Saul Williams: Metaphorically Speaking

I remember the first time I heard Saul Williams read his magic words. Like a schoolteacher, I prayed for the stars he wrote about so eloquently to fall into my hands, so I could place one on his forehead. – Jessica Care Moore, introduction to The Seventh Octave: The Early Writings of Saul Williams (1998, Moore Black Press)

Saul Williams doesn’t seem to mind living some 3000 miles away from his birthplace. Indeed, he sits in a lotus position on a couch centered amidst Indian rugs and throw pillows strewn across the floor, African masks mounted on the walls, and rows of bookshelves containing recent works by Kiana Davenport and Ben Okri. But despite the coziness of his downtown Los Angeles loft, Williams looks distinctly out of place. He’s too representative of wintry New York, and it shows in conversation through his double-edged tongue vaunting inner peace and heated debate, an almost-methodical replicating of stray sounds from treasured recordings and novels, and a cultural background immersed in early hip-hop.

Today, Williams is preparing for a world tour to promote his debut album, Amethyst Rock Star (American Recordings, 2001), a provocative blend of hip-hop, rock, and spoken-word performance that is scheduled for a June release date. Still, despite the acclaim that has followed him since first appearing at poetry readings in his native New York five years ago, Williams remains best known for the film that initially brought him to national attention, Slam (Offline Films, 1998). Directed by Marc Levin and co-written by Williams, the semi-autobiographical tale of a weed dealer wrongly charged with attempted murder garnered the Camera D’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival as well as the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

In Slam, Williams plays the protagonist, Ray Joshua, as a heroic figure that learns the art of self-expression. During the film’s most extraordinary sequence, Ray stops a prison riot by reciting a poem – the first he has ever written – titled “Amethyst Rocks.” As rival gangs Thug Life and the Union circle each other menacingly, Ray lunges between the two and screams out, “Never question/Who I am/God knows/And I know God personally/In fact, he let’s me call him me,” shaking violently as he speaks.

Slam concludes with Ray’s official introduction to spoken word, a form in which, it is hinted, he will find his calling. After being led to the microphone by his mentor and lover, Lauren Bell (Sonja Sohn) during a poetry reading in nondescript café, he haltingly fumbles the opening lines to “Sha Clack Clack,” pausing to start over again as the assemblage reassures him. Eventually, though, he builds momentum, rocking back in forth in time to his own words and licking off the lines “I am that timeless nigga/That swings on pendulums like vines/though mines of booby-trapped minds/that are enslaved by time” with an orator’s vigor and a rapper’s panache. When Ray is finished, he stumbles off stage to a standing ovation, exhausted.

Slam’s climax resembles Williams’s own experience as a graduate student enrolled at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In October of 1994, Williams was invited by a friend to check out a reading at the Brooklyn Moon Café. What he found was a generation of young people applying rap’s immediacy, neo-realist subject matter, and rhythmic cadences to the normally staid world of poetry, much in the way that Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz musicians infused popular songs with their own slang and whimsy in the 1940s. “I hear all these poets,” he marveled, his eyes widening from the memory, “and I’m like, ‘this is where the hip-hop lyricists have gone. It was Sha-Key, 99, Mums the Schemer, all these cats. I didn’t have anything. I was just listening.

“I went back in March of 1995,” he continued. “At that poetry reading, the first poet I heard when I walked in was a guy named Dante (whose name now is Mos Def) and he was reading a poem about Pan-Africanism. I heard Talib Kweli on that night; I heard Jessica Care Moore, and tons of poets, y’know? And I read a poem.” The poem Williams read was “Amethyst Rocks.”

did I make this up

to give myself

a sense of fulfillment?

is this ego play?

and am I writing this

for an audience? – Saul Williams, She (MTV/Pocket Books, 1999)

Today, Williams laughs at the notion of becoming a torchbearer – or chief exploiter – for that now-famous haven of neo-soul musicians, writers, and spoken-word and hip-hop artists. “I guess I could hone in on the whole spoken-word thing and continue doing that,” he says. Nevertheless, Williams claims to have been inundated with reading offers soon after that initial performance, recalling, “That first night I read, I was asked to open up for Amiri Baraka, the Last Poets, the Roots, Fugees, KRS-One.” Though he would eventually release two well-received books of poetry, The Seventh Octave and She, other projects indicated he was headed in an entirely different direction.

“In 1997 I started working through music,” says Williams. A year later, several tracks appeared placing him in musical settings. There was the self-produced “Ohm” from Lyricist Lounge Volume One (Rawkus, 1998). In the United Kingdom, a compilation that, incidentally, reintroduced British hip-hop to American audiences, Black Whole Styles (Big Dada/Ninja Tune, 1998), was released with two mixes of “Elohim (1972)” and “Twice the First Time,” the latter created with producer Native Son.

These initial efforts were promising – one verse from “Elohim,” “My style is black whole/Most niggas simply sound like earth to me,” inspired the compilation’s title. Yet Williams says they were unsatisfying to him because, “by that time, I’m realizing I can spend three months on a poem, a year on a poem. And these motherfuckers are coming to me with a beat they made last night?” The thought alone makes him burst out into laughter. “That’s when it strikes me – I’ve got to pay attention to the music, because the music will drown me out!”

MC’ing lies at the core of Williams’s declamatory verse. Growing up in Newburgh, an upstate suburb of New York, he rocked ciphers – tight, heated circles of young people spitting verses at one another – and banged out beats on lunch counters. Remembering how he transcribed Eric B. and Rakim’s “Follow the Leader” when it was played on DJ Red Alert’s radio show in 1988, he enthused that Rakim “said shit that made me want to read what he was saying.”

Despite his familiarity with hip-hop idioms, Williams doesn’t hesitate to add, “I grew up a major Gang Starr fan, but the poetry that I was writing made Premier sound like a wack producer to me. Everything started seeming really linear.” What he did retain from those early influences was boldness and a knack for overstatement in the grand tradition of Run-DMC and Rakim, unrepentant boasters who miraculously anticipated their immediate future through the power of actualization and catapulted themselves from dreamy raps about “champagne, caviar, and bubble baths” to lifestyles earmarked with stretch limousines and mansions in the process. Hence the line from “Amethyst Rocks,” which is repeated on “Wine,” the final track from Williams’s forthcoming debut album Amethyst Rock Star: “I know God personally/In fact, he lets me call him me.”

At first, Williams says, such brash statements led him to question, “Where the fuck did that come from? It was crazy. I started asking myself, ‘is it because of what I’ve been eating? Where is it coming from?’ More and more just kept on coming, and it hasn’t stopped.”

Then unapologetically, he continued, “Courage means cour age, young at heart. It does take a youthful heart to approach certain things and feel confident enough to say it. But one of the insights I had was being an artist has a lot to do with having a certain amount of audacity. For instance, Shakespeare had audacity. Shakespeare is responsible for, like, one-fourth of the English language. Words like ‘also,’ ‘maybe,’ ‘because,’ he made them shits up.”

That’s audacity,” he pointed out animatedly.  “I started admiring the audacity of artists to make shit up. Why not?”

To be sure, Williams’s verse has yet to perfect the clean, formal lines and stately flows expected of an academically trained poet. His stanzas, like a heady rap rhyme patterned after everyday speech, are frequently interrupted by stray words meant to keep an invisible beat untranslatable to a printed page. Still, The Seventh Octave and She brought to light a murky stew of imagistic catchphrases, overlapping ideas, and personal revelations that continue to reverberate through his art. The same, eerie coincidences that made Slam more than a stylized story of redemption makes Amethyst Rock Star more than a casual detour into the world of pop music.

I’m the omni American born of beats and blood, the concert of the sun unplugged. – Saul Williams, “Om Nia Merican,” Amethyst Rock Star

The opening cut on Amethyst Rock Star, “La La La,” closes with the line, “calling tarot readers and sparrow feeders to cancel the apocalypse…metaphorically speaking.” Moments later, “Penny for a Thought” opens with the directive, “Cancel the apocalypse!” The final track on Amethyst Rock Star, “Wine,” ends with a portion of “Amethyst Rocks.” Other songs (“1987” and Untimely Meditations”) are taken from his first book of poetry, The Seventh Octave.

Another song, “Fearless,” finds Williams recovering from his brief marriage to Marcia Jones, a self-described “performance painter” he met while earning his bachelor’s degree in acting and philosophy at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Jones’s striking collages of family photos and self-portraits, drawn over and decorated with feathers, tarot cards, and other found objects, are interspersed throughout She, Williams’s pained account of the two’s failed union through short, untitled verses. Both of his books and Amethyst Rock Star feature her artwork; an acrylic painting used on the cover of The Seventh Octave, “Waterbirth,” invites comparisons to Jones’s own birthing of their daughter, Saturn.

Saturn is a central figure in Williams’s work. “Saturn’s Rivers” is the heading of the first section of The Seventh Octave, and She includes pictures of Jones breastfeeding her. Her presence looms over “Robeson,” Williams’s fever dream from Amethyst Rock Star.

“I slept once. The dream has yet to end,” Williams begins. Resting amidst skeletons of his uncles and great uncles, he awakens to find it is night, and “the stars are visibly breathing in fact it looks like they are chewing gum.” He looks down at his feet, which are hoofed, then looks up at the sky, now illuminated with sunrays. A girl approaches; he follows her and begins flying.

Landing in a valley, Williams is joined by his father, the Reverend John Galt. The two begin reciting the Lord’s Prayer. “The whole world seems to join in. The mountains have mouths,” Williams says. Suddenly, he finds himself getting married while the bride, who’s holding a white umbrella over her head, keeps trying to quiet him. He takes the backpack on his back off and opens it, noticing a handful of coloring books. “I keep thinking I have to be done. It’s time to pick Saturn up from school.” Then, abruptly, he closes “Robeson” with a dedication to his child. “My darling Saturn, how could I ever neglect to hug you?” he coos.

Saturn, Williams explains, “is the only planet in our solar system that can exist outside of our solar system. The center of Saturn is so hot that it exists as if it had its own sun. Saturn has nineteen moons, and they travel around it in the same way that our nine planets travel around the sun. We study the Saturn system to understand our solar system.

“The center of Saturn is composed of the same thing that the sun and stars is composed of,” he continues, “which in quantum physics is called chaos matter, or dark matter. That same matter, when it crosses into our ozone layer, it changes its name, and is called another thing, which is melanin. It’s the same matter that’s deposited in the backs of our necks and our spines. We are composed of the same exact things that the stars are composed of.”

The amethyst rock in Amethyst Rock Star “is a crystal, a purple crystal that connects you to and enhances your spiritual side,” Williams explained. Other symbols frequently appear: blood, breath, and blackness, Ohm. “No man is an island, but I often feel alone,” he says on “Untimely Meditations,” “so I find peace through Ohm…”

Amethyst Rock Star grafts Williams’s cosmological grid to midtempo hard rock crafted by guitarist Jerome Jordan, bassist Maximina Juson, drummer Chris Eddleton, violist Maryam Blacksher, cellist Nioka Workman, DJ and programmer Musa Bailey, and keyboardist Kwame Brandt-Pierce. Together, in the tradition of Fishbone, Bad Brains circa I Against I, and Living Colour, they plunge headfirst into Williams’s inner spatial universe. “Penny for a Thought” slams against phrases like “hardcore” before kicking into a drum ‘n’ bass flourish as he chants “seven mountains higher than the valley of death.” “Fearless” drags along a heavy blues as Williams drawls, “Can’t you see I’m surreal tonight?”

Throughout Amethyst Rock Star Williams’s words, authoritative tone, and surprisingly melodious singing voice is electrified. “Coded Language,” a number created with UK junglist DJ Krust, finds him analyzing the recent murders of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur with the line, “Any utterance un-aimed will be disclaimed, will be maimed – two rappers slain.” Meanwhile, the B-side to the single “Penny for a Thought,” “Purple Pigeons,” sounds like Nas rhyming over Badly Drawn Boy’s “Fall In a River” or Tupac Shakur rapping against Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.”

Unsurprisingly, he finds solace in the music of British artists like Radiohead, Portishead, Tricky, Massive Attack, Goldie, and the Young Disciples. He describes them as “hip-hop deconstructionists, people who would take breakbeats and slow them down, speed them up, make them crooked”; the term could easily apply to him. “I’m approaching rock from a hip-hop perspective,” Williams says. He is confident that Amethyst Rock Star’s collision of hard guitars and passionate, poetic verse will help form a new, post-millennial sound rather than propagate a variation on a style we are all too familiar with.

Originally published in San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 16, 2001.

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