Back in 1971 Kool & the Gang asked "Who's Gonna Take the Weight?" Twenty years later Gang Starr posed the same question on their seminal release Step in the Arena. Now it's 2004 and the question seems as critical today as ever. With American soldiers killing and dying every day overseas, our place in the world community at an all time low, our schools crumbling, social programs disintegrating, and prisons filling up faster than universities, I ask you, "Who's gonna take the weight?"
Saul Williams will not only take the weight, but if you listen closely he will help us learn to shoulder it equally. In Saul's own words, "We all have a responsibility. We have a responsibility as human beings. Everybody has a responsibility just to be aware of their impact." Like any true leader Saul doesn't want to rule, he wants to lift us up so we can not only help ourselves, but help those who truly need it--the people with no voice, those without food, homes, education, or enough self worth to see straight.
Born in Newburgh, N.Y. in 1972 to the son of a preacher father and schoolteacher mother, Saul quickly learned to value the weight of words. After graduating Moorhouse College with a Philosophy degree, Saul went on to pursue a Master's in Acting at New York University. It was at this time, in 1995, that Saul began to emerge as a much needed voice in America with his spoken word and poetry, keeping New York City coffee house audiences captivated, hanging on every emotionally-charged, politically-sharp word.
His ability to move a crowd and manipulate words led to a starring and writing role in the 1998 Cannes and Sundance-decorated film Slam. This proved to be the breaking point for Saul as he was able to parlay his success with Slam into a book deal for his poetry, a recurring role on the sitcom "Girlfriends," HBO's "Def Poetry Jam," "The Chris Rock Show," and heaps more. Saul has lectured at colleges and universities the world over, has been published in the New York Times, Details, Esquire, and too many publications to list. Saul very well may also be the youngest poet to have his work added to high school and college curriculum. And we haven't even touched his music yet.
In 2001 Saul released his debut album; Amethyst Rock Star produced by Rick Rubin and voted "Album of the Year" by the London Times. Remarkably, Saul felt the album was not fully realized, and now we have his self-titled, self-produced sophomore monster that hit streets in late September 2004 on the FADER Label. While working on an off-Broadway play Saul hit the road earlier this year with the band he has so accurately proclaimed "Best album and live show of 2003 hands down," The Mars Volta.
In trying to describe his new album Saul tells us, "The tracks range from politics to relationships to the politics of relationships. What I ended up with was something that captured the authoritative cool of hip-hop, the playful angst of rock and roll, the raw emotional torment of emo and the fuckoffness of punk." Saul calls his sound "Grippo;" I call it essential, critical, amazing music, one of the best albums to emerge in 2004 (hands down). Two days after the release I caught up with Saul. In speaking openly with him, I found Saul every bit as intelligent as I had hoped, perhaps even more articulate than I expected, and just so damn inspirational.
Kayceman: There is a statement that says, "Everything is political." Do you agree with that?
Saul Williams: Yes.
Kayceman: As do I, but there are people who disagree.
Saul Williams: Any decision that you make, any statement that you make is a political statement. You could be saying something like Michael Jordan, "I'm not a political person." (Laughing) That is a political statement. You can't escape it.
Kayceman: Moving forward with you specifically a little bit. Considering all of your artistic outlets--movies, TV, poetry, music, and even off-Broadway--what has your progression been like? How have you come to where you are?
Saul Williams: (Big breath) Well on one hand it's been a matter of keeping the faith and just feeling that even if... I don't know what it is. I'm really thankful for the fact that I have felt that the stuff that I am doing has some level of importance even though I haven't sold a million of anything. I struggle for money as we speak. I have felt that it's more important than that. So my process has been one of staying focused on the fact that this is important. I do believe it will pay off.
On every level. Financially yes.
Which is important too.
Which is important too. On every level. But it's important to have the message that you can make a living doing stuff that you feel is important.
Amen. Do you have a favorite artistic expression, or one you feel you are most well suited at?
Well my favorite artistic expression has been performing. So that acting, reciting poetry, and performing with a band all fall under the realm of performance. Like this album for me really sets the stage up to perform, and that's what I love about it. I can't wait to perform it.
Was there a particular goal when you set off making this album?
Not at all?
To have fun, I know I wanted to have fun. The first song that I recorded on the album was called "Grippo." And so then after that I spent the rest of the time trying to make songs that kinda complimented the nature of that song. And that song is kind of like a fun little commentary, sarcastic-ironic, commentary on hip-hop and race and shit like that. So no, I just wanted to have fun.
And I'm inclined to believe that with a self-titled album that the artist is trying to represent themselves, or at least feels it does represent them. Do you feel this is a full representation of yourself today?
Definitely. I think this is the most accurate representation of myself that I've ever put out into the commercial market. Like the Slam thing showed the... I don't even know how you say it... the messianic (laughing), this sense of just like... wounded martyr. And that's cool, that created a vibe around me where some people were like "Wow," and some people were like, "Holier than thou" or whatever. And that's a side, that's one side. I think Amethyst Rock Star was very purposeful, responsible. Like, "There are certain things we have to talk about and we have to talk about them right now!" But this is the first time I've come close to sharing any of the side of me that is like sense of humor. She [an interconnected book of poems published in 1999] was like very personal and emotional, sensitive. Said The Shotgun [Said The Shotgun to the Head is another book of poetry published by MTV Books in 2003] was really political. But I think this [his new album] incorporates all of that, all of those little moments.