Saul Williams: Poet in Amazing Times

Revolutionary Worker #1172, October 27, 2002, posted at

The following is an excerpt of an interview with poet Saul Williams on "Beneath the Surface," October 8, hosted by Michael Slate on radio station KPFK, Los Angeles. Michael Slate is an RW correspondent.

MS: Today we're talking to Saul Williams --poet, actor, musician. And we're going to talk about a song that he wrote for the Not In Our Name Project, a song called "September 12th." Saul, I got to tell you that listening to this new song it really, really grabbed me. I was there when you did your ArtSpeaks performance this year and I watched as the audience was just enraptured with your performance, especially when you did the Pledge of Resistance and you started to talk about resistance to the war. What inspired you to go from there to actually write this song?

SW: You know, I don't really know. I think I'm one of many people, I think there's a lot of us that have been looking for a way to add our voice to that voice of resistance. When I read the Statement of Conscience for the Not In Our Name initiative I was inspired. I was inspired by the fact that there were groups of people thinking about ways in which we as Americans, in particular, could speak up against the regime that is now in office-- in constructive ways. I was one of the many artists and people that signed that statement.

And so this song itself was just something that came, it just came, like a poem comes--I just wrote it. I was working with a DJ at the time--a guy named Musa --and he just gave me this beat and I wanted to write something for it that was more straight-ahead hip hop accessible. This isn't normally how I write nowadays, but when that started happening it turned into this idea. It started off, "Two Autumns and I haven't changed enough/ It's September 12th and the sky is falling/ the sun is risen" and it turned into this thing. I can't even say I was writing it for the initiative. I was just writing a song. When it came time for a chorus though, what fit was "No Not in My Name/ Not in my Life/ Not by my hands/ that ain't my fight."

MS: When you talk about the Statement of Conscience, it really is inspiring when you look at the numbers of people and the type of people who have stepped up to sign it. But there was a time, just last Spring, when it was a lonely spot, especially in the arts, if you were out there and taking a stand against the war. There weren't a whole lot of people taking this stand who could come together and see each other. It seems that this has changed a lot now.

SW: Hopefully. I mean, I don't think that artists as a whole are encouraged in modern-day society, especially if you're dabbling with the mainstream and with the industry, I don't think that artists are encouraged to expound on their political views or to express them or what have you. I think we are often geared towards shying away from expressing them so that we can appeal to everybody. I believe that our talent, whatever comes to us, comes to us for a reason and we have to use our voice. I know that the gift I've been given has to do with oration, has to do with speaking, you know, having a way with words or what have you. The only thing that I pray is to use that gift wisely and to use it for something more than like wooing a woman or something.

It's important in this society to be able to think for yourself, to be able to raise questions, to be able to question authority, to be able to grow and learn and think beyond what's given to you. Because what's given to us is so much less than what is actually there.

Many of us are afraid to draw conclusions. We're afraid to think of what it means that say 40 percent of the population of Africa now has AIDS. It's easier for us to think that maybe they are just very promiscuous. We don't want to think of what that may really entail. You know, when you think that ok, the rubber for our tires, the oil for our car, the chips that make our cell phones and computers work--they all come from there but they are not owned by them. It's the richest continent but ironically the poorest people. You don't want to put two and two together because you're afraid of what it might add up to....

It's an amazing time. It's an amazing time to be a writer of poetry because I feel like I live in an age where there is no more metaphor. It's all apparent.

MS: And at the same time, the people need metaphor. We need art like yours and much more of it.

SW: Yeah, I believe that music is perhaps our greatest means of amassment. You know, a song can do so much. It can make you feel something that you were already feeling but weren't truly in touch with, you weren't able to grasp it. There's a lot to be said for art. At the same time I think that artistically--maybe just only artistically--but artistically I'm like what one might call a musical communist. I believe that the arts should be used to enlighten and empower the masses. I believe that that is our responsibility, that we have to surrender that as opposed to just using it to pump our egos. And it's not that I don't believe in art for art's sake, but I believe in so much more than that . I've seen the power of it. I've seen what can happen when someone is inspired by the way words are put together in a poem or a song or what have you. And, gosh, it has so much effect on the mind and the heart.

MS : How did this war impact you and your art?

SW: You know, the whole idea of it being an amazing time to be alive. When you can sense that we are witnessing history--however horrific it may be in some instances--we are witnessing it. To have been alive to see Nelson Mandela become president of South Africa; to have been alive to have seen this Bush that's in office steal the presidency; to have been alive to witness that--now we kind of like just float through it but I think that 50 years from now our grandchildren will be like "What was that like? What did it feel like?" You know, "It wasn't revealed until 20 years later that they actually did steal the presidency but...."

I sense that these are amazing times. And in a situation such as this for me it becomes a dream come true because I've always wanted to feel as if that which I was writing and that which I was creating had its place.

Artists hear a lot of things sometimes. Some artists hear stuff like "he's before his time," you know, "Hendrix was before his time, if he had come out now...." Some artists hear that. Then Victor Hugo says there's nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. And so to be thinking politically and spiritually along the levels that I've been trained to think by my parents and groomed to think--to feel as if now is the time, to feel as if the stuff that many of us are creating is completely in tune and in sync with this moment and it's being created out of necessity--that, in and of itself, is inspiring to me.

So the effect of the war and what have you--it's interesting--it keeps me in a very astute mind state. I'm far away from the world of fantasy that I may have been in four years ago. I'm watching, I'm digesting, I'm dissecting and dissecting and analyzing and I'm just amazed at what's happening. And that amazement is what I'm channeling into--you know, songs and poems.

MS: One of the reasons people were able to get this song out so quickly was because people recognized the urgency of getting it out. ...

SW: Well, we are perhaps weeks away from this new war occurring. We're just days away from the year anniversary of when the bombing began in Afghanistan. We're in that moment where if we don't speak up now in the same way that just occurred in England [referring to major anti-war demonstrations in England]--if the American people do not find a way to say in mass "We are against this! We are against this!" then these further atrocities are about to occur in our names....

At any time, whether it be a soldier or a civilian from another country that is killed by something that comes from this country, it happens in our name. They don't say the name of the soldier that killed the other soldier. They say an American soldier, someone fighting for America . Well, what are we fighting for? What am I fighting for? Because what I'm fighting for doesn't seem to be the same thing that the regime that's in power seems to be fighting for. That needs to be said. And if other people feel the same way they need to say it, otherwise no one is going to know it.

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