INTERVIEW: Saul Williams | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Saul Williams is an artist who cannot be truly known to the world from an isolated timbre or notion. His expressions are masterful in the way they blend and mix inspirations and references, and it is in his capacity to melt or fix ideas with one another that his spirit can be seen. It is his resolve to continue to put energy into this alchemy that keeps his music and art as vivid today in his latest release, MartyrLoserKing, as from when his first album landed just after the millennium. Across the twelve new tracks our ears are dipped in an international state of mind: from European classical piano motifs, to spoken word, from the beat tradition, to Middle Eastern chanting and singing. His aim is far, and his palette broad. Arriving five years on from his previous record, MLK truly feels like the warrior in training; unleashed, fierce but controlled.

In between these two albums, Williams has been performing on Broadway in the lead role of Holler If Ya Hear Me – the musical created around the music of Tupac Shakur. It was inspired casting to pair Williams with the late icon’s work; both invested in activism and social consciousness. Unfortunately, the musical’s run finished earlier than expected. Considering that recent endeavour, Williams remained optimistic about the potential of the medium. “I grew up in the theatre, where political ideologies have often, if not always, been explored and questioned. The plays that came out of the Black Arts movement in the United States and the apartheid regime in South Africa had their place in New York and global theatre, just as the work of Brecht, Wilde, Sarah Kane, all the way back to Shakespeare, not to mention the theatre movements in Brazil, Argentina and across the world.”

The manipulation and re-appropriation of language has always played a crucial part in Williams’ work, originally gaining popularity for his poetry via coverage in films such as SlamNation. As with his deliciously titled 2007 album, The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of Niggy Tardust!, his new release evokes a popular figure and immediately challenges our preconceptions of that person, simultaneously providing a seat for our imagination to ponder what the album might offer, but also rocking at the legs of that chair. “I feel very free in my relationship to language, English in particular, and how it exacts culture. The moulding and remoulding of words in relation to ideas is one of the simplest forms of hacking and declassifying meaning and possibilities of meaning hidden within or behind an idea. In fact, the goal is to get in front of the idea.”

We have all surrendered to the machine, yet we also power it

MartyrLoserKing is packed with such technique, with several songs using phrase repetition to realign meaning to the words. In The Bear/Coltan As Cotton with ‘Hack into…’ crashing the listener through wall upon wall of new ideas and images; in Roach Eggs he continues with the idea of hacking by evoking that form of action in social media, and in an economy. Many colours on the record (the droning sounds, the repeated rhythms and phrases, the political and technological focus) seem reminiscent of M.I.A.’s work, and in particular, her third record Maya. Williams recognises the universality of his political and musical pilgrimages and is optimistic for the future. “We will continue to enlist more and more as people/artists are awakened to the times and the major questions at hand.”

On MLK, Williams focuses on the effect of the internet and our relationship with it. When asked about his own developing relationship with this technology, he acknowledged the benefits it has had on his creative process. “On one hand we have the internet and our capacity to share information, and on the other there is the technology surrounding the writing process: the typewriter, the word processor, the personal computer, the hand-held device, the smart-pen… So now I can use my moleskin smart-pen and transfer my handwriting direct into my device, like scanning the pages of a notebook… It’s an interesting option for a tumblr-head.”

Having always lived with activism in his belly, Williams has been inspired by various applications and their ability to unite voices. “Our relationship to these tools are useful, particularly in regards to our ability to follow what’s going on in another space/place which holds even greater potential if we can connect what’s happening ‘there’ with what’s happening in our world. In a sense, we have the same capabilities as global intelligence to track happenings, communicate and make sense of them and broaden our network with the possibility of aligning a global network for social action and resistance. The difference is the global powers are organised, so the power of our resistance often lies in our ability to disrupt or cog the system – but we also have to work against media while working through it. We have all surrendered to the machine, yet we also power it.”

Saul Williams is shortly embarking on a UK tour, and is keen to be playing smaller venues, such as his Newcastle date at Think Tank? on Saturday 2nd July. Joining him on this leg of the tour will be Thavius Beck and Williams also notes that “the virtual presence of Miseal Leon is also extremely helpful. I like intimate occasions to share and make meaningful impressions. A healthy balance between venues and audience sizes keeps me on my toes.”

Saul Williams plays Think Tank?, Newcastle on Saturday 2nd July.


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