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Saul Williams Wants You To Think For Yourself

Chicago — When Saul Williams recites poetry it's as if he is channeling direct from his soul. He stands, squares up to the microphone and unleashes a torrent of words, fluid sentences and thoughts. His delivery is forceful; you can feel the weight of his message.

"With me," he recently told the transfixed crowd of nearly 2,000 at Chicago's Riviera Theatre, "you have to imagine the band." He continued. "[We must] privatize our imaginations, to begin thinking for ourselves." The crowd erupted into applause and Williams launched into his verse.

"Sometimes when I'm really into it I feel like a horn player, and I'm there with just colors and the horn," Williams said before the concert, during an interview in his dressing room under the stage. "When I'm writing in my journal, it's very quiet often and I'm pouring it, pouring it and I play it so deep. It has nothing to do with music. It has more to do with the silence.

"The musical ideas usually come out of music," he continued. "There's music in my head. So, it's pretty simple actually."

Williams approaches his dressing room, walking down the narrow corridor, his brown leather satchel hanging from a shoulder. Williams begins to unbutton his black, knee-length overcoat, revealing a black button-up shirt, jeans and brown boots. Williams' hair tufts out; he's got a creamy chocolate complexion and his piercing eyes shine intently. As he enters the room, he chats warmly and jokes with his manager. We settle into the dressing room. The room is relatively bare, somewhat worn, with stark walls. We pull over an end table and he props his feet up. Williams is currently on tour with the Mars Volta, serving as the band's opening act. As we begin to chat, nervy notes from the Mars Volta's soundcheck filter downstairs and the band members pop into the room to say their hellos.

Williams is a published poet — his latest book, "said the shotgun to the head," an epic poem, was published in September. He fervently discusses its images and themes during our conversation. As a poet, Williams often addresses political matters. His favorite themes: the need for people to be independent, to liberate their minds and make decisions for themselves.

"It's really just a matter of the stuff that's really essential to me, like the idea of the role that the woman plays, not just in religion but in our everyday approach to living, and thinking of deity and beauty and greatness, and thinking of all the splendor of life," he said. "I say the book is a result of a kiss and the full inebriation of just feeling this, and the idea that the woman that you've kissed is not just a woman but is God. And God, perhaps, is just a woman.

"It shifts so much...it's like if you have a big stick that's bent to one extreme and you want it to stand center, you have to bend it to the other extreme for it to balance back to center," he continued. "So the idea of engendering divinity, saying, what if it's female? — it forces us to look at things in a new way, which is of the essence right now."

Williams has also recorded an album, Amethyst Rock Star, which found him performing his poetry before a kinetic live band replete with horns, strings and electric guitar. Last spring he also acted in a French play in Los Angeles, and currently has a recurring role on UPN's show "Girlfriends."

Up next? He's at work on a sophomore album. "I'm actually not working with musicians yet," he said. "I'm almost done with my album and I haven't worked with any musicians yet. I've just been doing it myself." He expects it to be released in 2004.

"I play instruments like my kids play instruments. I literally play," he said, flashing a grin and chuckling a bit. "I'm not a musician, but I can get the sound that I need out of it and move on... it's all over the place. I can say that. And I don't know how I can categorize it."

For such a protean poet, Williams often finds himself enjoying one steady role: that of the social critic. He has penned articles for newspapers and magazines, performed his politically charged poetry and, recently, worked with the anti-war organization Not in Our Name. "The artist has to share his or her opinions," he said. "The artist is in many ways the voice of the people. Oftentimes the artist is the true representative of the people, rather than the government figure. And so, yeah, it's quite a responsibility. It's not like you have to have an opinion. It might just be about raising the questions and saying 'I don't know what to think.' The idea of saying, 'I don't know,' is a major accomplishment.... To say 'I don't know' out loud."

Besides politics, Williams also takes issue with the current state of hip-hop. In the past, he offered one major criticism of the genre: it's simply not innovative enough. People aren't making daring music. And they're not pushing the bounds lyrically. "I don't feel as strongly as I did in the past, not because things have necessarily changed, but, one, every time a new OutKast album comes out it's like anesthesia for a while," he said. "I'm able to go, 'OK, everything's good. Everything's fine.' And so I'm kind of anesthetized right now, so that's cool.

"What I do to combat the emotion is create," Williams continued. "Otherwise I'd just be becoming a better and better critic. I think that music-wise, a lot of the music has progressed but lyrically, I just think it hasn't gone anywhere."

He also takes issue with the commercial culture of hip-hop, which was once characterized by its rebellion. "We're living in such an amazing time where change is essential," he said. "Where new ways of thinking are essential to survive.

"Any rapper who's still on the 'I want to run in and have my picture taken with Donald Trump' tip and is totally talking that whole materialist jargon, that is no different than the jargon that condoned Africans being brought here years ago, or condones the war in Iraq," he said. "Then it's like, there's no room for that. I just feel there's no longer any room for that. We have to watch our ideals and values.

"Hip-hop is supposed to be the language of youthful rebellion," he said. "It was the punk rock of my time. That was the punk rock. Hip-hop is no longer punk rock. Most MCs, technically, by their values of make money, get money, blah blah, dog eat dog, are Republican."

I note that the "bling-bling" culture, the whole concept, is totally antithetical to the notion of hip-hop as revolutionary. Williams nods, agreeing enthusiastically. "Yeah. Exactly. So, then it's not," he said. "And cats might think it's rebellious, the idea of like 'I grew up poor and now I have all this loot. Now, look at me. You're scared of me, aren't you?'

"[I'm] not really scared of them because they [a lot of hip-hop artists] share the same values [as mainstream businessmen] and they [businessmen] know that all they have to do is wave a dollar and [those hip-hop artists will] do whatever," he said. "So, it's like, it's actually not frightening anymore. This isn't youthful rebellion. So, hip-hop was once that. But it's cool. It will be back." — Brian Orloff [Monday, November 3, 2003]

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