In the mid-'90s, Saul Williams emerged as one of the key figures in the slam-poetry movement. Since then, his work has evolved, and he's become a pundit as well as a poet. On his most recent release, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!, he delivers spoken-word vocals to electronic music by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor. Now Williams has attached himself to the Afro-Punk tour touring the country. Inspired by the 2003 documentary Afro-Punk, the tour is a music-and-arts program that features underground bands like American Fangs, CX KIDTONIK & Tchaka Diallo and TBC. Headliner Williams spoke to us from his home in Paris, where he's lived since June.
Do you like Paris?
It's been nice to get away, and it's good for the mind and spirit to shift perspective and look at things from a new angle.
What exactly is the Afro-Punk tour? Is it something like an African-American Warped Tour?
I think of it as creative outreach. Growing up in the 'hood in New York, I was hungry for visions of alternative black people. I was hesitant to take off the uniform of whatever it was that I was supposed to wear and supposed to like and supposed to be listening to. Anyone who dared to be different usually suffered a great deal of ridicule.
Does punk rock have a secret black history we don't know about or has it always been a white thing?
I don't know if there's a secret history. All you'd have to do is ask a Jello Biafra or a Henry Rollins about the role that Bad Brains played in their lives, and it wouldn't be much of a secret. Bad Brains is a crucial band. There are other bands like Death that are just getting popular now. I don't know if it's been a secret or just not thought of. What was happening with Bad Brains in D.C. in the late '70s took place at the same time that Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaattaa and Kool Herc were doing their thing in New York. It's the same exact period. It's almost a fork in a road. We could have gone in a separate direction.
Do you consider yourself an Afro-Punk?
I don't consider myself an Afro-anything. I feel like I've spent the majority of my life fighting to not be considered in any box, which is the irony of being on a tour like this. At the end of the day, I reject such categories, but I see them as strategic stepping-stones that other people need.
Speaking of strategic stepping-stones, is that how you see your connection with the slam-poetry scene?
Probably not, only because I think of strategy as something that's sought out and planned. With my relationship to the slam-poetry scene, it just happened around me. It was an amazing world to fall into as I was starting to keep a journal. I've never called myself a slam poet. At some point, my poems got too long. When it fit, it fit. More so than anything, it provided a stage for me at a crucial point in my life when all I wanted to do was stand up and speak and say what was on my mind.
Tell me about The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! and how that came about.
I have often found it quite difficult to create something that on one hand is clearly representative of what I want to hear and who I am at and at the same time fits into the box that the executives know how to market. I put out my first album in the late '90s, and I was told "This doesn't sound like hip-hop to me." I was like, "Are you assuming it has to sound like hip-hop because of how I look and where I'm from? What should hip-hop sound like, according to you, Mr. Executive?" At that point, I thought it was more important for me to explore my creative self rather than conform to what is easily sold and marketed. Niggy Tardust is about me feeling that as strongly and confidently as ever by having the support of Trent Reznor beside me and both of us being hellbent on not fitting into one particular genre. That was the main thing, and within that, I chose that as a platform to express things about identity and so on and so forth.
Are you working on a sequel?
I'm working on a new album, and by nature it is characterized as a sequel. Is it a continuation? I have no idea. Creatively, it is where I am next, but whther the storyline continues, I haven't decided on that yet. To be fair, I didn't decide on Niggy until the very end. It was an album without a concept, so I think that's the same thing that will happen with this album. That name is a powerful name. Some names only need to be said once. Niggy Tardust says it all. Whether the person he's evolved into chooses to step into the spotlight remains to be seen. But his name is Niggy Pop.
Did you ever think you'd see the election of a black president?
I never thought that I wouldn't, but what I was happy to find was it that wasn't Al Sharpton. I was just happy that it was someone that I really, really respected on more levels than one. I respect Rev. Sharpton, of course. But I was glad to see it was someone that I respected spiritually and truly see as progressive and not just hearkening to civil rights. It comes as a welcome surprise, but not because he's black. What I never though I'd see is a president who has a perception of race and reality that's closer to my own. Truly Barack Obama is as white as he is black. Maybe because of the fact that he embodies those worlds and diversity and unification, he is the perfect candidate. What he symbolizes is wonderful, and he's stepped into that role gracefully and eloquently. We all have to step into those roles in our lives. Change involves every single one of us. As a poet, of course I recognize the importance of a symbol, but a symbol has to enforce reality.
Does it make you feel like there's a wider audience for what you do?
I always have felt that there's a wider audience, only because the entertainment industry is very shortsighted in how intelligent they think the public is. They do a great job of underestimating the intelligence of listeners and viewers. In many cases, they're just wrong. They're trying to sell something they're certain will sell, in the meantime dumbing things down for an audience that could just as easily be fed something that truly inspires. Record executives would be surprised by the intelligence of the vast majority of people who have something to say. There's a history of that lack of support — people who I have admired from Fiona Apple to Jeff Buckley. Their major labels sold them in Europe first because they thought Americans wouldn't be ready for them. It happens with many of us, but I think those days are near the end, at least for now. The music industry is shifting, and as long as we stay positive and continue to put out creative work, I think it will be recognized by those it needs to be recognized by.