Dancing Between Worlds: An Interview with Saul Williams
By DJ Lynnée DeniseMarch 5, 2019
His childhood life in Upstate New York was shaped by his father’s Christian ministry and his mother’s civil rights activist work in education. By his teenage years, Saul was reading broadly — from the Book of Revelation to Zora Neale Hurston’s fiction.
Saul is from a migratory, diasporic people. Brooklyn Haitian Creole. Black Southern American. His maternal great-grandmother, Emily Charlemagne, arrived at Ellis Island from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1917. At age nine, Saul and his family visited Haiti for the first time. Precocious and observant, he had questions about some of the more mysterious things he witnessed, like seeing “a woman floating in a circle of people.”
Mabel Sally, his paternal grandmother, moved to Brooklyn from Fish Pond, South Carolina, at 15 after her entire family died of consumption (tuberculosis) in the late 1920s. His parents were born in Brooklyn.
By prioritizing possibility, the adults in his life modeled future-oriented cultural work through religious philosophy and education. They focused his lens on the tomorrow and shaped his all-seeing ear. From early on, Saul saw the value in international travel and was introduced to the intricacies of freedom fighting, freedom music, and liberation theology. Saul is what happens when you give a child the tools to imagine: the speculative arts and the fantastical become part of his repertoire of creative goods. But he is not religious, Saul came here to “Fuck Shit up. With Beauty.”
I first met Saul Williams as the character Ray Joshua. He was a rap artist on a prison yard with a mythical rap god flow in the independent underground classic Slam, produced and directed by Marc Levin in 1998. The film was co-written by its leading cast, including co-leads Sonja Sohn and Bonz Malone. Saul delivered one of the most important freestyle rhymes in hip-hop movie history — one that would elevate him above a beef between two rival gangs in DC, much like the woman he saw floating in a circle during his first visit to his grandmother’s island. The infamous rhyme, spoken like it was being read from a scroll, was titled “Amethyst Rock,” which, four years later, influenced the title of his first album, Amethyst Rock Star.
Like the James Brown horn section heard on the night of his birth, Saul’s body of work holds complex rhythms. He’s a renaissance man with a career that is now two decades high and rising. Few artists can hold court in multiple genres of thoughts and practices with equal ferocity as he does. A cloth cut from the Paul Robeson school of artistic scholarship, Saul’s an internationalist with a discography (six studio albums), a filmography (eight films), and a bibliography (six books). He’s a fashion icon in certain circles and a “selecta” and thespian in others. Comb through his work and you’ll find references to the titles of books, albums, movies, countries, social movements, and thought leaders. In between a series of epiphanies scattered across genres are the living archives of his ideas mapped out through theater, independent cinema, lyrics, and poems. As the old folks would say, he’s been here before.
Prior to meeting Saul, I had fantasies of challenging him to an interview, a benign battle in the spirit of classic hip-hop competition. I had watched one too many interviewers get lost in his verses or who, because of the scale of his catalog, asked uninspiring questions. You can’t do that with Saul: he’s a polymath and a freak of references. In a casual conversation — like the ones I’ve had with him backstage at a recent Ford Theatre show following his performance with the Mivos Quartet, or at his home where he and his Rwandan-born wife Anisia Uzeyman, an incredible artist in her own right, host a range of curiously talented human beings — you’ll need to draw from everything that you’ve learned up until that point, and then be confronted by everything you’ve missed. Like every good battle emcee, I had to think about my line of questions over imaginary beats.
I processed some of the outstanding moments in his life, like his first creative writing course as a freshman student at Morehouse College, when he submitted a paper on misogyny in hip-hop, and a few weeks later got asked to stay after class. His professor quietly slipped him a letter, and said, rather slyly, that she submitted his essay to a contest sponsored by the endowed Michael Jackson Scholarship through the United Negro College Fund. Per a story I heard him tell in a room of friends, the letter read: "Dear Saul Williams, Michael Jackson enjoyed your essay and will be paying a portion of your next four years of college." The scholarship, created for performing arts students, came from 25 million dollars that Michael donated after the Jackson's 1984 Victory Tour.
There’s also that time when Saul played the voice of Basquiat in the movie Downtown 81 and the time he scored the leading role in Holler If Ya Hear Me, a Tupac-influenced Broadway musical. These major themes tie him to a heavy lineup of creative sources. He’s a reflection of the ancestors in his line of work. Baldwin. Prince. Bowie. Nina. Miles. Coltrane.
I wanted to talk about place, marriage, gender, and art. I wanted to know about his life as a transnational commuter, his voracious reading habit, and raising three children in a blended family. I wanted to hear him discuss the conceptual work that frames his latest multimedia, multiplatform project, Neptune Frost, a musical that brings to life a “love story between an inter-sex runaway and a coltan miner and the virtual marvel born as a result of their union.” It’s a musical that he says, combines all of his interests in language, storytelling, technology, fashion, history, music, and rebellion. The project is expansive and interdisciplinary at its core and part of the larger, three-part MartyrLoserKing project (MartyrLoserKing; Neptune Frost; Unanimous Goldmine).
While “shape-shifter” has become a banal and trendy term, I can’t think of a single better word to get at the true nature of his career. An interview with him is a long trip to new worlds.
DJ LYNNÉE DENISE: You’ve called multiple cities home. Why Los Angeles?
SAUL WILLIAMS: I moved to L.A. from Brooklyn initially in 1999 after signing with Rick Rubin. The main reason was that my daughter’s mom is from L.A., and we were separating. I didn’t want any space between my daughter and me, so we all moved to L.A. at the same time. Not long after moving here, I met my son’s mom — basically L.A. became home because I could work, stay present in my kids’ lives, and they could enjoy a bit more nature here than in NYC. The main thing I do here is work (if you call writing poetry and music “work”) and enjoy nature. I listen to music, read, absorb art, cook, think, on repeat.
I was already deep into writing poetry when I moved to L.A., yet I was just starting to write music. L.A. allowed me a certain amount of isolation to dive deep into music and writing. It became clear that the writing came out differently here. In New York, I wrote in public spaces — sharp quips and stanzas — while in L.A. my writing became more expansive: having more space encouraged me to take more space. Editing became way more crucial.
Lucky for me, I met a lot of the artists, DJs, and promoters that repped all the underground dopeness that was popping off during that period, so I still felt fed creatively. But I also appreciated the bubble that I was able to build around myself here. L.A. is way more isolating than New York. I dug the isolation. I could read uninterrupted, enjoy nature, and try to get all the ideas out that had been building up.
You met your wife, Rwandan filmmaker and actress Anisia Uzeyman, in France, and now the two of you are based in America. What are you learning about this country through her eyes?
My first learning experience with Anisia in the States was in 2012 when she shot her film Dreamstates. Seeing the US through her eyes is a lot to put into words. For example, I remember we arrived in Dallas, her first time in Texas. I remember her looking down and acknowledging how many people were in cowboy boots, the number of flags stood out more than I had ever noticed or considered. Through her eyes, though, I was able to admire or appreciate some of the stuff that I never gave a thought to, that I took for granted. But it’s truly her gaze on art that opened me to seeing and exploring more of US culture than I had paid attention to. There are dozens of US artists and artist movements that I discovered through her or with her. Some of it I had simply dismissed as “white” — not consciously perhaps, but I had been fixated on other things, other artists. She’s helped me round out my perception of this nation.
Anisia had spent considerable time in New York before we met and really loved the city. I missed it. When we moved there from Paris, it was on one hand an opportunity for me to share my childhood with her, and also an opportunity for me to rediscover my childhood and adolescent haunts as an adult. In some ways, her eye on the culture was more loving than mine. She took close notice of things I never noticed or thought about. We lived in Harlem. I missed the culture, the food, the people, while she discovered it, got closer to it. What’s great about New York is that it can feel like home to peeps of so many different cultures. Easy.
Tell me how you and Anisia have managed to marry your work, in Dreamstates and other projects, where the world of your lives together transcended romance and grounded itself in collaborative artistic projects.
Why should we ever transcend romance? Anisia and I met through a film called Tey [also released as Aujourd’hui], which we were cast in in 2010. It shot in Senegal. By the time of the shooting, we were already a couple, but not actually living together. We found a place together in Paris 2012 right after shooting Dreamstates and set up offices across from each other. I think our shared interest in theater, cinema, literature, et cetera, fused quite easily. From there the goal was simply for us to find more opportunities for us to work and travel together. I began working on the MartyrLoserKing project that year, very much inspired by many of our late-night convos and a few epiphanies I had had while in Senegal. Our fit is natural. We share books, music, jokes, and dreams. Yet we both also dive deep into writing and research separately. We eventually compare notes, dialogue, drafts, et cetera. Her work and vision inspire me.
I’ve witnessed your blended family at work. Your daughter Saturn moved to Paris and lived with you and Anisia, while Xuly, your second born, was based in L.A. with his mother, Fatima Robinson. Your daughter by marriage lives with you in the Canyon. Every single one of these young people is an artist. What’s the key to being able to manage these alternative family structures, and what about the blended family requires the most care?
Well, I’m not perfect as a father. Around the time my kids become adolescents, they start intimidating me in weird ways, like I’m 14 again, which was probably the most uncomfortable period for me growing up. So I think we weird each other out during the teen years. I became a father before I began writing Amethyst Rock Star, and many of those songs (and many that followed) have featured little or not-so-little messages to my daughter and then later to my son. My daughter’s name is Saturn. I reference Saturn a lot in my early work in ways where she would know I’m talking to her, but the audience would think I’m being esoteric: “I’ve got to be done in time to pick up Saturn from school.” Many poems and songs, if not all of them, have been written with the thought of what I need to say to or for her, especially as a young woman facing a patriarchal society. From the moment I sensed her presence, I couldn’t escape the thought of the over-bearing violence I knew she would face, the countless stories I had heard or situations I had been in or witnessed, and so I began lacing my writing with spells, mantras, declarations, and tools, to the best of my growing abilities.
Who are you as a father? Who are you not as a father? What valuable lessons have you learned from women about being a father? This question is inspired by the song “Our Father” on Amethyst Rock Star, and you also say a phrase that stays with me: “A feminine agenda that no man ever taught us.”
The lessons I’ve learned from women probably had more to do with just being alive than being a father per se. My mother, Saturn’s mother [visual artist Marcia Jones], my sisters, my Spelman sisters and professors — all contributed to my learning and unlearning in innumerable ways, not to mention the authors, books handed to me. I read The Temple of My Familiar at 17 after my mom and sisters finished reading it, and I was forever changed. I think that was followed by Assata. My mom read women and then handed the books to me and my sisters. But my best father figure and example was my actual father. He had been raised by his mother and the church. He sang opera as a kid, was called “fat boy” at school, his closest male friends were all openly gay (church) musicians while he remained closeted … but that’s another story.
The line you reference is partially inspired by Professor Glenda Dickerson, who was chair of the Theater Department at Spelman while I was there. She and my other Spelman professors (Pearl Cleage, Tish Benson) impacted me hugely. As a drama major at Morehouse, which had no drama department during my time there, all my classes were taken at Spelman. Professor Dickerson held full and new moon rituals for the women that the male students were required to attend, hold white candles, and protect the space while she led the women through ceremony. I began doing this at 19, around the same time Snoop was singing, “Bitches ain't shit…” Angela Davis, Alice Walker, bell hooks were all speakers we would go listen to while Dr. Johnnetta Cole was president of the school. Every woman I encountered during that period up to and including Saturn’s mom was schooling me, turning me on to books, historical truths, and getting in the way of me enjoying popular music as they broke down every fucked-up misogynistic reference on a regular.
As a DJ, I’ve taken license to naming genres of music that don’t yet exist. I’m in the business of cataloging the sounds that fit into the spaces between hip-hop, jazz, and blues. You’ve managed to create your own genre of music that I’ve named diasporic-post-punk rock. Your music makes it clear that hip-hop-house-techno and punk were being developed next door to each other, sometimes literally. You embody this musical pollination. How do you describe your sound and the way it’s evolved over the years? And what does your music owe the black church?
I call my music Grippo. I made up that name during my first mushroom experience, dancing on a luminous indigo rug in our Fort Greene, Brooklyn, apartment in the mid-’90s. I hadn't written any music at that time, but my friend and I were deep in a discussion about what kind of music our children would listen to. I kinda described my music how you describe it, but then took it a step further with: “And they shall call it, Grippo!” Amethyst Rock Star was me trying to capture that sound, but I don’t feel like I really did until my second album.
In terms of church, I love them deep rich harmonies, those layers of sound. I grew up singing in the choir in church and gospel chorus at school. This is not something I was made to do — this is something I loved, no question. By the age of 18, I had probably been to at least a hundred gospel concerts. We sat with arms crossed waiting for motherfuckers to bring it, and they very often did. I participated in gospel choir competitions. My father, a musician first, always had amazing pianists and choir directors at the church. My godfather Ronald Sutherland was one of them. He went on to become the musical director at Glide Memorial in SF. I stayed deep in that world until I went to college, where I almost immediately stopped going to church or considering myself Christian. I did go through a brief spell when I moved to L.A., and folks were telling me I should check out Agape [Agape International Spiritual Center] because Carl Anderson, who played Judas in JC Superstar, was singing in the choir. I went, met him, and was deeply moved by the writing and singing of [Agape Music and Arts Director] Rickie Byars Beckwith. She introduced me to her then-15- or 16-year-old daughter Georgia Anne Muldrow, who became Saturn’s babysitter.
What’s your relationship to gender? You poke fun at the myth of gender on every album.
Fuck gender. I have so much fun poking at it. I remember the first (and only) time I tried LSD and epiphanied that every gesture I used, the way I walked, sat, crossed or held my legs, et cetera, was something I was using to project the idea that I wasn’t gay. This was right after I had returned from my first trip to Africa (Senegal, Mali, Gambia) in ’94 with my mom, who had been teaching in the Gambia for a year. The plane touched down in Senegal, and I looked out the window and saw two men holding hands, laughing and talking. Then I noticed that a bunch of male couples were strolling doing the same. My immediate thought was that I had been hoodwinked, bamboozled into accepting a Western idea of malehood. Why couldn’t male friends hold hands freely without stigma? I arrived at my mom’s school and noticed a bunch of young male students sitting on each other’s laps as they talked and played. I began calculating all the things that had somehow led us another direction.
I’m also flashing on a moment of fatherly pride, I guess you’d call it, when Saturn, who must have been seven or eight was sitting in the backseat when my then-girlfriend, told me the “check engine” light had come on in her car and asked if I could look at it. Before I had a chance to get out that I sincerely didn’t know a thing about car engines, Saturn quipped from the backseat, “You know girls can fix cars too. My dad writes poems and music.”
You regularly incorporate classic hip-hop verses into your work, but what gave you the right, the courage, and the wisdom to cover songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2 and music from the funk band Earth Wind & Fire? They are, by the way, two of the best covers, or rather, interpretations, I’ve heard in my life.
Thank you! I first heard “Sunday Bloody Sunday” when I was 16 and living in Brazil. They used to play it in clubs, and those opening drums would drive me crazy. When Trent [Reznor] hired Alan Moulder to mix Niggy Tardust, a background search told me he had worked with U2. At some point, Trent mentioned that he thought maybe a cover was missing from the album and started playing me Killing Joke and Skinny Puppy. I mentioned “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and they were like, hell yeah. CX Kidtronik and I then brought in EWF ’cause we just knew that would be hard AF.
I hear Octavia Butler references throughout your earlier albums, which means you were reading her work long before she became a social media quotable, but you also spent a serious amount of time reading N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Talk about your relationship to the fantastical and how you’ve used speculative fiction as a tool to world-build. And who are some of the other writers from this genre of literature that lure you into other realms?
I was handed Octavia Butler by my mom and sisters. We all went on a binge together. Like The Temple of My Familiar, it hit me between the eyes. I knew that this was the world-vision I was missing. She helped liberate my imagination and make sense of much of my silent yearnings in literature and in perspective in general. Thankfully this all happened before I got into writing poetry so my earliest poems are me leaping into that perspective full on. Other authors: Samuel Delany, Tananarive Due, Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Neal Stephenson, Dan Simmons, Borges, Ben Okri, Eduardo Galeano, Carlos Fuentes, Italo Calvino, N. K. Jemisin … I binge on world-builders. They help me craft more interesting sentences. They shape my worldview and shift my understanding of narrative. They force me to consider and reconsider ideology. Discovering Octavia Butler was like discovering Fela. They both instantly rose to the top of my artistic pantheon. There was no looking back.
Who was Ntozake Shange to you?
I happened to be backstage with David Murray in London when he got the news Ntozake Shange died. Along with all that she represents to the culture and me personally, she was his first wife, who he still held very close to his heart. Playing with him that night was ceremoniously transformative.
To me, Ntozake Shange is the woman who fused poetry and theater with raw black femininity. The number of women I saw pick monologues from her plays and work through them in class and onstage is unparalleled. She gave voice to us and to Black American womanhood in full sniper mode. Talk about power? Rage? Beauty? Pain? I believe it’s her work that helped birth The Vagina Monologues, the Sarah Kanes, and the hardcore aesthetic in modern theater. She channeled the technology of healing through her work.
One of the most magnificent aspects of your work is your selection of titles. Niggy Tardust and MartyrLoserKing being among two of the greatest names for any project, ever. How do you approach the naming of your work, and is naming the first or the last step in your conceptual process?
I’ll usually begin the work without the title. The first stages are usually about making sense of the impulse, trying to uncover what’s truly driving me and where. But when the title comes, it’s a moment of celebration because then I know it’s real and I can start shaping the idea and direction. I love titles, but usually it’s more of an art to spot them than actually come up with them. When I was writing the book Said the Shotgun to the Head, “Kali-Flower” had been my working title for the four years that I was writing it. Once I handed in the manuscript, the editors were like, “We’re not sure about the title. Might be too new-agey. Might turn off potential readers.” I remember being on the other end like, “Oh, here we go. These corporate MFs wanna start calling shots in my art!” I told them I’d consider a title change and get back to them on the following Monday. That weekend I reread the book and got to the stanza, “‘Mother nature’s a whore’, said the shotgun to the head.” I copied and dragged that second half to an empty page and stared at it like, Oh shit. That’s a crazy fucking title. I presented that Monday, and they loved it. I was so happy they found the courage to challenge me.
I don’t want to give Trump the time of day, but you’ve said something that I’d love for you to expound on. During an interview, you reminded us of how often rappers have called his name through rhyme as being the aspirational model for the black and brown poor and working-class people who were the innovators of hip-hop. And you’re right, the moment you said that, I flipped through my rolodex of lyrics and found many songs/lyrics that call his name. Obviously, Kanye embodies that obsession. But are you saying that “we” are partially responsible for creating this monster?
Yerp. Capitalism in hip-hop is as fucked up as the misogyny. I was very angry with a few rappers that became heroes to many because of how much they lauded money as the answer, while belittling the “conscious back-packer” shit I was branded with. I found their lyrics negligent, and openly misleading to an entire generation. I remember hearing people sing along to Biggie, “Get money” at a party at dream hampton’s house in the mid-’90s and being like, this is gonna fuck us up. The anger and distrust I felt for the rappers and producers behind that shit felt personal. I looked at them like COINTELPRO infiltrating the Panther Party. You bragging about selling crack while we all know the CIA brought that into our communities? You bragging about working for the CIA? I just found it short-sighted and selfish, considering Jimi, Nina, Fela, Billie, Marley offered a generosity through their music that feeds us still. I could never understand why anyone would not want to be them rather than being “the black Donald Trump.” Cats said this in their rhymes while Mandela, Angela Davis, Kwame Ture, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou dot dot dot were still alive. It pissed me the fuck off. I started listening to rappers when Bush was in office and thinking they sounded Republican with their disdain for people with short or no money. It had me fucked up for a minute.
MartyrLoserKing is not just an album, it’s a musical and a graphic novel. Talk about Neptune Frost and what’s in the works to bring this world to our hands. When and where will it be produced, who are you working with? How does the epic nature of this project shape your future as an artist?
The name of the overall project and graphic novel is MartyrLoserKing. Neptune Frost is the meta-protagonist of the story. Gonjasufi is currently mixing the Neptune Frost album, which is the second in a series of three albums which comprise the musical. I'm working with friends, lifelong and new.
What are we learning about human beings, addiction, social media? Will we survive this? Will we know any other way of life?
I’ve been studying cyber-psychology: human behavioral patterns as expressed through modern technology and the role that satellite anonymity plays in our actions and words. I don’t believe it will end us and don’t believe it will set us free. I think what we’re witnessing now has everything to do with being new to the phenomenon. This new technology is more than media and propaganda, but those are the most popular ways it is being used at present. There’s a lot to be figured out, a lot to be dialed down, and ways we will eventually find balance between our virtual and actual selves. The fact that all this new tech is here and thriving while war, famine, authoritarian/tyrannical rule, and unbridled capitalism still thrive, too, shows us exactly what it is and what it isn’t.
You’ve been hired for your voice alone, appearing on at least a hundred songs as a featured artist. How do you honor the integrity of your own work and hold the balance of being invested in other people’s projects?
I sometimes see the process of working with others as a breath of fresh air or worthwhile escape from my own machinations. Collaboration, in general, feeds and frees me when too much time in my own world and head feels masturbatory. So I consider just about every collaborative effort a moment of divine synergy. But for all I’ve done there’s way more that I never got around to — timing is everything, in that there are times when peeking out of my cave is the last thing I need or want to do.
DJ Lynnée Denise is a writer and educator. Her performative lectures on “DJ Scholarship” have been featured at The Broad museum, The Tate Modern, Savvy Contemporary Gallery Berlin, Goldsmiths University of London, Iziko South African Museum, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Stanford, Yale, NYU, and Princeton. She’s a Visiting Artist at California State University, Los Angeles.
LARB Staff Recommendations
We All Get to Dream: On Glory Edim’s “Well Read-Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves”
Utibe Gautt Ate exalts “Well-Read Black Girl,” the new essay collection edited by Glory Edim.
The ways Octavia Butler depicted Pasadena offer a window into her own thinking, but also into the power of race and class in the city that shaped...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!