One Joint With Saul Williams
America sadly isn’t known for venerating our living poets, but it's possible that collectively we’ve at least made the exception for Saul Williams, championship poet (1996 winner of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe’s Grand Slam Championship,) musician, filmmaker and actor. Following his victories in poetry slams of the ‘90s, Williams was cast as the lead in the 1998 feature film Slam which he co-wrote and acted in, and which won the Camera d’Or and the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and Sundance, respectively. He has released several albums, recorded with artists ranging from Nine Inch Nails to Allen Ginsburg, and is now off to Rwanda to shoot his forthcoming musical film, Neptune Frost, which is executive produced by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda—a title Miranda benefits from thanks to a Kickstarter pledge, but his is a vote of confidence to watch closely. Williams’s latest spoken word album, Encrypted & Vulnerable, features contributions from both artists and astrophysicists, and if you know of Williams’s work, that makes perfect sense. We spoke at his home in Laurel Canyon in early September.
Alyssa Shapiro: Will you tell me about the first time you ever got high?
Saul Williams: The first time I remember really being high was smoking some blueberry weed in a cutting room in a studio in New York with Rick Rubin and the band from my first album. Somebody had ordered weed, this is way before delivery services were whatever, so it was very chic, New York, this is the ‘90s. I remember saying, ok, I’ll have a little bit. And it was a good day, we had some good shit laid down. That was the first time I remember really getting high.
But that’s not true, actually, because the first time I got high was off of mushrooms, and then acid.
AS: Before weed.
AS: Did you have any fear around trying psychedelics before you had experienced weed?
SW: I mean I had the typical fear of, am I going to lose my mind? And will it ever come back? [Laughs] But aside from that, I didn’t have any real fear, I met Timothy Leary. He was like, I have a regret that I popularized psychedelics without popularizing the rituals surrounding them, because the indigenous and shamanic populations that inspired me, these people would do it two or three times in their life as a right of passage, not every weekend. So he was like, that’s the one thing I regret, that I didn’t popularize the ritual.
AS: Do you have rituals now, with weed or with anything that you take part in now? Do you make sure to set an intention?
SW: Well I mean, you know life is a walking, breathing ritual. In terms of my relationship to weed, I smoke regularly. I don’t smoke in settings like this normally. I sit with my journal and machines on ready to work. It’s about getting the work and connection to that, and finding the lucidity. Perhaps I’ll work for a few hours without, and then I’ll reach a point where I go, ok, let me see. It’s about that. It’s not about relaxing at the end of the day, or some shit like that. It’s like, turn up! Let’s take it to the next level. And 99% of that is alone. I do that alone, you know what I’m saying. I’m not a party type… more like, this is for the zone.
AS: I get that, that’s why I do these interviews this way, because I think it facilitates a more present conversation.
SW: Exactly. So the first time I got high was mushrooms actually. I was living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn at the time. I was in graduate school at NYU for acting, and a graduate assistant, and I’d gotten my paycheck for the week, and I’d bought this indigo blue rug at Urban Outfitters for my apartment in Brooklyn. It was this bright, magnificent, electric indigo blue, and I set it down in the house. And I’d been to this crazy vinyl store downtown at the Fulton mall, and bought all this vinyl: classic, new hip-hop, this was the mid ‘90s. And brewed up these mushrooms with my best friend Kwame, and he and I went on a journey on that blue rug for hours with music blasting.
Oh wait that wasn’t the first time [laughs] that was the second time.
The first time was acid, which was a few months before then. A friend of mine had brought me some of what ended up being amazing acid from Seattle. This is after I’d met Timothy Leary, and I decided I was going to try it. It was a blizzard in Brooklyn at that time, I was living with my sister. She came home right when it was kicking in, so we decided to go over to another friend’s house who had a dark room. We ended up at her dark room in her house listening to The Pharcyde. First time I ever met The Pharcyde, I was like Yo! On this song, the base is blue, it comes out blue! ‘Cause I was seeing colors come out of the speakers.
I became very clear on two things: I didn’t want around me television screens or mirrors. And I conceptualized the sound; I hadn’t started making music yet, but I remember thinking, if I do start making music, the music I want to make, I’m gonna call it Grippo. At that time I was listening to a lot of drum and base, trip-hop—this is still mid ‘90s—so Goldie, Tricky, Portishead, Bjork, Massive Attack, I was really into that, which was fun to be in, living in Brooklyn, because you’re bombarded by Biggie and Jay-Z and Mobb Deep, Busta Rhymes in the streets, and then you go home and it’s just this trippy, trippy beats in the house. So I knew I wanted to make this thing that I thought would be the music our kids would listen to, which was this electronic fast-paced hybrid of blah blah blah blah blah. So that’s what I did on that trip.
I got a little scared halfway through it, and my friend Scott taught me how to control it, and that was a real valuable lesson.
AS: What did he teach you to do?
SW: I had gotten to this point where I was like, fuck… I opened my eyes and there’s this one thing, and when I close my eyes it’s still there, it’s even more intense. So he was like, think of yourself as an eagle; if you want to go this way [gestures right] go this way, if you want to go that way [gestures left] go that way. You want to go high? And he just gave me this thing! And for the rest of the high, I was just flying, steering this eagle. I was able to understand a bunch of shit on that trip, because I was approaching it the Timothy Leary way, which is that I had no intentions of doing it a million times, even though I ended up doing mushrooms quite a few times, but the acid trip was like, no I’m going to try this now and take a bunch of notes.
So one of the first things that popped up was this sense that I was performing masculinity. I was sitting like this or some shit, and I was like, oh shit! I’m sitting like this to project the idea that I’m not gay. Holy shit! Everything is just a fucking pose! Holy shit! Every fucking thing I’m doing is just something that I’m performing to give you this sense of who I am. That was the first breakthrough I had on acid.
AS: Did you take that understanding and make a change—did you see it as a problem and try to let go of that performance?
SW: I tried to let go of that performance from that point forward, yeah. I let it inform me. I looked at it as something I wanted to learn from. And every trip is like that.
AS: Do you think words have power beyond simply communicating ideas? I mean, beyond getting your point across. By saying a word can you invoke something else, does the intention behind it or its placement give it more power?
SW: Well, you say the word “nigga” and you have a realm of historic references and viewpoints and pronunciations and all the different coding and decoding of what those different pronunciations mean, and the history of it, and its relation to comedy and Richard Pryor and the modern time, and the shift into “the N-word,” and once again hip-hop, and the moment where people feel like, should I sing along? There’s so much in it. It carries a lot of information. So some words are like that.
But I think mostly of words as things that speak around something. Like the Dao De Jing says that the dao that can be told is not the eternal dao, and the dao just means the way, right? The way that can be told is not the eternal one. Because there’s something untold about when the beat drops, and you feel it in your gut, and that melodic line starts, and you’re just lost in movement that makes no sense if you think about it, but the music is making you do it. Your eyes are closed. That’s music, you know.
AS: Where do you feel like we’re at in terms of dismantling certain systems, particularly those you point out—heteropatriarchal judeochristian capitalism? Are we making progress?
SW: Yeah, of course, we always make progress. That progress is inevitable, you know what I’m saying.
SW: Because it’s just a fluid time, the world is not still. You don’t drink still water, everything is fucking moving. This earth is spinning right now, the wind is blowing right now, there’s fucking ants; this shit is moving. And yeah some of it is corresponding with the biodynamic relationship between the earth and the moon and cycles and all of that shit, but it’s like, there is an evolutionary process that is inevitable on this planet. And each generation wakes up at a certain point and says, wait what the fuck?! And so there’s a lot of people waking up right now, we even run around with terms like “woke,” right? Lot of people waking up right now to realities that they never thought about, or never considered or were never exposed to. Back to carceral capitalism and the state of criminal justice in this country, or the plight of trans and black and bi and queer and gay people and women… there’s tons of shit in the public discourse that from one angle you could say, oh this is exciting!
When I was starting to write poetry, talking about some of these issues, it wasn’t because it was popular to talk about. It was because of the exact opposite. It’s that, a sense of, Why are you guys all talking about the same shit, there’s real shit we could be talking about. Angela Davis is writing books right now, you seen it? bell hooks right now… there’s always been this discussion, this discussion is ongoing for so long, and people have been choosing whether to be engaged with it or not. When I was started to work in music, it was a time when rappers for example might hide the fact that they had gone to college.
SW: Yeah. Puffy wasn’t talking about the fact that he went to Howard, off the cuff. Guru from Gang Starr wasn’t talking about the fact that he went to Morehouse off the cuff, or that his father was a judge. Ice Cube wasn’t talking about the fact that he had gone to college before N.W.A.
AS: That’s… interesting.
SW: There are so many layers, so many layers. Wait what’s your question again?
AS: Do you think we’re making progress—
SW: So. To see some of these discussions happen in a public forum, and of course even the visibility of public forums has changed as a result of the internet, social media, technology… yes it feeds the blossoming and the potential blossoming of our minds. It feeds the possibility. The potential is there. If you want to know what’s going on in South Africa right now—
AS: But, there’s a lot of misinformation out there…
SW: But that misinformation also has to do with our ability to discern, which is one of the key things I think people should be able to learn in schools, if our educational system was really challenging itself. There’s judgement and there’s discernment. To be able to discern between a lie and a possibility, which can be anything from reading body language…
AS: I think of that discernment of things like body language as an innate ability, or not. But you think it’s something that can be taught? How do you teach that? How do you teach—
SW: You know what’s about that? Dune by Frank Herbert. I had that book laying around for years, I wasn’t really interested in reading that. But then a few months ago I was reading a book of interviews of Octavia Butler, and they asked her like, what do you get off on reading? And she was like, Frank Herbert all day. So I picked up Dune, and yeah some of the characters in Dune are very much about reading body language, body expressions, and knowing when someone is speaking the truth and using their own voice versus someone… a lot of it we figure out on our own, right? But the deeper levels of that I think are interesting. Your question as to whether it can be taught? Only to an extent. Life is a teacher.
AS: Right, it comes through experience.
SW: It’s a balance. But if you never thought about it and this interview is the first time and you’re like, oh I never even considered it! That opens a pathway now to the information that’s already out there that you never really paid attention to because you weren’t in a place to see it yet. That’s what Tupac said, “I'm not saying I'm gonna change the world, but I guarantee you that I will spark the brain that will change the world…”
AS: Do you know what I love about art and books and conversation? It seems to come to people at the right time, when they need it. I thought about this the other day with my own bookshelves. I have so many books and some of them I’ve had for a decade without reading, but I picked one up the other day and the first page automatically meant something to my life on that given day. And I think that’s what’s so great about all art and what’s on the internet; everyone can find it—
SW: When it’s time. I just released an album, and there’s so much love and information in it, and it’s like, oh, whenever you’re ready. You know? Which is so counterintuitive to the publicist’s job to get it out there now! Stream it now! You know what I’m saying? Or even what people consider the lifespan of an album, you tour for two years, all this shit that you’re supposed to do, right?
But I tell you, three weeks ago I saw Pharoah Sanders perform, Pharoah Sanders who plays saxophone, who played with Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, with himself, with Leon Thomas, all this shit. Beautiful albums, my favorite one is called Karma, the one that has resonated most widely across the universe is called Creator Has a Master Plan, with Leon Thomas singing. And he’s old, right? A cane up to the stage. Sitting in front of the microphone holding his sax, but when it’s time for him to play, he stood up. And he started blowing, and his whole body was lit, and when he played it sounded like a vinyl recording from ’69, his tone was his! He was so much himself! Now, I wasn’t alive for the promotional campaign of that album. I discovered it in college through a dude who came to school with his parents’ record collection, you know what I’m saying. And my ears probably weren’t even fully tuned to be open to that type of shit when I first heard it. But over the years, your ears develop, the musculation of your ears develop so much in life.
I’m going to do a quick detour. When I was living in France, I got cast in Othello in French. And I ended up having to leave before I actually did the production. But through the production company I did these courses to learn French pronunciation. And what they were explaining to me was that depending on where you’re born and where you’re raised, by the time you’re seven or eight, the muscles in your ears take on a particular shape based on the sea level, the amount of wind, whether you’re in the country or city, the amount of noise, the way people talk to you, the language, so there are certain muscles you don’t need if you grow up hearing American English regularly that someone who’s speaking French or Polish or Wolof or whatever, they’re developing different muscles because of the sounds they’re used to hearing. And so this training was about relaxing those muscles, because your accent is not your inability to articulate the things, it’s actually your inability to properly hear it. It’s a beautiful process. I did finish the course, I loved it, but I didn’t do the play. [laughs]
AS: [Laughs] but you learned a lot. I think about how travel is so important, it opens your eyes, your mind, and apparently your ears.
SW: Literally. Everything. When I was 16 I was an exchange student to Brazil. And school was on strike for the first four months. I lived with a Japanese family—the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan is in Brazil.
AS: I did not know that.
SW: So these are the things you learn from travel! Like, it’s just that. There was a Buddhist temple in the house, the dad was a Buddhist priest.
AS: Did that shape your spirituality at all?
SW: Everything, I mean I’d be a fool to say no. But you should know first that my dad was a Christian pastor. So it’s like, fuck. [Laughs]. This family had oil money from sugarcane because in Brazil at that time and up to now, a great deal of the cars run on methane gas that comes from sugarcane…so they had sugarcane plantations where the sugarcane was being turned into fuel for cars. I lived in their music room. That had an influence on me. They had a soundproof music room with speakers built into the walls and a whole system with tape decks and vinyl. And a bed. With a big ass system. So I would just crank shit up and jump on the bed… I remember listening to so much shit like that, the shit that I was having sent for me from home, like the mixtapes from Friday night on the radio, and VHS tapes of Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City, and just blast shit. Blast shit. Oh my god! That had an effect on the shape of my ears.
The first thing I learned when I got to Brazil was that I’d be going to night school, because they were like well here, anyone 15 and over, they normally need to work in the fields during the day, so go to school at night. Work in the fields?! [Laughs] You can imagine my response, the thoughts in my head. They weren’t asking me to do that, but it was the reality of the town. Within the first day, mindfuck. That’s what travel does.
You can look through the filter of what you know, like, look for your comfort or even try to define or describe or experience the reality that you expect from home when you go someplace, like black Americans would come to visit me in Paris, and be like, am I going to be able to get a taxi? And I’d be like, you might, but don’t try being Arab. The shift…. like pay attention, there’s other shit, new layers. That’s what travel exposes.
AS: How do you train people to let go of the filters they’re laying on their experiences when they go to travel?
SW: It depends. Americans are always the loudest in the room. They don’t hear their nasal… they have terms for it, like vocal fry…
AS: This is so funny, I just interviewed a linguist last week so we talked all about vocal fry and grammatical construction and regionalisms… But anyway I left the US for a little while last fall, and I tried to learn to eat the European way so I wouldn’t stand out in restaurants, like switching the fork and knife…
SW: That’s hilarious. I used to get mad in places in Europe like in France when they’d eat a burger with a fork and knife. I’d be like, adamant: pick it up! But that adamant sensibility is very American.
AS: But I’m right.
SW: [Laughs] So you learn to distinguish between what is me, what is my personality, and what is the imposed culture that I’m performing? Because I’m surrounded by it, this is how we do it—but is this how I would do it if I could detach for a moment and the observation were mutual? That type of shit too is like, fuck. And your head can wander like that if you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language at first, because you just have a lot of space.
AS: Oh yeah, I think it’s super freeing to have a language barrier, there’s something really comfortable about it, because you just get to be sorting through everything you haven’t had time to hear or had space to figure out.
SW: Tons of shit.
AS: One more question: What in your life is making you genuinely happy right now?
SW: Love. That’s the most solid thing in life. Our experience of love, however tortured, is crucial to our understanding of ourselves. There are so many different types of love, right? I don’t just mean romantic. Although that can be extremely balancing, right? Balancing in the sense that you have to let somebody in! You don’t have to, but I would encourage it. Let somebody in for the sake of being able to detach and see something about yourself—if it needs to remain in a narcissistic to better see yourself type shit, okay, well that. Sure. Because it’s a great reflective way of dancing. It’s nice.
But then there’s our love of music, our love of art, creativity. Our love of a good challenge or a great outfit, you know what I’m saying? Any of that shit. I love making choices and some of the choices that have been made. I’m happy to be relegated to poetry, you know? It’s an unplanned thing in my life, and it’s a beautiful thing to be able to explore. It’s a beautiful thing to sit around all day and be angry [laughs].