Saul Williams moved back to the United States in 2013 after a few years spent living in Paris. He was greeted by a familiar feeling in the air, one he hadn’t expected, or hoped, to re-experience: he returned right as a fresh wave of violence and protest took to the air, something that hasn’t abated since.
“I was in New York for the whole Eric Garner thing, and in the States for the Michael Brown thing,” the rapper-poet recalls, over the phone from his new home in Los Angeles. “Just to see the proliferation of events, this new generation born to the desire to demand better treatment and reality and justice and what have you. It was very bizarre—actually, not very bizarre. Because I grew up with the same rallies, the same manifestations and the same truths and the same police brutality, and the whole nine. And so you travel, and you move back to the place you’re from, and that thing starts up again, and so you kind of feel like you’ve gone full circle. I was at those same rallies when I was 10.
“It’s not the sort of thing you want to be familiar with,” he concludes with a wry laugh.
Social consciousness and pointed words for the world at large have always been part of Williams’ MO, whether in albums, poetry or acting (he starred in the acclaimed 1998 drama Slam, and had a brief Broadway run in Holla If Ya Hear Me). And it’s our modern, troubled sea change that Williams has set his sights on with MartyrLoserKing. It’s a concept record due out in January with an accompanying graphic novel to follow; its narrative circles a hacker—who goes by the eponymous title—seen as a hero until he gets branded a terrorist.
“It’s a play on very simple notions that we’re all familiar with: that we can see from anything from Michael Brown to Aaron Swartz, or from the whistleblower to the person who’s persecuted for reasons unbeknownst to them,” he says.
“There’s no way you’re going to say that name [MartyrLoserKing] and not question something about it: what that means, where it comes from and what have you,” Williams continues. “So there’s something having to do with provocation in the thoughtful sense. And then I think, unfortunately like I said, it’s revisiting something that’s a recurring theme in all of our lives right now. The number of people—14, I think the count was yesterday [in the San Bernardino shooting]? Because it speaks to the times. That’s what I’m playing with in the music, in the idea, is finding interesting ways of speaking to the times.”
MartyrLoserKing’s hacker protagonist, then, is a way to speak to technology’s deep embedding in how we experience the world around us, though Williams notes it’s not simply the tech he’s looking to comment on.
“Technology is awareness, first: technology as we practice it is a reflection of consciousness and awareness,” he says. “We’re trying to make things that reflect [our consciousness], and then we’re playing with those reflections so we can do more, perhaps, than we can do with our regular minds. We can calculate at a quicker rate, we can transfer and transform information at a quicker rate, we can communicate at a quicker rate.”
That’s not always a good thing. But it does offer a certain level of freedom that’s impossible to find elsewhere.
“It can also filter through all sorts of things: you look at the comment sections under videos on YouTube, that are also a place for all sorts of things,” Williams laughs. “But, used for good, if you will, it’s something that they haven’t completely dominated yet, they being the state. It’s something they can’t completely control. And so it’s great for the pioneers.”
Fri, Dec 11 (8 pm)
With k-os, Doom Squad, Divot
Union Hall, $25