Saul Williams' new album MartyrLoserKing is not technically the follow-up to his 2007 Trent Reznor-produced breakthrough The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, but you'd be forgiven for getting confused. His actual previous album, 2011's atypically danceable Volcanic Sunlight, was recorded in Williams' then-home in Paris and was largely toured and marketed overseas.
During this period, Williams was traveling throughout Europe and Africa, taking the temperature of the world's changing political climate. Though primarily known as a poet and musician since the release of 1998 film Slam and the success of his 2004 single "List Of Demands (Reparations)," Wiliams insists he thinks of himself as an actor first (he studied at New York University). After he came back to America, he starred in the 2014 musical Holler If Ya Hear Me, which used the songs of Tupac Shakur to tell a story about Midwestern gang violence; the play earned polarizing reviews and closed after a month.
Undeterred, Williams also began work on MartyrLoserKing, which was produced by former She Wants Revenge member Justin Warfield and finds Williams pushing his slam-poetry hip-hop stylings to new heights of confrontational expression atop hissing noise-hop beats. Never one to be accused of being insufficiently conceptual, the album tells the story of a renegade hacker; Williams plans to release a corresponding graphic novel and, if all goes well, a film, that will flesh out the storyline. He recently dropped by the Paper office to talk about the backstory behind the album and why he turns down so many roles.
How long were you working on your new album?
About two and a half years. I pretty much start conceptualizing the new project the moment the last one is finished. This project is different because I planned on working on this project for another maybe four years. It's multimedia and I'm still working on the graphic novel and have film for this project as well.
Yeah. I recently decided that I'm directing it. I was meeting with producers, and at first there was this interest in connecting me with big name directors in order to fund it, and I was like "this is a film I could do with five million" and they were like what "but if we scaled it to 30?" Because, conceptually, the story has enough backstory and future for it to be like Star Wars.
There's a lot of information and just like interesting subplots. Because when I first conceived of it, it was as a musical. So I spent a lot of time developing characters and all this stuff. I've realized that even before I even started writing the script it was going to get away from me.
You've been acting for a long time, but you haven't appeared in that many mainstream projects, have you consciously tried to avoid going down that path?
I can't say that I have consciously tried to avoid it, if I'm completely honest. I would think that with my track record like after Slam, a lot of opportunity would've been available to me if I looked more like James Franco, you know? I mention it just because I know he's writing books of poetry and blah blah blah. I feel like the film world didn't know what to do with me, and I simultaneously didn't necessarily want to go in some of the directions I was invited because, uh, it was boring.
What type of roles were you looking for that just weren't appearing?
Sci-fi, horror, psychological thrillers. When I was a kid, I wanted to be the black Jack Nicholson. Like I saw The Shining and that blew my mind. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, as well. Interesting roles. Anything thought-provoking and interesting would be amazing, and there's a lot of films that I've seen come around that have flopped that I was like "Wow, if they were more interested in diverse casting I probably would have saved this film." The cool part about it is it strengthened my resolve in not moping about 'cause I felt like an out-of-work actor. I really was focused on wanting to be an actor, and I came out of Tisch with a film that I wrote and starred in that won Sundance and Cannes. That's why I say "ok, now I'm going to do some shit." And the shit that came up was "oh, you can be the funny black guy sits next to, you know, the white guy that gets the girl."
Were you ever tempted to be like "fuck it, I need to pay my rent. I can be the funny friend"?
Well, the cool thing about it was because of the doors that opened simultaneously for recording with Rick Rubin, doing my first book with Simon & Schuster and then all the speaking engagements that came at universities, that's how I paid my bills. And it also got me thinking in terms of "ok, I guess instead of developing a character I'm going to develop my own character." I mean, my own self. So I started nerding out more than I already had on music and poetry, in terms of learning, reading, exposed myself to more and more. I found myself traveling the world and meeting lots of poets and weird artists, you know who would hand me stuff like Pasolini books. "Have you read Pasolini, have you seen this Tarkovsky ?" You know, just really expanding my references and realizing that I had nothing to be upset about, that the role of Hollywood is minutiae compared to the role of art. I had a really hard time identifying as a poet, but it was really weird to hear everybody say "hey, you're a poet, right?"
Yeah, I mean it's really interesting because I always kind of thought of you as a poet first, not as an actor first.
Which is awesome. That's crazy, because now I can say, ok yeah, I get that, as you can imagine coming out of grad school -- I mean I never identified as a poet growing up, I didn't grow up saying I wanted to be a poet, and yeah, I would spend a lot of time rapping and studying Shakespeare and what have you, but from that time (after Slam) people were like, "you're a poet". Some of those people that said it like Allen Ginsberg or Amiri Baraka or Gil Scott-Heron. "You need to write more poems, man."
Video for Saul Williams' "The Noise Came From Here"
If Gil Scott-Heron tells you that, you have to listen, right?
Exactly, and I was told repeatedly by executives that if you want great roles here in Hollywood, you're going to have to create and produce them, which I thought was unfair and bizarre, just because of the fact that no one says that to, like, my other classmate at NYU, Mike Hall. He didn't have to create or produce Dexter or the shit he did before that. But the idea of creating a book, creating an album, that was practical. I could do that. And so it's only now that I'm like, "I think I have enough experience to actually direct a film."
So yeah, I can tell MartyrLoserKing is a concept album, though I haven't had enough time to tell you if I could say exactly what I think the plot is. But what did you want to say about the world through the characters on this album?
Well, I started conceptualizing it when I was living in Paris, and primarily when I was working on a film called Aujourd'hui that I did with a Franco-Senegalese director named Alain Gomis. And as a result of that film, I ended up spending about three months in Senegal. Aside from that, I had an album, Volcanic Sunlight, that had come out in France that I was starting to tour, and because I was using a French booker, I was going to places I had never gone to before. Spending a lot of time on the continent and having great conversations about politics, as I always have when I traveled. I always love like being in Istanbul or something and seeing a bunch of old men talking about politics and all that, and not just their own politics, but American politics, European politics. And you know, living in Paris. And so, during my time in Senegal, after another millionth great conversation, I just started thinking about how I could kind of document creatively this sort of political dialogue that I saw going on globally, and all of the perspectives that I was gaining. For example, I met my wife who is Rwandan and learned about the Great Lakes region of central eastern Africa and the long, beautiful, and then warped by colonialism history of these places.
And then spending time in Haiti and, simultaneously, I'm watching the Arab Spring take off, feeling much closer to that because I'm in Europe. Thinking about like the whistleblowers people, anyone from Chelsea Manning to Julian Assange to Snowden, starting to pay attention to people like Aaron Swartz; tripping out over works of art by Banksy and shit like that and noticing this transition that's occurring because of social media and technology. In Uganda, I was talking about all the homophobic, anti-gay laws, and all this anti-gay shit going on in Tanzania. There was all this stuff that I was much closer to than when I was when I was here. I felt myself starting to connect dots between Occupy Wall Street and thinking I want to find a way to creatively approach all this shit that's going on in the world and encapsulate it in a nutshell. Around that time I started thinking specifically of a story of a hacker, because symbolically I felt like a hacker is the ideal representative of the modern era, even as we're about to enter the virtual realm in terms of, you know, actual virtual reality shit and all that.
Do you mean the Singularity?
Yeah, there's a particular role that someone who is gifted in that particular way can and does play in these times. We talk about startups, the dark web and all this shit, whistleblowing and encryption. So I started thinking about a hacker and was meeting a lot interesting kids on the continent who were all connected. The reason why I keep referencing the time I was spending on the continent of Africa is because everybody was connected to the web. In fact, it's the continent with the largest number of people who are connected to the web through phones. When the mobile explosion took place, it exploded there before it even exploded here, just like it exploded in Europe. So I'm seeing all this technology and I started conceptualizing this story there, thinking about a hacker. I learned about a few things. I learned about these e-waste camps, which I knew nothing of, but made perfect sense, like the place where all of our old computers go to die. Because scavenger culture exists in certain regions and not in others, so they take those big piles of motherboards and monitors and whatever to places where people with take the time to rip out the copper and recycle what is recyclable. So thinking about that stuff got me on the cusp of envisioning the story and somewhere along that time I started envisioning this village made of old computer parts. That's how MartyrLoserKing was born. I don't expect you to be able to pull the story from the album, that was never really the intention. If it was, I would've put a narrator in and really like gone into that. That wasn't the idea. The music can and will stand alone. It talks about the story as much as it talks about contemporary issues, and so you can pull from it whatever you pull from it. Maybe you just like the sounds and the tones of the bass. Whatever it is. The graphic novel is the most linear, straight up representation of the narrative.
You're writing that personally?
Yeah, yeah I'm the writer, and I've had a few artists attached.
Now are you confirmed to be shooting the film, or is that something that you're hoping to happen?
That's something I'm hoping will happen.
If you were a more business-minded person, this is the album you would've released two to three years after Niggy Tardust.
Yeah, I could've done it two to three years later and maybe cashed in on something, but you know, there's all this talk about Niggy Tardust, but you know, no labels wanted to put that out, and it sounded as good as it did. No labels wanted to put that out because they didn't know how to categorize it, just like they don't know how to categorize me. And not even having Trent Reznor in the meeting with me made any label say oh "yeah, I want to this."
Were there concerns that you're not "real hip-hop enough" but also you're not "punk enough"?
I don't know. I mean, they don't necessarily come straight out with me. I hear things like "I get it, I love it. But I don't know if people will love it. I love it though. I think this is excellent." It's just sort of this thing of underestimating the intelligence of listeners, which is sort of the thing that I've railed against since the beginning. I don't know what the holdbacks are. I mean I know what the holdbacks are just as well as you know what the holdbacks are you know. But it's all bullshit.
I can see some like music executives being like "Well, it won't get played on hip-hop radio so we can't market it."
The less that we are dependent on radio, the more success an artist like me has. The more technology develops, the more the system is set up for me.
What was that experience of working on the Tupac Shakur musical Holler If Ya Hear Me like for you? I wanted to go see it, but it closed pretty quickly. Why don't you think it had a longer run?
It was beautiful. For me, that was the culmination of a lot of cool shit that I've always been into. I literally am a theater head and a hip-hop head. I grew up seeing musicals on Broadway, dreaming of doing SummerStage. I'm really a theater actor, that's what I grew up loving and wanting to do. So being approached to play in a musical where I get to rap or whatever was extraordinary. I don't know if you know, but that play was initially conceptualized by August Wilson. That's what he was working on before he died.
I didn't know that.
And when he died, his assistant took the project over to carry it to completion. I say that to say, it was a really well-written script about police brutality and gun violence in middle America and the criminal justice system. The audience was always standing and crying, and I think that is essentially what hurt us, if you're competing against, I don't know, Rocky the Musical, and Kinky Boots and all these other feel-good things. I remember the writer, Todd (Kreidler), coming back one day really upset because he and a friend had overheard people Times Square saying "It's good play but it's a bit of a downer." It's like, "if you want to be confronted by politics, go see that show." Maybe that's the wrong way to market things, right? I think that's the main reason why we didn't last. The week after we ended was the week Michael Brown was killed and the week that the streets erupted. And that's exactly what the play was about. I think the reason why the play didn't last is because we've done a lot over the past 20 years in America to align entertainment with escapism. Because I really thought that it was well-done. And everybody who saw it was like, "the fuck?" I felt that even critics in some of the reviews I saw were simply responding to the fact that there would be a room full of people standing and crying, and they're like "Whoa, I'm here to critique this shit, I have to find the holes in it. If everyone is rooting unanimously for this thing, it's my job to find the holes in it." I felt real great about it. I thought it was really a powerful piece.
Some people said the problem was: "Oh the reason it didn't last was because old Broadway heads are going to be scared off by the Tupac songs and young rap fans think Broadway is boring and can't afford a hundred dollar ticket."
There's truth in that too, for sure.
So you were in America when Michael Brown was shot and Black Lives Matter erupted. What did you think when people were finally starting to take to the streets? As a person who has had a radical career for a long time, were you like "finally this is the moment" or did you think "this will happen for a while, and then we'll get distracted"?
Well, those types of thoughts didn't hit my head. What hit my head was "wow again?" Because I was out in rallies in the streets as a kid, like preteen and as a teenage for this same shit. For police brutality in New York, for the same shit. Tawana Brawley. Amadou Diallo. That fucking the dude that was killed in Queens back in the day --
Before Sean Bell. I'm talking about the fucking '80s. I remember countless times being at rallies with my parents for this same exact thing. So it was just fucking redundant. It really depressed me in a sense, because the only thing that's new about these instances are the fact the we have phones to fucking record them. But, otherwise, I've been having discussions about white privilege and all this shit since I was a kid. So congratulations for, you know, for realizing what we've been talking about for fucking 30 years, but for me it was like, "oh now I have to go back and talk about this shit that I was excited about talking about when I was 19?" I frustrated me greatly. Not only that, but I came back to America with my kids, so I'm seeing them become politicized, coming home from school espousing shit, and I'm like "fuck, you sound like me when I was your fucking age." And it's a fucking shame that we can't talk about something different.