It can be hard to find a moment to applaud Saul Williams. During his Los Angeles stop on the current MartyrLoserKingdom tour, he transitioned from song to poem and back to song with little more than the briefest pause, like he had so much to say that taking a breath would force him to leave something out.
That’s not a surprise for anyone following the career of a true original, a man who has starred on Broadway, released several rap albums (the latest, “Martyr Loser King,” comes out later this year) and co-wrote and starred in “Slam,” a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner in 1998. In so many formats, on so many stages and in front of so many different audiences, Williams has always had something to say.
amNewYork caught up with Williams to talk about combining weighty topics with hip-hop and the aftermath of his turn in the Tupac Shakur-inspired musical “Holler If Ya Hear Me.”
What is the role of the artist when it comes to protests and social justice?
I can’t speak in general. I can only speak about what I’m on. And to me, it’s the same thing as a lot of the new start-ups: Disruption. Total and utter disruption and subversion, to provoke dialogue. I want to provoke that visceral charge in that place where the change will come from and to disrupt the quiet — or the noise — when it is not focused on the changes that have to happen in order for society to stand upright. It’s 2015, and a lot of the stuff we’re talking about in American media right now feels outdated. For me, it’s that final push of “[Expletive] that.” Even the so-called rebels in music — I look at hip-hop and still see a lot of people trying to fit into the one percent. But the martyrs were the other one percent, the ones who are willing to die for what they believe in, or have already. I think of Aaron Schwartz. Or people who gave up everything, like Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden.
How do you balance that sense of disruption, that responsibility that you feel, with the party atmosphere that is such a big part of hip-hop culture?
I started as a dancer. I danced for a hip-hop group when I was 17. And I was dancing to Public Enemy. When we talk about Public Enemy now, so many people talk about the message. But I’m referencing the music, the Bomb Squad [Public Enemy’s production team]. It wasn’t people saying the most important [expletive] over weak music — it was the most relevant music of the time, just like Bob Marley was, just like Fela Kuti was, just like Jimi Hendrix was. To me, if we’re talking about a party, trying to get people to dance, I find that when the music speaks to me, when it’s embedded in the beat, I find myself dancing harder than I ever would otherwise.
We’re a year removed from the end of your stint in the Broadway show “Holler If Ya Hear Me.” With that kind of time to reflect, what did you take away from the experience?
Even theater, which is my first love, can be co-opted by power structures. People were going to Broadway, tourists, and having to choose between “Rocky the Musical” and what we were doing. [Between] “Cinderella” and what we were doing. Media has done so well in aligning entertainment with escapism that we forget the role of great theater: To make us think, to give us a window into life. A week after that play ended, Mike Brown was shot. Honestly — that play was about exactly that. But it’s “too political” for Broadway. Why do we always have to go to the same fairy tales — why do we always have to escape?
Actor, poet, emcee, dancer, filmmaker what does your business card actually read?
Punk rock of Gibraltar. [Laughs] That’s normal. Everybody does that. It’s only school where you go to one room for chemistry and one room for biology. In your body, all of those things exist at once. In a movie, there might be music, and you tap your feet to it. We all do all of those things. It’s just the marketing machine that separates those things. Show me a movie without music. Show me a song without some sense of poetry in it.
If you go: Saul Williams performs at the Brooklyn Bowl on Thursday at 8 p.m., 61 Wythe Ave., Williamsburg, 718-963-3369, $15.