was always about these visionaries who gave their lives in service to humanity. The freshest artists were always that — Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell — they all knew the world is bigger than just them. I couldn't understand why anyone would waste their time singing about anything else when this is really where the iconic shit is.
What do you think about the role that social media plays in activism today?
SW: When the Arab Spring went down I was like OK, Twitter is the shit. Facebook is the shit. Now there's no fucking holding us back, they should've never given us these things. The Arab Spring had me fucking ecstatic. I was in Paris surrounded by a lot of people from the countries where the shit was going down, being in taxicabs with an Algerian driver on his iPhone like, "Holy shit!” That's when I really acknowledged the role that technology can and will play in the transformation of society.
How did it feel protesting in the streets of New York City over the death of Eric Garner compared with watching other events unfold online?
SW: It's real when you get out there, you see the police standing in those lines, you see what their faces look like, and you know that these are a bunch of guys that could give a fuck. Although there's a lot of cool ones — when I'm lost, I love asking police for directions, especially if I'm driving with a joint or something. But when it comes to protests, I saw the anger on their faces. At one point I was in a policeman's arms and he was shaking me so hard, he even ripped my favorite coat. My wife fucking screamed like I never heard her before, it was the scariest shit I ever heard. She was so loud that all the police turned and were like, “Let him go!” In those moments, no one gives a fuck about the internet. I remember saying to my wife, "You should've taken a picture!” But in the moment you’re not always concerned about that. No one talks about the fact that there are so many police on steroids; that's the popular drug amongst policemen. The rookie comes in and they’re like, “You want to be intimidating on the street? Bulk up, take some 'roids.” And there’s a crazy amount of testosterone in those things; no drug is ever just affecting your body. So these guys are amped up on steroids, literally, and acting accordingly. On the one hand, you feel empowered by technology, but being out there and having to reason with these guys is difficult. It can also be fun in a sense to reason with police, as long as you're not dealing with the gravest of realities, which is witnessing someone being hurt or killed.
Poetry has always been there for me when I needed it to help me find some sort of balance or to help me find humor.
How did poetry help you work through some of the events this year?
SW: Poetry has always been this therapeutic and cleansing process for me. I used to write raps, but I started shifting and specifically focusing on poetry when I was 23. That's also the age when I started meditating and wanting to work on myself. I always considered poetry the residue of the work I was doing on myself, so I was chronicling thoughts and ideas in an attempt to relinquish myself of doubts and fears that were getting in the way of this self-realization process. I was also chronicling the things that I was realizing, the epiphanies I was having. And in the gravest moments, whether it was breakups, deaths, or a close family member experiencing something terrible like rape, and I didn’t know what to do with this anger, I would write. Even if the terrible thing didn't happen directly to me and it happened to someone next to me, I’d still feel it. Poetry has always been this open-armed reception when working through ideas based on anger, fear, dreams, or what have you. I used to walk down the streets in New York reciting these poems like mantras in my head, because they would get me through the day. Poetry has always been there for me when I needed it to help me find some sort of balance or to help me find humor. Writing US (a.) helped me laugh, which is necessary sometimes, otherwise we're just scrolling through our timelines getting angry. To be just perfectly honest, when it helps the most are in those moments when you feel completely alone, misunderstood, and confused by life.
If you could say anything to your younger self, what would you say?
SW: Those mushrooms you have in your hand are a good idea.