Poet and rapper Saul Williams rejects escape with bold new work

By Kaleem Khan
Saul Williams synthesizes theatre, music and a graphic novel with MartyrLoserKing. Photo: Georgie Wood

Saul Williams synthesizes theatre, music and a graphic novel with MartyrLoserKing.
Photo: Georgie Wood

CALGARY — Based out of New York, Saul Williams has made a name for himself as a poet, musician, actor and activist. The understated artist has released five studio albums, collaborating with industry giants like Def Jam’s Rick Rubin and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor. He has also acted in nine films, starred in a Broadway play and released five books thus far. Williams’ latest contribution is a culmination of his artistic elements with the upcoming graphic novel, play and album titled MartyrLoserKing. Illustrated by Ronald Wimberly and Richie Pope, the novel is a noted departure from Williams’ written catalogue, which is comprised completely of poetry.

“There’s a bunch of stuff I read that’s inspired me to write a graphic novel,” says Williams. “There are a few people I’m a fan of, people like Warren Ellis, for example. I finalized the idea [of a graphic novel] after I read Habibi by Craig Thomson. That was the final straw for me. Although I had started conceptualizing MartyrLoserKing, it wasn’t a graphic novel until I had read that,” he explains.

In anticipation of the release, Williams has released a number of glitched-out poem-videos that touch on revolution, slavery, and capitalism. Williams has remained tight-lipped on many details, only revealing that the protagonist, MartyrLoserKing, is a Burundian hacker starting a revolution from his computer. Where many of Williams’ poems are rooted in concepts and themes, MartyrLoserKing channels these themes into a narrative.

“All my poetry books have been concept-based because I’ve… been trying to get closer and closer to trying to tell a story in novel-like form. So if you go through my books of poetry, I’ve always had a theme that turned into a concept or an approach or something. And then I started adding the idea of character — different characters or a character. Writing a poem in the voice of a character to try and play with a narrative approach and I would say the graphic novel is a culmination of that,” he says.

Political and social commentary has always been a strong suit for Williams, perhaps most overtly in his music. Early tracks from Williams’ career include “Black Stacey,” a ballad about the insecurities of growing up with a darker skin complexion and “List of Demands (Reparations),” a powerful protest song with punk rock sensibilities. These tracks set the foundation for Williams to evolve along with the world events that change our contemporary discourse.

“We all see the news and how we interpret it is how our different filters of observation come into play. Music for me is a platform to play with these ideas in public. When I look at things that are going on, yeah I do believe that music is powerful, like I know and believe that art is powerful. It’s hard to look at crazy shit happening and injustice going on and to feel like there is no music or art that is addressing it… It’s a reflection of what I’m thinking about and, yeah, it has something to do with what I think is powerful in music, or how to work magic with music. That’s all I’m trying to do is find those magic pressure points that can break or crack a system and music is the perfect search engine for that,” says Williams.

Over the span of two decades, Saul Williams has fearlessly embodied artistic integrity, constantly innovating his many crafts. By contributing the higher consciousness of poetry that is often overlooked in music communities, Saul Williams sets himself apart as a musician and artist.

“For me, the weakest art is the art that serves as escape. I don’t really feel like escapism when I’m listening to Bob Marley for example. I feel like I’m escaping the illusion of fucking reality and entering fucking pure consciousness. It doesn’t have to be in the words. I mean, shit, I can listen to Lee Scratch Perry and feel the same thing. I’m just listening to the bass. Or I used to feel that way about drum and bass — like this is the drumroll to the fucking millennium. This is just some shit that’s opening me up. There’s no fucking words, it’s just the rhythm,” he says.

Saul Williams has performed countless shows, performing alongside Nas, Erykah Badu, and even [now deceased infamous beat poet] Allen Ginsberg. Constantly exploring himself and the world around him through different types of expression, the Renaissance man has no boundaries. When asked what fans should expect from his live performance, Williams laughs, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I’m gonna do nothing onstage magnificently.”

Saul Williams plays the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver on December 9th, Union Hall in Edmonton on December 11th and The Gateway in Calgary on December 12th.

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