the man behind the feathers

December 21, 2009
For a man who’s name evokes intensity with a shield of mystery, Saul Williams’ single presence can quiet an entire room packed with people crossing all racial demographics. Making history with Afro-punk as the headliner of the 2009 U.S. tour, Saul Williams seemed like the perfect candidate to represent our idea of freedom of expression fused with tossing out racial boundaries and social norms.

The Man Behind the Feathers
Words and Photos Whitney Summer Boyd
Original AP post with comments found here

(Saul Williams on 2009 Afro-punk tour, Toronto)

At 37 years-old, Saul has touched every aspect of the entertainment industry, ranging from his lead in 1998 poetry documentary, Slam, to working with MTV to publish a collection of poetry books, to touring with System of a Down and Nine Inch Nails. Throughout the Afro-punk tour, he performed music off of his 2007 album, “The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust,” (produced by Nine Inch Nails founder, Trent Reznor) and spent an hour using MAC make-up before each performance to transform into his alter performance ego, Niggy Tardust– a colorful persona he adopted from David Bowie’s 1970’s character, Ziggy Stardust.
Saul’s character was accompanied with equally theatrical band mates, including an electric pianist, Kwame Brandt-Pierce, who looks like a skeleton vampire with a cape and goggles, Davin Givhan on guitar, who rocks a bright yellow tuxedo jacket and bow tie depending on the night, and Saul’s college friend who was also a performer on the tour, CX Kidtronik on electric beat machine– who performs like a mad scientist in a lab creating the perfect formula to Saul’s off the wall lyrics.
Thanks to Niggy and to Saul, Afro-punk interviewed our man of the hour to reveal if his serious stage persona trailed into his personal life and why his songs such as “List of Demands” and “DNA” take such a tone of emergency.

(Saul Williams, 2009 Afro-punk tour, San Diego)

Afro-punk: Do you ever get tired of interviews?

Saul: Not if the questions are good.

Afro-punk: We noticed after your performances, you casually walk off the stage and hug audience members and it never seems like it’s for the camera. Why do you do that if you don’t have to?

Saul: To break the wall. I think because of the work that I do and because some of the things that I say or what have you, I think that sometimes people can take it to some level where it’s not necessary. So it’s a mutual exchange. Because if I don’t do that, one, I would have left an empty room behind the stage, walked onto a stage with four people, performed in front of an audience and gone back to that empty room. I don’t think there is anything more lonely than touring. A lot of times I look into audience and say, man it would be nice to meet some of those people. And if I have enough energy, it would be nice to meet some people. It also depends on the venue. With me touring with Rage Against the Machine or Nine Inch Nails or System of a Down, that individual reaction is just lost.

(Saul and Fans during Afro-punk 2009 Tour in Bolder, Colorado)

Afro-punk: While on the Afro-punk tour, have you had a chance to speak with people who consider themselves a part of the Afro-punk community?

Saul: Most of the people that I meet at these shows are learning about Afro-punk through me. That’s who I end up meeting at these shows.

Afro-punk: Do you feel like you have a responsibility to the Afro-punk movement because of this?

Saul: Yes and no. When I’m doing Lollapalooza, I don’t feel like I have a responsibility to represent Lollapalooza. I’ve toured with tons of festivals, at least 12, and performed at least 100, where there is no personal investment. This differs because there is a personal investment. I think it would be cool if more people were involved. But I don’t like for people to feel alienated. So I am always questioning the idea and the process, on every level. Even with using the term, “afro.” But I know that some people who come from the afro experience kind of need that sometimes to feel like it’s theirs. So I think the incremental stepping stones are cool, but do I feel a responsibility… the responsibility that I feel comes from my own personal ideals on being a human being. There is tons of shit that would be different if it were Saul Willams presents Afro-punk as opposed to Afro-punk presents Saul Williams.

Afro-punk: Knocking our beacon of perfection? In what way would it be different?

Saul: For one, the placement of sponsors. There was one show where I said, you can’t put the sponsors name over the stage when I am performing. It has nothing to do with accepting finances from a corporation, but there is no reason why their name, this big, needs to be hanging over the stage while I’m performing. I just see no purpose in that because I know I’m not getting any money from them. Or, little things, like, the amount of meat on the bus. If it was my experience, then we would have vegan chiefs at every point along the way. It would be a much greener experience. The last tours that I have done have been with bio-diesel fuel. The only stops you make are at whole food stores.

(Saul Williams outside of the Afro-punk tour bus, Detroit, 2009)

Afro-punk: Is there anything else you would do to shake up the tour experience?

Saul: The main thing is, what is the difference of a movement and a lifestyle campaign? The first movement that I was a part of was the spoken word movement and I watched what that movement did and there were lots of corporations that sponsored poetry readings, but no corporation, not even HBO, can say that they were significant in forming the movement. Because it wasn’t a lifestyle campaign, it was a movement where people felt the need to speak up. And we learned to listen and use hip hop and poetry. Our generation would express ourselves in a way where we don’t need music, we don’t even need stages. You see it now when you see Brave New Voices and all of those 14-year-old kids who speak up. It’s like lyrical skateboarding. (Poetry) was like a movement. Even with Afro-punk, the way I see it is a safe haven for kids who may feel singled out for being exceptional or different or for not wanting to wear the uniform and feeling ostracized for being different. For wanting to find a place where they can come and gather and get into the stuff that they’re into and I think as a movement, that’s important. As a lifestyle campaign, I could give a fuck. A movement promotes and instigates change.

Afro-punk: Why did you decide then to work with Nike and allow them to use your song, “List of Demands” in a commercial ad?

Saul: Because with Nike, one, I have owned Nikes, several pairs. So, part of it was just keeping it real. Secondly, I thought that it is was essentially going to reach people that I normally wouldn’t reach. They weren’t telling me what to say, they weren’t asking me to write anything new, they wanted to use something that was four years old that was already written and embedded in who I am and what I believe in. So basically I felt like Nike was doing a Saul Williams campaign. And based on sales and charts after the commercial, Nike’s sales didn’t spike, but mine did.

Afro-punk: A lot of the lyrics in your music are extremely controversial and in your face. There are no subjects that you’ll shy away from in regards to race relations. During this tour, there have been quite a few white people in the audience and they are singing all the words to your songs. Your lyrics don’t even seem appropriate for white people to sing.

Saul: Well for one, that’s because you are black. But I would say it’s written just as much for them. When I decided to do music the way that I have, I knew that I would essentially be in the process of alienating a certain group for part of the journey, that some people wouldn’t be ready yet. It’s the same way people look at Afro-punk, like, that’s cool, but, it’s not hood enough, or whatever they may think. With the poetry, the most hoodest of cats were like, yo, I rep for that. The audience, depending on if I’m doing a poetry reading or a music show, tends to fluctuate. But it’s been like that for years, so in writing the songs, I think what would be the craziest thing to hear white people say.

(Saul Williams performs in Miami, Afro-punk tour 2009)

Afro-punk: So, you’re thinking this as you are writing?

Saul: Yes, I’m talking directly to them. Because I want to see it come through their mouths. Because I know that the process of reciting it will probably be the closest that they will ever come to getting into my brain. It’s not only written for them (white people), but I think it’s as essential for black people who learn it and recite it because it’s beyond pro black, I think of it as meta-racial- using race in order to step beyond it. I think that there are as many, if not more, black people caught up in racial politics than white people perhaps in America and it’s detrimental to our health and growth, although it is necessary in the incremental process of growing. My music and lyrics are set up for the process of catharsis. The part of the process of rebirth. I sometimes set up (my lyrics) for white people to be confused whether they could or should say it, so they can think about how retarded it is that they had to think about that. I set it up the other way so black people could see the confusion in it too, because at the end of the day, what the fuck, these are words.


Afro-punk: One of your songs that elicits the most response from the crowd is called, “Black Stacey” where you talk about a guy who humped his pillow at night and used bleaching cream because of his insecurities. Who exactly is Black Stacey?

Saul: Who I was when I was 13, 14, 15. I never went by Black Stacey, I went by my middle name, my name is Saul Stacey. I grew up an hour outside of New York City in a very troubled, poor, black neighborhood, but there were no other black guys named Stacey. Black Stacey….it was there, I was never called that to my face and I just always knew that’s how I was referred to. I thought it was funny, but as a kid, I went through so much because of my complexion. Especially juxtaposed with the way that I spoke. Especially juxtaposed with what I chose to speak about.

Afro-punk: What were you talking about at 15?

Saul: I mean, I was reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, I was just on one. Big time. The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey…and I would just read these things and be like, don’t you know you are perpetuating the blah, blah, blah. I was on the most black political front that one could ever be on, and be 14, and articulated in a way that would make black people say stuff like, why do you sound so proper or so white, but they would look at me and be like, you are the blackest nigga I know. So, you’re so black, sounding white, talking all that super black shit. If you want the essence of why my songs have that sort of weight and why I’m comfortable with putting things in the mouths of all of those people it’s because of that experience as a kid and I see what it did to me. And basically what it did to me was it opened me up.

(During the Afro-punk 2009 tour, Saul Williams visits his alma matta, Morehouse University in Atlanta)
Afro-punk: How long have you been growing out your hair?

Saul: I have no idea. I’ve had locks I think five times. The first and second time were probably the longest about shoulder length, the second time I grew out locks, it was around the time of Slam and from that point forward, I’ve just always.

Afro-punk: When did your self realization come into play, when you were like, I am this complexion, and I’m okay with it?

Saul: Well politically, it was there in words when I was 14 and 15. My favorite past time was cracking on people and what was hard was that people loved roasting on me. But I remembered all of the jokes that they could say and only a few would have the comebacks where I was like, fuck. I started feeling comfortable with myself, well, it’s an ongoing process, but when I started growing locks. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the mirror.


(Saul in Washington, DC with his daughter and mother)

Afro-punk: How’s it been being on the road and not being able to spend so much time with your daughter, Saturn, and your son, Xuly, as well?

Saul: The flip side of this that nobody really seems to get is that you can look at my tour schedule and say wow, but when I’m home, I don’t have a nine to five. So when I’m home, the time that I have with my kids seem more than what I see my sisters have because they work nine to fives. So when I’m home, I am home.

Afro-punk: How often are you “home”?

Saul: Before this tour, I was home since June. When I get back I’ll be home again until…I have a few spot dates, I’ll go away for two or three days here and there, oh until February.

Afro-punk: What happens in February?

Saul: Usually in February I speak in schools in the states, Black History Month, poets come out and speak, usually between Martin Luther King’s birthday until the end of February. I usually speak a lot at schools. But yes, I do feel like I spend a lot of time with my kids, however, the lifestyle is not conventional, that’s the only thing that’s awkward about it, it doesn’t fit into any conventional realm of conception or perception. My daughter’s mom is a painter and my son’s mom is a choreographer and my son’s mom is as much of a jet setter as I am. So the world that he knows is a world where mom and dad trade off moving around the planet and dragging him with them, so that’s what he knows. He’s nine, and he spent the summer in Paris and right now his mom is in Germany, while I’m here.

Afro-punk: Where does your confidence in jet setting root from?

Saul: My confidence in jet-setting comes from having a jet-setter as a dad. My dad was a pastor of a baptist church and he traveled a lot. He was always on the go, and I loved my dad, but I never missed him. I don’t mean that in a mean way or in a bad way, but it was like, I knew where he was. I knew he loved me and I knew he was busy, and I loved how busy he was. In fact I bragged on him, like, my dad is in so-and-so right now.

Afro-punk: Having your 13-year-old daughter, Saturn, on some of the tour dates has seemed completely natural for her.

Saul: The thing is, Saturn was born in 1996 when I was in Brooklyn in the middle of all of my poetry readings, Saturn was there with me. There are countless images of me from 96′ to 99′ in New York City, doing performances with a kid in a back pack behind me.

(Saul’s daughter, Saturn, as she watches her dad perform, North Hampton, 2010)

Afro-punk: No way. So you’re saying you were performing with a baby on your back?

Saul: From the moment I saw those baby back packs that you can use from the time they are four months old, I just loved those. So I couldn’t wait for Saturn to turn four months old because it was so much easier than the stroller.

Afro-punk: So your school was supportive when you had Saturn?

Saul: I was just supported on many levels, where the school where I was at was like, bring her here, we will use her in class. So, I brought her everyday in my back-pack.

Afro-punk: Right next to the water bottle and pens?

Saul: With a piece of amethyst in my left pocket and a collection of feathers in my right.

Afro-punk: The amethyst theme shows up often in your music. What importance does it play to you?

Saul: That first poem, I stand on the corner of the block, slinging amethyst rocks, was because someone had given me a piece of amethyst. It’s my birth stone, and said, this is your birth stone, do you know the quality of this stone, you should. Learn it. You want to learn the quality of this stone? Just hold it for a few hours, you’ll see. So I started holding amethyst and before I started writing poetry, I was walking around New York holding amethyst in my pocket, and focusing on breathing and drinking lots of water, I started meditating that year, all when I was 23.

Afro-punk: Your necklace you always wear, I noticed you haven’t taken it off for the entire tour. You have one and your daughter has one, too. What is the significance to you and the planet, Saturn?

Saul: First it was just me and then I found it again in Australia, I was in tour in London, and I just thought it was cool, and I never really felt a need to take it off. But you have to understand, I was writing about Saturn, the planet Saturn, before my daughter, Saturn was born, and I felt a connection with the planet. For instance, Saturn is the only planet in our solar system that can exist outside of our solar system because the center of the planet itself is so hot it could exist as if it had its own sun. And the reason it’s so hot is because it is composed as what quantum physics call dark matter, and in our ozone layer, those same elements are called melanin. And I would write about it, and it always freed me up.

(Saul, backstage, wearing Saturn necklace, 2009)

Afro-punk: Any Saturn references in your lyrics?

Saul: I think the first thing I wrote about Saturn is in Amethyst Rock, “Saturn leaving stains in my veins and astrological patterns”…I’ve always been into science-fiction, and particularly, the black science fiction writers. Like Octavia Butler, and beautiful writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison of course, those books really opened at a crucial time for me. It all converged around the same time of a horrible break up, moved to New York, exposure to poetry scene, new father, and then the final thing was that NYU required that we keep a journal, that was the only thing. Keep a journal.


Afro-punk: When did you start asking people to pay you to read your poetry?

Saul : When Saturn was born, I had just started reading poetry that March, that June, July, August when I was not in school living in Brooklyn in Fort Greene, being asked to read in all of these places and just showing up naively, I paid my rent through reading poems that summer. I had no idea, I never asked for money, I didn’t know I should. And at that point, I even thought money was evil. Like, it did not belong aside the idea of good art. So, I was hesitant to even accept it. I didn’t think it was right to get paid for something I loved, something that came so simply. I would think, so, you just want me to read from my journal again, okay. You’re going to pay me $300 to read my journal entries for 20 minutes. Okay. This all came to mind, like, with all this new creative energy coming through me and the way I was surprised to see the universe was supporting this, why would I get in the way of the creative energy of the universe. Let’s go. Okay.

Afro-punk: And you never asked for money for your performances?

Saul: When I started realizing, there was the spiritual side happening and there was also the side where I was in school for acting. I knew I was entering the world of commercial art. I was going to be earning for acting, which I was going to have to place some value on. And crafting the business of that has to do, which is for some people, respect is quantified by how much they had to go through to get you there. So I wasn’t into it at that level, then, but it was not about money. When I first started out, probably 70 percent of the things I did were for free, now, maybe, 30 percent of the things that I do are for free. A lot of times, people will ask, so, what do we pay you. The medical school at NYU was like, we’re having our black medical ball, and we want you to come and read, this was like, 96′, we have a budget, how much do you cost? And I didn’t know what to say, um, $300. So then the next, $400. Then around 97′, I remember doing something at Lyricist Lounge, I was just going by my own little numerology, the numbers that I like, I like three and four, and three and four make seven. So I never asked for five or six, I went from three to four to seven. So then I went from seven to eight to nine, so yea.


Afro-punk: Who is the alter ego, Niggy Tardust?

Saul: Well, I wanted to smash Saul Williams. I felt like there was a very fixed idea as this very intellectual, conscious, thing, where I was like, yea, but you’re kind of missing the point. You listen so hard to what I say but don’t realize that I’ve paid more attention to how I said it. Something like my song, “Coded Language,” people hear a list of 80 names and they’re like, wow, you’re so smart. But I’m like, I’ve fashioned this poem after a manifesto. I’m fucking with form here. You’re dealing with the substance. Yes, you talk about a song like Trigger. And I’m like, dude, do you hear how we sampled that. Do you hear how that beat is and how we’re flowing over that beat? That is what’s crazy. Fuck what I’m saying. What I’m saying is just what I think, but how I’m saying it is what I’m studying.

Afro-punk: So Niggy Tardust is the Superman to your Clark Kent, Saul Williams?

Saul: Niggy Tardust was a way for me to have a bit more fun, to escape the persona that was built by the media, and to explore an unexplored aspect of myself as far as media is concerned. None of my friends consider me deep, most of my friends consider me a clown. And not that Niggy Tardust is a clown in any way, but Niggy Tardust was just a way for me to bring another aspect of myself to the stage and to enjoy more theatrics on the stage which I found hard to do under the umbrella of Saul Williams and the perception of what should be under that umbrella.

Afro-punk: What’s the relationship between you and CX Kidtronik? We heard that you were a back up dancer in his group, KIN, back when you were attending Morehouse College together.

Saul: It was funny because it was things that I didn’t take all that seriously then when I was in school. My main focus was theatre when I was there. Chris had a group, he lived in my dorm, he knew I danced. I free-styled. But yes, he asked me to dance in his group, and my other friends were doing it, too. It was called KIN, Knowledge in the Name of. It was a conscious group and that was when Chris was Muslim. That’s how CX was formed, it was Chris X as opposed to Christopher Davis. Until Muslims were like, you can’t have this big green dread lock and call yourself a Muslim and he was like, okay. At the time we would open up for groups that came through Atlanta, people like De La, Tribe, Arrested Development, all types of people.

Afro-punk: Was CX as wild on stage then as he is now?

Saul: He was on the stage, I would say even more wild then, with a big boom box, it was crazy. And we had trampolines on stage, a muscular guy holding an axe. He had a white friend who went to Emory, that he would pay to come out in the middle of this one song and whip him. And so he’d get whipped in the middle of the show by this white dude and the audience would go wild and the drums would come in. It was always wild.


(Saul Williams being recorded by Morehouse University student, Atlanta, Afro-punk tour 2009)

Afro-punk: Where did that transition of consciousness take effect in your life?

Saul: Well it was my sister first. My older sister, who is seven years older than me came back from college, like, nobody in here will be eating red meat or pork. This is the same sister who came back from college, like, nobody from here needs to be supporting Coca Cola because they support apartheid. She went to Fisk University. And every single time she would come back home, she was like, we don’t do this anymore. This was my older sister who was really cool, who had a car, was smart, was in college. Obviously since I was the youngest, our bonding time decreased because she was so much older than me. I have two older sisters, and I am the youngest.

Afro-punk: What was one of the things she taught you that really stuck?

Saul: I might have been eight or nine, when she gave me like 100 cue cards and said, these are words you shouldn’t use. They were words like, “it”, “stuff,” “like,” just simple words. I didn’t really practice it but it was a consistent thing form her coming home all of the time. She would come home and tell me what I should do my next school report on, she was an activist in her school, and was just always giving me things to think about. I remember I moved to Brazil when I was 16, I was an exchange student. Before I left she was like, you should like, you should lock your hair while you’re gone. And I was like, what, I didn’t even know what she was talking about.

Afro-punk: Growing up, did you ever feel like you were clashing with your father’s beliefs? I remember you mentioned when you went to Morehouse, you were trying to get away from the hypocrisy of the church and what you witnessed growing up.

Saul: The way that I clashed with my father’s beliefs and the way that the clash manifested was that I started feeling …part of my beef with Christianity is it seems like there is a lot of cop out with with the language. And when I say Christianity, I don’t mean in the teachings of Christ, I mean the teachings of the teachings of Christ. I would sit back and listen to them argue about whether a woman should be allowed to be on the pulpit. A women minister, like how dare she, I don’t know if she has any right. So the sexism in the institution, I was like, what does this have to do with God and spiritual upliftment.

Afro-punk: So what does your dad think of your work now?

Saul: My dad was always extremely proud of what I was doing. He had no vocalized beef with anything I said, to the point where I did poetry readings at his church.

Afro-punk: And your mom?

Saul: My mom was rushed from a James Brown concert to give birth to me. That’s my mom, James Brown is in town, I don’t care how pregnant I am, I am going to see James Brown. And so my mom is a huge fan and supporter.

Afro-punk: How do you stop yourself from getting caught up into the celebrity?

Saul: I have no idea. For the most part, life remains extremely personal, there is family life, romantic life, and the day to day life, the daily discipline of creating and those are very few people. It’s only in the context of performing where I deal with celebrity on a regular basis. Aside from that, especially after the move to Paris, I feel like I live rather anonymously. The majority of life exist behind these walls.