Renaissance man of God

By Kylee Dawson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, March 3, 2005

When Saul Williams puts beats to his poetry, the man becomes more than just an emcee or a modern troubadour.

He becomes what we all fantasize being: a rock star.

Having released his self-titled album in September, Williams returns to Tucson next Wednesday to give us all a taste of his latest poetic musings when he performs at City Limits.

Most reputably known as one of the most talented spoken word poets the world has ever seen, Williams is an actor, a rapper, a singer and a preacher. And he's actually good at them all, but doesn't take kindly to his music being categorized.

"Categories, essentially, allow us to form and create judgments," Williams said. "To me, creating and expressing is about fighting through the role of judgment. If I stayed stuck in judgment, I'd be scared to get on stage."

As an actor turned poet, turning to music also came naturally to Williams, who used rhyming as a hobby while studying acting in elementary school.

"I always was putting rhymes with beats and writing songs," he said. "Also, that was my introduction to poetry. I never planned on my life taking this route, but I can look at everything I did in life and say, 'Oh yeah, everything prepared me for it.'"

Around the same age, Williams said he became more interested in people hearing his words, rather than his music. Things have changed now that the 33-year-old poet frequently shifts gears from performing his standard spoken word to rapping and singing on stage with the accompaniment of music.

"Someone might leave a concert that I've done musically and be like, 'We couldn't hear you, we couldn't hear what you were saying,' and my response would be, 'So what? I don't give a fuck,'" Williams said. "It wasn't about what I was saying, it was about the music and it's melding with what was being said.

"Music isn't necessarily always about the comprehensibility of the lyrics. Not always. Sometimes the beauty is in the deciphering of them."

As an actor, Williams portrayed a mentally unstable character, twice, in "K-Pax," and most recently, "Lackawanna Blues." But before all that, he wrote and starred in "Slam," in which he played a rapper who used poetry as a cathartic weapon to cope with the trials in his life. Fiction clearly mimics reality.

"I think of poetry in terms of incantation in the same way that a priest will tell you that you need to recite a hundred Hail Marys, or say the Lord's Prayer out loud and backwards in order for shit to straighten out in your life. They do that because they know the power of the mantra, the power of prayer, the power of calling forth energy and surrounding yourself with a certain energy or what have you.

"I mean, what are scriptures but well-written poems? David was a poet. Psalms are poems. If you write a really good poem, after you die, they might call it scripture."

Because his poetry is not always written for the sake of performance, Williams said there is a major difference between performing spoken word and performing music.

"I do believe the musical stuff that I've written, I've written so that I could basically build a stage for myself to allow that sort of release. The release that comes from performing with music is completely different from the release that comes from reciting a poem.

"You're not necessarily gonna see me throwing myself across the stage if I'm reciting a poem, but you might catch me in the middle of a song."

As the son of a Christian minister, it's no surprise Williams is heavily influenced by his spirituality and need to spit verse the way anyone else offers prayer.

"Performance is ritual. Everybody has their daily rituals," Williams said. "The art of performance heightens the act of ritual. You get performance when you're in a religious environment, where people perform the same act continually every week, or every day for the sake of evoking a certain internal response and external response.

"So how does performance benefit me? It's like making an offering to some unseen force. It also allows a certain energy to exit me."

As the author of three collections of poetry - including "The Seventh Octave," "She" and his most recent, "Said the Shotgun to the Head" - Williams also released his first music album, Amethyst Rock Star, in 2001 with the help of co-producer Rick Rubin.

Though his latest album is not entirely about the "black experience," releasing the first music video, "List of Demands (Reparations)" in February was possibly strategic and undoubtedly appropriate for Black History Month.

"This nation is the richest nation because it was built for free by slaves and indentured servants," Williams said. "So, until everyone in the nation fully realizes that, we need months like this to remind people of how they became so privileged."

Saul Williams performs at City Limits, 6350 E. Tanque Verde Road, Wednesday at 8 p.m. Tickets to this all-ages show are $10. Call the City Limits box office at (520) 733-6262 or Ticketmaster at (520) 321-1000 for details.