Three Great Things: Saul Williams

The multi-hyphenate artist tells us about three things that he finds amazing about technology and human nature.

Three Great Things is our series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. In this installment, Saul Williams — the rapper, poet, writer, and actor whose new album Encrypted & Vulnerable is out now — took a slightly different approach. Instead of highlighting three things he loves, he talked to us about three concepts he finds amazing right now. Check out his thoughts on technology, human nature, and escapism below.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Associate Editor

1. The Human Relationship to Technology 

One thing that’s amazing to me is the relationship that exists between technology, people, human awareness, evolution — the way in which all of the things that we know about history are embedded in the machine, and how that affects us. 

One of the things that I’ve been paying close attention to and studying is the fact that the word “robot” comes from the Czech language [and means] “slave” or free labor. When you add up the idea that the colonial era is followed by the industrial era, and you think of stuff like the plantation as machine and what free labor brought to the modern world — the privileged of modern society are still benefiting from what free labor brought. But if you open up a machine — whether it’s a camera, recording device, car engine — and you have an engineer explain the machine to you, they will explain and characterize parts of the machine as master and slave. It goes all the way into modern day coding, which is to say that the mentality of the colonial era was used and placed inside of the description of how machines function.

The fear of the colonial age — where it was forbidden for slaves to learn how to read — was that the slaves would learn enough to take over. The irony of the times is that now, with all the talk about AI and robots, with Elon Musk and [Mark] Zuckerberg, the fear is that machines will learn too much and take over. I’ve always thought of technology as essentially an expression of human awareness and consciousness, and a reflection of that, but it seems to carry over the negative aspects as well — just in terms of fears, even the breaking down of how we systematized ideas in relation to other ideas. I’m amazed by the insights that have come from thinking of those realities. 

We in the West don’t give much thought to how or where the machines and devices that we use come from, where the rare metals that make them function come from. If we did have some insight on where or how certain things were mined and how they ended up in our pockets, we perhaps would be a little more apprehensive about purchasing them. It connects on all levels. At the end of the day, all of these things add up to migration — there’s an essay by Toni Morrison where she talks about migration as the only technology, and of course that’s the sort of technology that led to the building of America.

2. The Human Ability to Turn Shit Around

On one hand, you can think of something like hip-hop: a lack of instruments in the community, but music is prevalent, turntables are prevalent, and we use what we got. Whether it’s our mouths, talking over beats — all the stuff that comes out of a supposed lack of something. It’s seldom about that lack and more so about the abundance of creativity and the human resources to think outside the box. 

I think of the relationship that the entire world has to the Gregorian calendar. Regardless of your religion, you are operating on the calendar that counts the days since the death and birth of Christ. It’s 2019, that’s 2,019 years since. [Laughs.] It does so much to formulate how we look at things. We would look at things much differently if we operated on a lunar calendar, and so many cultures do because the lunar calendar correlates with everything from biodynamic farming to the seasons, and it aligns people more to the happenings in nature. Women are on a 28 day cycle, but it’s not just women — it’s every specimen on this planet. If you pay attention to the waves in the ocean, that’s on the same cycle; surfers know it, and farmers know it in another way, and hunters know it in another way. But it’s still the same 28-day grid, which is separate and distinct from the 30, 31-day grid that is the Gregorian calendar. 

Society and humanity have evolved in lots of ways, yet at the same time, if you look at everything from the xenophobia and the ways in which poor people are manipulated into thinking or acting certain ways, the roles that religion has played, the role that government has played, the role that white supremacy has played, the role that men in power and control have played — all in relation to this idea of thinking within boxes. And so when we think about the role that humans play in turning shit around, in many ways it’s almost always a miracle. It’s inevitable that bullshit will need to be confronted. It’s also amazing how long it takes, and how often it resurfaces through each generation, and how quickly we forget. It’s also amazing what the idea of belonging does to the psyche — wanting to belong to a particular group. It’s extraordinary that in the face of all of that, you can still find moments where people take to the streets.

3. The Proximity that Exists Between Entertainment and Escape

I’m also amazed by the proximity that exists between entertainment and escape. Particularly, when I think of the work coming out of the US — it’s been, what, three years since this dude has been in office? It’s strange that we continue to wear the T-shirts of people who used music to make huge statements, but if you look at the top ten songs… Well, we know that number one is “Old Town Road” — there’s a huge statement in that song. I feel the politics of that song. Beyond that, I don’t know numbers two through 10 are; I’d be interested in knowing what relationship they have to the shit that’s going on, whether those songs are to escape and party so you don’t have to think about it. 

I think about this partially because I think that our relationship to entertainment is what led us to this dude being in office in the first place. I feel like I can go directly back to the moment MTV stopped showing music videos and started showing reality television, to the popularity of reality television, leading up to this dude’s reality nonsense — the sound bites, laughter, “Wouldn’t that be funny if…” It’s not funny at all. I feel very strongly that our relationship to entertainment played a huge role in leading us in this direction — unquestioned entertainment. 

Simultaneously it’s a very exciting time with artists like Ava Duvernay and Barry Jenkins who are making conscious decisions to push beyond the norm and challenge people’s sensibilities. I feel like we’re entering a moment in film with auteurs who are attempting to effect change in society through their work.

I had a goal with my last album of wanting consciously to do invisible work — wanting to transport feelings. I’m also amazed by our ability to communicate feelings and emotions and the role that emotions play in how we experience something. But also, how we can manipulate those emotions — I’m a horror film buff, but it’s not just horror films that use music to let you know something’s about to happen. You can feel the tension in your stomach sometimes before you even realize there’s a violin playing that’s making you feel the tension because we associate that mounting sound with, “Holy shit, what’s about to happen?” People who do scores of films know how to connect music to emotions, and that was one of the main things I was playing with on this album: how to convey, transport, with and through emotion. 

There’s a song on my new album called “Fight Everything,” which I recorded on November 9, 2016. The elections were November 8. I didn’t want to get out of bed, and the only reason I did is because I had this studio visit scheduled with this French producer who I’d been trying to cross paths with for a minute. I thought, Maybe that’ll help me get my mind off of how fucked up and disappointed I feel. I didn’t write anything down that day, and I ended up freestyling the songs. When I hear it, it’s not the words I’m struck by, but the emotion in my voice. Some songs I would have gone back and fixed worked on, but there’s no way I can recreate the sound of my voice on November 9, 2016. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that way again. I think it’s better to chronicle the emotional landscape of where I was then and just keep it and work with. 

So my work is very much about trying to provide something to people like me — people who are angry, rebellious, confused, jaded, focused, or on the path to making small changes in their lives to affect the little picture. Music can be like an alternative energy that feeds and nourishes and gives you something more than an escape. I’ve started referring to this album as a power bank, because I want you to listen and charge up — it’s a long fucking fight and a hard fucking day.

Saul Williams has been breaking ground since his debut album, Amethyst Rock Star, which was released in 2001 and executive produced by Rick Rubin. After gaining global fame for his poetry and writings at the turn of the century, Williams has performed in over thirty countries and read in over three hundred universities, with invitations that have spanned from the White House, the Sydney Opera House, Lincoln Center, The Louvre, The Getty Center, Queen Elizabeth Hall, to countless villages, townships, community centers, and prisons across the world. The Newburgh, New York, native gained a BA from Morehouse and an MFA from Tisch, and has gone on to record with Nine Inch Nails and Allen Ginsburg and has performed in numerous film and television roles.