Saul Williams is the definition of woke. The poet, artist, writer, actor and activist from New York has never been afraid to speak with his chest about the problems facing black culture today, whether that be through hard-hitting poetry or vitriolic tracks that are the result of when industrial rock meets hip-hop. He’s been in the game for nearly 20 years – a seasoned veteran, if you will – and has seen everything from the election of Donald Trump to the rise of Soulja Boy. He has met that by sticking to his principles and staying outspoken, inspiring a generation.
After an exhilarating performance at this year’s Afropunk London, Viper sat down with him for an in-depth discussion about identity, capitalism, and the concept of blackness in modern society.
How was your Afropunk experience?
Quick. We arrived at 4:30pm and were on stage at 5:30pm so it was pretty rock and roll, and we did a 30-minute teaser, really, but the organizers of the festivals are my friends at this point and I’m really happy to see it in London. It’s awesome.
What does the concept of Afropunk mean to you?
What Afropunk means is that sense of having an idea of what black culture is, particularly in America where it started, knowing what is it and how it started. But a lot of times that idea is infiltrated by the media and propaganda surrounding the idea of blackness. Afropunk is very about exploding the idea of blackness into the reality of all the variety of who we are, how we sound, how we approach music and how we can approach music beyond the commercial template that everyone falls in line with.
Would you say Afropunk serves as a rebellion against a type of blackness that has been perpetuated by other forces by embracing all types of blackness?
I wouldn’t say it’s a rebellion against any form of blackness, but a rebellion against all propaganda and ideas surrounding the reality of black culture. It’s got to expand because we’re dealing primarily with Anglophone artists and blackness is way beyond Anglophone, so it’s got to expand even more if we want to really understand the dichotomy of who we are and what we represent on this planet. But [Afropunk] is about that resistance and that inherent spirit that is crucial in the face of a reality that has used and abused our presence in order to exploit it and capitalise on our bodies, our brilliance, our creativity etc.
We live in a world that has been affected by our presence but sometimes a feeling that is stronger than that is that it has been infected by the presence of capitalism. Many countries throughout the African continent and diaspora have also been infected by the presence of capitalism and imperialism and we have caught the bottom of the boot in relationship to that. Even stronger than that is how it has affected women, the indigenous of many lands. We’re just here to revitalise the resistant spirit.
So, in 2017, what do you think are some of the main issues affecting the black community across the world?
I think of the intersectional exchange beyond the idea of blackness, like the trans and LGBTQ communities, the migrants from places like Ethiopia, Sudan and across the continent. I think of the continual existence of mined resources and labour that is either not paid for or minimally paid for – the same shit that we’ve always faced. There hasn’t been a whole lot of success – the Jay-Zs and Beyonces of the world – but we need to understand something beyond simply the idea of winning in capitalism. But perhaps, and I’m thinking of the great spirits of Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Thomas Sankara; I think of our ability to transform and progress the world. That’s what we’re facing right now, as Europe is facing this neo-fascist, Brexitarian reality.
In an ideal world for you, is capitalism null and void?
It’s not that its null and void, we know that we’re not necessarily going to erase capitalism but we need to uplift the idea of justice. We need to make it a fair market and gain for those who have been exploited. Right now, capitalism mainly operates in a white male Christian patriarchal setting, and black capitalists aren’t necessarily going to save us, and women capitalists aren’t necessarily going to save us. But balancing the equation might perhaps introduce us to the new possibilities and realities that we can then step into, because there are enough resources for all of us to benefit from and there’s no reason why the riches of the earth should be hoarded by the 1% when it could be shared with the 100%. So how we find that and how we find a system to enact that is what we’re facing.
So, to you, the issue is people becoming aware of their position in the world, looking past their own needs, and trying to uplift other people?
Yeah, we all want to help our families and loved ones and, for most people, firstly themselves, but there’s a benefit to you that comes from being of service to others. I’ve learned that in my career for certain; all I pretty much do is share my inner turmoil publicly, and then have people come to me and thank me for sharing it because they are now inspired to share, and we’re connected. And I’m paying for that, so it’s not to say we should erase capitalism, but it is to say that there is a standard in which we can make this mean something and transform the paradigm so that people aren’t as heavily exploited by a system that’s not built for them.
Right now, the way the system is set up – I mean, I say the system, but what does that mean? – institutions like the World Bank and the United States. The UK is lucky to have some sort of social system set up, whereas in the US we pay a fortune for healthcare, universities and all of that. We need to do that for the world and we need visionaries who find a way to perpetuate that for the world. Why can’t everybody have healthcare? Why are there only 10 doctors in one country and 10 million in others. How do we spread the wealth, especially when the stuff that builds those resources usually come from a localised place like Africa? Where they need that plutonium, cobalt, iron, gold. The basis of the system is commodities that come from an exploited land and an exploited people for a huge majority of the economic system globally. We need to make sense of that, we need to redirect our attention to make sense of those years of slavery and colonialism and imperialism and make sense of this planet. It’s possible, and we need to convince the greedy that its actually more lucrative to be more inclusive.
Do you not feel that, for as long as the black community has been exploited, it’s going to take just as long to get past that psychological hurdle?
For sure, it takes a long time but it’s been a long time. I’m always inspired (and depressed) by this quote from [freedom fighter] Harriet Tubman: “I could have freed so many more people if I could have only convinced them that they were slaves.” That’s crazy; to know that it goes beyond the mental slavery that Bob Marley sang about. During times of slavery, there were people who were born into it so deeply, that when they heard of the so-called ‘freedom’ in the North, they were like, “the fuck are they talking about? That’s not real, don’t come at me with that bullshit, you’re trying to get me killed.” That’s how embedded this bullshit is in us, and that’s how hard we have to work to get it out.
You’re a man of many talents, what continues to motivate you as a creative?
How much work there is to be done. I’ve always seen my work as planting seeds, and it’s up to the next generation to harvest the crop.