The work of Saul Williams changed the way I think and write. He’s one of the few writers I’ve come across whose poetry can give me chills from where it sits on the printed page. That’s to say nothing of his live performance, which is so full of heart and liberating revelation that I have always come away feeling stirred and completely connected, fortified and full.
You may have heard his sexy single “Black Stacey“, his anti-war “Pledge of Resistance” or the hit manifesto “List of Demands (Reparations)” which ended up on a Nike commercial in 2008. If you were into poetry back around the millenium, when spoken word and open mics were gaining mainstream recognition as a “pop culture phenomenon”, maybe you picked up The Seventh Octave (1998), or one of his MTV/Pocketbooks like She (1999) or , Said the Shotgun to the Head (2003). He was Nuyorican Poets Cafe’s Grand Slam Champion in 1996 and was featured in the documentary SlamNation, which premiered at the 1998 SXSW Film Festival (take that, hipsters). He co-wrote and starred alongside Sonja Sohn (from The Wire) in the 1998 Indie film Slam, in which he performed his poem Amethyst Rocks. And if you’ve never heard of any of this stuff, maybe you caught his interview on The Colbert Report in May. This summer, he starred in in Holler if Ya Hear Me, a new Broadway musical featuring the music of Tupac Shakur.
Our paths have crossed a number of times. In 2002 he came to my university. His formal training in acting was apparent in how he stood, grounded and present, as he spouted his captivating poetry and converted run-of-the-mill questions from the audience into an exposition on the power of rhythm – and therefore, the power of hip hop. He described the effects of head bobbing on the brain (increased oxygen to the brain and improved comprehension), and how soldiers are ordered to “break stride” when marching across a bridge, so as not to bring it crashing down, due to mechanical resonance. If my fairy god mother had alighted on my shoulder with a guiding message to step more fully into my power, it couldn’t have differed much from his. There was a coursing flow to his articulation of our innate power and our role in the world today, as spit flew from his lips, illuminated by the auditorium lights. A sense of peace and reassurance spread through the place, as if we were fellow spiritualists gathered to witness a renowned medium in the intimacy of an 19th century salon. When someone in the auditorium raised a hand and asked what his astrological sign was, I blurted out, “Pisces, obviously.” His girlfriend turned around and looked at me strangely, as on stage he confirmed this, pulling an amethyst from his pocket and raising it above his head – this healing handeld transistor – broadcasting its violet signal.
I went to see him in a two-person play in LA at a Victorian house converted to a tiny theater. To be frank, I didn’t have anything to say about the play, but I waited around afterwards to tell him that everything he had said in Santa Barbara made perfect sense and felt intensely relevant for me and everyone I knew. I don’t know why I felt compelled to communicate that to him, but it was a sentiment confirmed in in The Dead Emcee Scrolls: “You are me. I am you. But also I am he. Shepherd of a bastard flock that grazes in the streets.” That day I thanked him, turned and drove home, but not before bashfully placing a small book of my poems into his hand.
Once I took my younger sisters to see him at the Glass House, an all-ages venue in Pomona. A friend of mine who was a production manager there got us in for free and put us up on the side of the stage during the show. Much like the Santa Barbara engagement, Saul divided his stage time between performing poetry and using audience questions as a jumping off point to remind us of how powerful and connected we are. It was a young crowd, we were all moved, and the vibe that night had all the mercurial urgency of an underground meeting, with all the warmth and joy of an epic wedding toast. Afterwards, my sisters went up to meet him. He asked who had brought them, and they said, “Our sister, Alisha Westerman,” to which he replied, “Oh yeah, I remember her.” The only thing greater than my surprise was how cool I felt in this crowning moment of my big sister career.
While living in New York, I was wowed by his writing yet again. I read The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip Hop (2006), glancing up from the page to the graffiti on the metro walls, seeing this “cave art” in a new light as my train plunged into the bowels of Manhattan. I half believed what he claimed in the introduction – that he had found this ancient manuscript rolled up in spray paint canisters in abandoned subway tunnels. I was sure that if I put my face against the plexi and peered down far enough, I would see the artifacts lying amongst the trash.
“Ancient Judaic law. Kosher, Crunk and hardcore. Goat blood mark on the door.”
I loved this mesh of reality and fantasy, with the potent swirl of Ancient, Holy and Street – the purpose of which was to incite one to tap into one’s karmic inheritance and – well, take over the world. And I was crazy about this omission of vowels, a la Hebrew or Arabic (“NGH WHT?”), which distills a word down to its essence but also leaves it open to interpretation.
This concept wasn’t new to me. Semitic languages have this consonantal root pattern, where vowels change depending on inflection, which then changes the meanings of the words. Thus the Talmudic practice of arguing the myriad interpretations of ancient rabbinic writings on Jewish law and tradition. And I was raised in a church that often called Jesus by the Hebrew name Yahweh (YHWH) and emphasized study of the Old Testament. But this practice took on a personal, spiritual meaning for me and has found its way into my work. (I’ll expand on that in a forthcoming post.) Absorbing rhytmic poetry which used English put through this Hebraic filter felt like reading a language I didn’t know I could understand. Or being in a lucid dream and successfully willing myself to fly.
In an unexpected yet appropriate follow up to The Dead Emcee Scrolls, Saul put out The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust (2007), produced by Trent Reznor. I’ve always preferred Saul’s poetry to his music, but I track it for my favorite Saul-isms, like you might watch a spin off of your favorite TV show. And starting with just the title, I was instantly thrilled. The sound was dark, the message was legion, the look was fly. It promised an unprecedented cultural mashup. And culture mashup is the reason I exist.
“NiggyTardust: Grippo King, philosopher, and artist. Downright to the marrow, he’s the arrow through the heartless. Sunlight in the afternoon, his shadow travels furthest. Woven through the heart of doom, he’s bursting through the surface. Hardly nervous, suffice to say, he understands his purpose: Threshold King of everything, a comical absurdist.”
In 2008 on the Niggy Tardust tour, Saul played one night at Irving Plaza in Manhattan, a block from the restaurant where my sister NK and I were working. Like The Dead Emcee Scrolls, Niggy Tardust was inciteful, fresh and exciting. The look and feel, as hinted by the album cover, was a sweaty emulsion – part electro-shaman, part acrylic circus freak, part Atlantean throwback avec frohawk, dayglow feathers, 19th Century military garb and Aboriginal facepaint. It all made perfect, genre-busting, tribal, rock’n’roll sense.
There was the obvious modeling after Ziggy Stardust, which held deep meaning for me; The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was part of the soundtrack to my life with Shane – and my survival after losing him. Bowie’s Five years was the last song we performed together, after he had miraculously recovered from major surgery. I’ll never forget standing on stage behind him with a borrowed base slung across my chest as he wailed those lyrics – a moment which had left my body numb and transmuted the crowd into an abstract host of Seraphim.
What’s more, my talented friend Davin Givhan, who had just produced my album Mellow Mood, was touring as Saul’s guitarist, complete with face paint and a feather in his fro. There were Day-Glo necklaces and dirty beats, his daughter joined him on stage in a tutu, hight tops and glitter, and I think at some point there was some climbing of scaffolding.
A few blocks away from Irving Plaza, the Niggy tour also touched down for a daytime show at Virgin Records. I convinced someone at a music blog to get me a few minutes with Saul for an approved interview. It was a muggy summer afternoon. NK and I walked over from work with a brand new digital Canon Elph, a cassette recorder and a composition notebook. Someone in a button-up shirt snuck us into the dj tower and said we had five minutes with Saul, who was already in costume. NK took video while I asked the questions. At some point during this dispatch of which we were the inconspicuous scribes, an aging dj came in for his shift and was visibly startled by this awe-ful incarnation and two young ladies. “You guys can’t be in here,” he said. “How did you even get in here?” We wrapped up and NK and I tiptoed out, feeling like information bandits, with the ‘why’ behind Niggy encoded in our hearts. We stayed afterwards to watch the show, but compared to the download we had just gotten, the show was a footnote.
Exemplary of the Plutonian dissasembly that ruled my life at that time, I handed the footage off to the music blog editor – and never heard from him again. For the past six years, I thought the interview was lost. But last Thursday as I was going through my archives, I found a forgotten transcription.
Readers, I now present to you the Lost Gospel of Saul, as it came to pass in the turreted dj quarters at the now defunt temple of the unholy Virgin Records, complete with digital images retrieved from the all but abandoned altar site known as myspace. The insights and reflections that follow don’t seem to have aged much; a message of equality and oneness is always timely. #tbt.
Who is Niggy Tardust, and how does he differ from Saul?
Ok. Niggy Tardust is a hybrid. Niggy Tardust is essentially the nickname that I give to the up-and-coming mindset of our generation who can see beyond, essentially, the concept of race and realize that it is a social construct and how it applies to, you know, how we look at music for example. You know, like ‘Oh you’re supposed to listen to this kind of music because you look like this, and you’re supposed to make this kind of music because you look like this. Niggy Tardust is a fusion of all of those things melded into one. He is a hybrid. He is, you know, ah, un-PC Barak Obama. (Laughs)
Can you say something about how, stylistically and spiritually, an icon like young Bowie, or Native American culture influences the spirituality of the Niggy Tardust album?
Sure. Well, I believe that performance is ritual. As a result, when I – even while recording the album – there is a process of always remembering that this… (gestures with hands) you know, keeping, in a sense, the candles burning, and investing all of that energy and all of my energy into the creative process. So that, in my house the entire time that I was creating the album there was a vibe. A sort of thing where – not necessarily do you take your shoes off, but that sort of thing where you take your shoes off and acknowledge the energy of what’s happening here – that we kept up for a year and a half inside of my house.
And in that sense, the first song I wrote for the album was called Convict Colony. And I wrote it, actually, on tour in Australia and I wrote it because of an experience that I had when I arrived there, which was quite simple: spending the first day not seeing any Aboriginal people, and being like, What the fuck? What did you guys do to them? Where are they? I know they’re here, and I know perhaps my perception may be a little ‘National Geographic’, but where are they? So I started thinking about those indigenous people and thinking about Native Americans and then also the fact that we’re all – everyone – is indigenous to some land, but realizing that there are these cultures that are founded upon other cultures.
And so at that time, you’ll see it, especially on the album cover, I’m wearing this aboriginal bracelet that was actually a headband that was given to me by an aboriginal elder. At the time of making the album I was wearing everything. I went to South Africa, I went to all these places and I would just adorn myself with everything from all of these places so that I could transfer that energy into what I was doing.
And so, as far as the Native American aspect, when you see the feathers and all that, it’s funny, I think the reason I started leaning that direction with Niggy was because, in wanting him to represent a culmination of all of these different cultures and to essentially represent the new tribe of us. The hybrids. And we’re all hybrids. We’re all interracial, biracial, all of us, regardless of what we think we know. We all are. And I wanted the music to reflect that. And in image, I just started dressing up for war. (Laughs). I wasn’t thinking Native American necessarily. I was just thinking… I don’t know. (Shrugs) I don’t know. It just happened, essentially. It just happened. And it’s funny because I was going through a lot of indigenous, like, coffee table books. Not just Native American. I think there’s a book called African Ceremonies I was going through all this stuff that I had in the studio and all this stuff, along with David Bowie stuff, which I’m getting to. And all of the paint and feathers, they all had it. It was in all the cultures. And so it’s as much that, as it is this. It’s all of it.
As far as Bowie – Bowie was inspiring, aside from the Niggy Tardust/Ziggy Stardust reference because of his understanding of how to incite the media. He was a folk artist. In many ways a failed folk artist who had been boxed. Like, we know what you do, we know what you’re about. And with Ziggy Stardust, he transformed his career. Like, he looked at what the kids were doing, what the media was about, where the music was going and said, ‘Ah’. Everybody was a long-haired hippy. And he was like, ‘Wait a second.’ And just took it to a whole new level and raised serious questions about gender and sexuality in the same way that I wanted to raise questions about race and identity. And so, he was inspiring that way.
There’s a significant moment on the album where, on the song Niggy Tardust, where you create a space of silence. When I say Niggy, you say nothing. Niggy ….. Niggy …. Where you name yourself, and you instruct your audience not to respond. Now, when I saw you play at Irving Plaza, I was surprised that everybody (Saul smiles and chimes in here) says nothing. Was that surprising? Was that the prevailing response? And what do you think is the significance of that?
Well, I actually meant for it to be ambiguous. I wanted to sort of present the schizophrenia of race. You know, to say, ‘You don’t even know what you’re aloud to say. Are you aloud to say Niggy Tardust? You like the name. I know you like it, but how do you feel when you tell your friend about it? Do you feel like you’re supposed to say it? Is it wrong? Would you wear a t-shirt?’ You know, all of these things.
So, it didn’t surprise me. The confusion follows us every show. A lot of people say it and there’s a lot of people that don’t. I just see it as interesting, but I have no judgement on it. (Shrugs) It is what it is. Because I mean both things when I say nothing. When I give that instruction, I’m also telling them, you know I’m aloud to say it but you’re not aloud to say it. It was Chris, actually, who… I think it was Chris—I can’t remember if it was me or Chris who… but I wrote that song in Australia too. Or just the chorus. And I remember being like, him screaming out “Nothin! Shutup. (Laughs). We gotta keep that.”
How has the tour evolved since it began? Where is Niggy taking you? Will he put out any more work?
It has been fun. The tour has been exciting. It has been America and Europe, so far. And we’ve been really well-received across the board. The music has grown and our band comradery has really developed. The effect of that on me and on Niggy has been – it’s all just a matter of chops and confidence. Really, I apply all this makeup and all this stuff so that when I look in the mirror before I go onstage, I don’t see Saul. And I’ve been having fun with it, and find myself doing it more and more on my off days, which is fun. My wife and I, we’ll go out and we’re like, facepaint, yeah yeah! That’s been fun. It’s definitely made me realize I’m alive, I should have fun. Not just onstage. And it’s a wonderful excuse to shop. It’s a really great excuse to shop. And so that’s been cool. I don’t know whether there’ll be more Niggy Tardust music or not. I haven’t decided yet.
Saul’s latest album, Volcanic Sunlight, was released on November 11, 2011. He and his wife, actress and filmmaker Anisia Uzeyman, are completing their work on Dreamstates, an Afro-Punk inspired love story, shot entirely on two iPhones.