Saul Williams doesn’t love words. He subjugates them. I treat words sometimes the way rappers treat women in videos,” he chuckles. “I pour champagne and see what happens. I wouldn’t call it love. I use them for my own end.”
It might not be love, but the New York born lyricist sure knows his way around language. As a revered poet, spoken-word artist, rapper, and actor, Williams has made his mark spinning words into the kind of bullets that traditional rappers can only brag about. In the mid-’90s, he was New York City’s reigning slam poetry champion, but it wasn’t until his starring role in 1998’s award-winning film Slam that he reached cult status.
His body of work includes two albums and four poetry books, plus several television appearances, live spoken-word performances, and a lyrical contribution to a 2002 musical production of the antiwar organization Not In Our Name.
When Williams raps, he doesn’t just link rhyming words together. He folds them in a frenzy of semantic origami, bending, twisting, and chanting them into a rhythmic work of art. All of his work ruminates on the social, political, personal, and spiritual, often appropriating hip hop’s traditional argot and turning it inside out.
“Nah/ I wasn’t raised at gunpoint and I’ve read too many books/ To distract me from the mirror when unhappy with my looks/ And I ain’t got proper diction for the makings of a thug/ Though I grew up in the ghetto/ And my niggas all sold drugs,” he raps on “Talk To Strangers” from his self-titled 2005 album.
But Williams maintains that his wordplay is just a means to an end. “I think there’s a great deal of power in language,” he says, “but I don’t think it’s my love of language that makes me write poetry. I think it’s more a lack of being intimidated by it.
“It’s like the Eastern teachers of the Tao say: ‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.’ Which is to say that language covers a few things but it doesn’t cover the essentials.”
Williams started writing rhymes and teaching himself to rap when he was only eight, after hearing ‘It’s Yours’ by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay, the first single to be released on the now renowned Def Jam label. “I thought it was the coolest thing I ever heard,” he says.
His mother and his father, a Baptist minister, were always encouraging. “A lot of people like to point to my dad [as my inspiration] because I grew up watching my dad preach,” he says. “But my dad was rigid and stuck and doubtful. I really look at my mom, who was much more adventurous in her desire to really understand things. She wasn’t afraid to be something. That was inspiring.”
Now he uses rhymes to retrain hip hop beats that have become sluggish with inane stereotypes, as he says in his poem “Telegram”: “Hip hop is lying on the side of the road half dead to itself/Blood scrawled over its mangled fl esh/Like jazz stuffed into an oversized recording bag/Tuba lips swollen beyond recognition/Diamond-studded teeth strewn like rice at karma’s wedding.”
Williams’s work is far from the recording industry’s norm of bitch-slappin’ and gun-slinging thuggery. Being different is not something he has ever shied away from. Growing up, he was always the darkest rapper in the ghetto. “I always stood out. I didn’t mind that. If everybody [wore] blue, I got purple.
“That’s the thing about ghettos. They create all sorts of people. People from ghettos grow up with people like me who are intellectual or whatever,” he says. “Even the kids who aren’t a lot like me on record are a lot like me off record. I don’t know anyone who’s been shot nine times and lived! I know people who have been shot twice and lived. And I don’t think that I would be any more intimidated by 50 Cent than I would expect him to be intimidated by me.”
By Ghita Loebenstein, Street News Service
Williams performs Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. at Pierce College in Puyallup. For more information: www.saulwilliams.com.
Reprinted from The Big Issue Australia. ©Street News Service: www.street-papers.org.
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/01/03/jan-3-2007-entire-issue