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If the Dead Could Spit

<b>Interview</b>: Hip hop poet Saul Williams talks about his new book and the sources of his inspiration.
 
 
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Saul Williams has been acclaimed as the 'Hip Hop Poet Laureate' and for good reason. On stage and on paper he captures a true MC spirit and establishes a furious, hypnotic hip-hop flow, as he tackles serious subjects from god to love to music to power to poverty.

Williams has been an active performer poet and teacher for over a decade. In addition to publishing The Seventh Octave , She and ,Said the Shotgun to the Head , Williams has also released two albums. He played the leading role in the highly praised film, Slam that tells a story about a young man who discovers the power of poetry in prison.

His recent book, The Dead Emcee Scrolls puts forth the premise that on an underground subway graffiti tour, a young Williams stumbled across indecipherable scrolls, which became his first rhymes. The poems -- many of which will be familiar to fans of Williams' live shows -- unfold in tight, wild and deep verses, which make you want to head-bop in your chair. It's not the same as watching him live, but there is a joy to being able to sit back and sift through the meaning, underlining the beautiful and powerful lines. Read it if you love hip-hop and read it, if you want some exploration and contradiction and wonder for your journey.

WireTap recently talked with Saul Williams about his new book and the sources of his inspiration.

Saul Williams

Adrienne Maree Brown: Have you ever thought of turning Shotgun To The Head or other pieces into a play or film?

Saul Williams: Yes, I've been working on a one-man show that incorporates a lot of my poetry.

AMB: What's hurting more -- hip hop, or the spoken word scene?

SW: Neither. There's a lot of new energy in hip hop, right now, primarily from the South. As long as we're making songs about dances, I'm pleased (and dancing). The spoken word movement is ongoing and definitely a place where young people are learning to articulate the way in which they'd like to see the world evolve. A few bad poems/songs can't stop our progression. What's important is that the youth feel inspired to creatively express themselves as opposed to "being seen but not heard."

AMB: What books, music, or films changed your life?

SW: Autobiography of Malcolm X, autobiography of Assata Shakur, and of Miles Davis. Temple of my Familiar by Alice Walker, The Famished Road by Ben Okri, and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. For films, Slam, Mary Poppins , Naked, and Farewell My Concubine .

AMB: What books, music, or films can you not put down right now?

SW: Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, and The Gift by Hafiz. Joi's new album, Tennessee Slim is the Bomb , CX Kidtronik's Krak Attack! , and Jay Dee's Donuts.

AMB: Would you be interested -- and do you think your magic would resonate -- in voice work. For example, voicing an animated character in a Hayao Miyazaki-esque film feature with black and/or African characters?

SW: I would love to do that sort of work, and the characters needn't be Black or African for me to do it. When I first graduated from acting school I used to audition for "voice-work". I shied away when they started asking me to read poems about candy bars and cars.

AMB: Tell me all you know of god.

SW: She's pretty loud when she cums.

AMB: What is the number one thing people need to know for the world to change and war to cease right now?

SW: All it takes for the world to change is for each one of us to make our career choices based on what we believe to be our calling, what we feel we were born or created to do and be. If we could make these choices rather than entering fields simply for the money, we would be a step closer to living in a world devoid of heartless business, i.e. War.

AMB: Do you think you are as good on paper as you are in person?

SW: I am a person who writes on paper. Depends on how much of me you feel you can handle.

AMB: When did you come up with the premise for the Dead Emcee Scrolls ?

SW: About four years ago.

AMB: In Chapter 23 of NGH WHAT you say, 'You must stop letting cities define you' which I feel has such crucial implications for hip-hop America. We are dying trapped in cities -- have you taken this advice yourself? How would you suggest young people start to think post-urban?

SW: It's not that I am against the idea of living in an urban environment. I think cities are like star clusters (in the same poem, I refer to NYC as the brightest constelation on land), so they tend to have lives and personalities of their own. In the line you've quoted I am speaking more about how our ghetto realities have restricted us from identifying with nature. We associate with concrete more than we associate with grass. We associate with violence more than we associate with love. I am concerned about us finding our balance in today's society.

We are much more than our upbringings. Yet, we associate so much with where and how we were raised that we often end up glorifying something that does not reflect our heightened potential. The Dogon of Mali, West Africa, for instance were cliff dwellers and amongst the first astronomers and star gazers to document constellations and planets that most assume are impossible to view with the naked eye. Where are our Black American star gazers? It seems that for many, we subconsciously associate nature with the times of slavery: plantations, running through the woods, cotton and tobacco fields, yet by disassociating ourselves from the horrors of our past, many of us have disassociated ourselves from nature. Many of the secrets of our nature exist in Nature. We cannot discover aspects of ourselves until we discover it.

ABM: How do you deal with acclaim and ego? How much do you love the attention? How much do you put forth a public image?

SW: The attention is fine. My background is more in acting than in poetry, so I always expected to be visibly recognized for what I did. What is difficult at times is the fact that there's a little bit of "worship" in some people's praise. It's like if a cat attempts so speak truth and walk a path of integrity in today's day and age there are some that are so intent on imposing their religious ideologies on that person, people who are eagerly awaiting the return of their messiah. I think our perception of celebrity is a little warped.

What I experience on the "White" side of things is different from the "Black" side. Awkward to say but true. Black people will give dap, let you know they like your shit and that they think you are talented (or cute). Black men will come up to me and say "thank you." I appreciate that.

I get some White folks who seem eager to cross the line into the hazardous worship zone. They mean well and I appreciate them, but many seem to want me to play the role of a guru. I mean, me and my boys may have been a little guilty of worshipping Rakim when we were young, but we weren't about to come bearing gifts and kissing feet. Like I said, I appreciate people and their positive intentions but I'm much more interested in being approached like a real person and even more importantly I DON'T want followers. It's very confusing for some once they get inpsired by someone.

I was inspired by Rocky as a kid. It was a very inspiring film. My first inclination was to go get some boxing gloves and practice boxing. I felt drawn to imitate what inspired me rather than let that inspiration fuel me in my own individual pursuit. If I wasn't careful I could have begun to think that I could only regain that great feeling of the film through boxing when actually the feeling had nothing to do with boxing. Are you following me? I'm gonna have to start knocking these fools out! Haha. Seriously, much of my work has the message that  the power that you are seeking is within you, yet I still get cats looking at me like THEIR power is within ME. It saddens, frightens, and angers me, 'cause I'm just an artist who believes in the power of art and humanity to uplift itself. If people begin looking at me with the same helpless glare that they look at their leaders, then its hopeless. We are a generation of leaders.  

AMB: Where do you escape to -- do you escape often?

SW: I write poetry for a living. I'm free. The only thing I'm trying to escape is paying these damn taxes. Seriously, I don't think of any of my pass times as an escape in that they all contribute to my creative space, but my favorite pass times include writing poetry, writing music, acting, dancing, intimacy, watching films, reading, shopping (music and clothes), browsing the net, travelling, talking to strangers.  

AMB: Do you consider yourself an activist, and if yes, what issues move you to action?

SW: I don't consider myself an activist. The role that I play in speaking up againt the war or for the need for better educational facilities, healthcare etc. stems from what I believe is every citizen's right and responsibility. Every Black person that marched, picketted, boycotted, or sat in for their rights in the '60s was not automatically an activist. No, they were mere citizens standing up for their rights, doing whatever was in their power to bring about change. That's all I see myself doing.  

Adrienne Maree Brown is a contributing writer to WireTap, singer, trainer and the Director of Communications at the League of Young Voters .