The Okayplayer Interview: Saul Williams Speaks On How Tupac Changed His Life

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Saul Williams is a true renaissance man--in the Harlem Renaissance sense of the word. In the past year or so he has starred in the Tupac-inspired Broadway musical Holler If You Hear Me, taken indie cinema into afropunk magic realism with his wife Anisia Uzeyman's film Dreamstates, electrified mourners with his poem/performance in honor of Amiri Baraka at the poet laureate's recent funeral and begun to unveil aspects of his new album/graphic novel/play/viral art project Martyr, Loser, King. Among other things.

If you're woke to such things, you may already be aware that Holler If Your Hear Me closed prematurely this past Friday less than two months into it's critically-acclaimed run, a situation which says as much about the ready of American audiences to deal with race as anything the play put forward. As Saul himself told Rolling Stone this week:

"Harry Belafonte said to me after he saw the play... 'You took an afrocentric-themed play and placed it on a eurocentric stage. The problems you'll face are larger than you think.'" 

Okayplayer had the profound pleasure of spending an hour in deep conversation with Saul during the final week, wrestling with how much has changed and stayed the same since Pac's passing, how jarring to the American psyche themes he embodied can be--almost two decades after his death--and how the experience has shaped the other myriad projects Williams has coming soon, from films to graphic novels. In short, this is Saul Williams on how Tupac changed his life:

OKP: You have been working on this Tupac-based project for about a month and change--I'm told with live theater the experience changes every night, did you find that to be the case?

Saul Williams: I love that process. The coolest thing about that process is that we get to go back to it every night after reassessing everything and it's crazy how emotions can still be fresh. How there's always still work to be done and it's a world that I like revisiting. If I were a jazz musician, I'd call it 'building my chops.' And if you have the opportunity as a musician to go and play every night, you know that you get better with time. Especially if you're playing with other great musicians.

OKP: Beyond the craft element did the music or ideas about the character change also?

SW: Well, I heard one of the cast members say that one of the reasons that it doesn't feel redundant is that we're attending and participating in a concert every night. And it's true. What inspired me at the beginning of the process in terms of the music still inspires me. And I love being able to enter the world of those songs every night. Music is magic, there's so much that can be said about music. It's such a powerful force for primarily being something that is invisible. It's something that really connects us on a level that's beyond what we can articulate, half of the time.

So entering the world of music and musicianship and all that stuff is powerful. And it's not just Tupac's words. It's also the feeling and the intensity of the musicians and the other actors all going into the music, all those other voices. It really is crazy. I'm sure it would have the same feeling if they just had a choir singing Tupac songs. You know, they might catch the spirit!

OKP: Could you put a name to the  more abstract themes that translated from Pac's music to this production--since it's a new story intertwined with his music, not a biography.

SW: There are definitely themes that translate. Tupac was a fiction writer in his music, and he was a brilliant fiction writer in that he took real situations that he was familiar with, that he had learned of, not always stuff that happened to him, and filled his music with real stories. He was a storyteller.

If you look at a song like "Dopefiend's Diner," you know there's just so much storytelling going on in his music. The recurring theme I think has a lot to do with the fact that Tupac really felt an empathy and compassion for those from impoverished communities in America and for people of color and men of color. And he paid particular attention to injustices that those communities and the people form those communities face on a day to day basis.

And I think that has a lot to do with the family that he was born into. With the fact that he was born to Panthers who had been targeted by the United States government. The fact that he grew up knowing that his aunt Assata Shakur was still in political asylum in Cuba. He knew firsthand of the injustices that his family and our society faced. And so those themes of concern that circle around questions of violence in a community or imprisoned black males. Single motherhood--they're things that he wrote about on a regular basis and that what we're talking about in the play. The revolving question has to do with "how do we end gun violence in our communities? How do we stop the cycle of violence? How do we find the courage to be different in the face of mounting peer pressure and gangs?"

And I guess what's interesting and powerful about theater is that it is a place where you're allowed to step beyond the real. So that we can offer imaginative suggestions and alternatives that may be harder to pull off in real life unless you have that spark of inspiration that comes from something like watching a play or a film.

I had this experience the other day. There are a bunch of rappers here in Times Square selling their CDs and I've kind of made friends with all of them over the past couple weeks. And I was talking to one other day and was telling me that he was in Rikers. And he was like, "Yo, I was about to get stabbed up in Rikers and all of a sudden I flashed on Slam, and that scene, and I went into a rhyme...and it worked! Nothing happened to me!"

He was like, "Thank you man, it worked, it worked!"--and that's the same sort of thing that we're hoping for with Holler if Ya Hear Me, the alternative that we offer, which is quite simple. Our story surrounds an ex-con who comes back to his community after serving time, attempting to make a change in his life. And he basically ends up changing his community by breaking down and realizing that the role that he was playing, or on the cusp of playing, was repeating the cycle. And instead deciding to break the cycle.

And 'Pac...'Pac was all about that in his works. He was all about that sense of questioning, where he felt on one end trapped by what society made him to be, but on the other hand he knew better.

OKP: Maybe not always explicitly in his music but definitely in his rise in pop culture, Tupac kind of represented for the hip-hop generation a more mature reckoning with black nationalism. We had "Fight the Power" before but he kind of connected the dots between N.W.A. and gangsta rap and "Fight the Power" ...

SW:Yeah, I think that's because of his family. It was truly personal to him. And I look at hip-hop as an offshoot of the Black Power movement. But it's so personally invested with 'Pac. It just resonates from such a deep place when he speaks on it. So yeah it was a culmination of those things inside of 'Pac, it was like the perfect cocktail from this dude who was a child of Black Panthers and had such an impact on this art form that was the child of Black Power. If you look on it in that way ot makes perfect sense.

And it's different from the influence of a Chuck D or KRS or these other cats. He realized the responsibility that came iwth his position and he never made some of the choices that other rappers nowadays make. He sold a lot of records but he didn't curb what he had to say or curb the truth in order to sell those records. You have that Jay Z lyric "I dumbed down my lyrics / To double my dollars." That's not something Pac would do.

OKP:He did represent a certain gang aesthetic, though...maybe a better visual of what I'm trying to say is the "Thug Life" tattoo...

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

SW: Well you have to remember that for Pac it was an acronym: "The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone." 'Pac was smart for identifying with the lowest denominator. He identified with the lowest denominator, he spoke directly to prisoners in their cells while at the same time being on MTV and at video awards, never letting it be forgotten that he was there to rep the lowest denominator.

And he didn't play with the idea with being less intelligent or articulate. He was always surprising reporters with how likable and charismatic he was. And yes, he did have many sides of the idea--the modern way that we play the thug and the "thug life." It might have the same kind of misunderstanding that people have surrounding someone like Malcom X, who died as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. People really love the Malcom X before he made that change in his life, because that anger resonates.

OKP: Around the time I first became aware of your work you had a great quote, which was more about Biggie and the title of his album being "Ready to Die"...about how words have a power, that he put out a certain energy to the universe that became real in his life. Comparing that with the way that people perceive Pac, I'm wondering if your perception of Tupac has changed over the years?

SW: My perception of 'Pac never changed. The difference between, say, 'Pac and Biggie, is that 'Pac actually had a death wish. 'Pac made it no secret that he hoped to die in a blaze of fire. He made it no secret, he was very clear. He always was really clear on the fact that that's kind of how he wanted to go out. Which is different than Biggie, who was playing with words and putting fictions in his rhymes. But not necessarily on an activist tip. Not in a "let's change the system and change the world" type way. And he was kind of playing with fire, not realizing where it was leading.

We go back to that East coast/West coast thing. It became evident and clear that those West coast cats were not playing. And even though it's here in New York where 'Pac got shot initially, on one hand you have some cats who are really concerned about getting money and getting paid, some real hustler spirit. And on the other side you have some cats who seem to be saying "No, we're about what we say we're about. And if anybody gets in the way of that, watch out."

I have a certain type of pity for Biggie because I feel that he was playing with something and surrounded by something that...he seems way sweeter than that. Than the death that he got. 'Pac was charismatic, but 'Pac knew he was playing with fire.

OKP: So in some ways the issues in the play are the same Tupac and Biggie and Malcom X spoke to. Do you feel that we're addressing it from a unique moment now? Or is it a cycle that we come back to and are we addressing the same old problems?

SW:I think America really has some reckoning to do with just how accessible guns are. It's not just the gun violence in our communities that's upsetting. We also know about the gun violence in schools and malls and the suburban style of gun violence. And then all these crazy laws that seem to consummate the possibility of that violence, whether it's in Florida or Georgia. It's something that has to do with our idea of freedom, our idea of democracy, and the realities of violence that we still have some figuring out to do.

It has to do also with that idea of might being right. I always go back to that thing where George Bush's response to 9/11 was "We will show no sign of vulnerability." And my little poet mind is flashing and thinking, Wow, that means he thinks vulnerability is weakness. He doesn't understand that vulnerability is strength. Of course we're vulnerable, we're human.

And then seeing all these rappers echo that and be like "I'm heartless. I have no heart, I have no feelings." 'Pac on the other hand was someone who was all about his feelings and his heart. Someone who was all about being brought to tears, someone who lived by his heart and by his feelings. To me 'Pac epitomizes the idea of a thug, so I really feel like there's been some miscommunication along the line, or some very open exploitation of the idea of 'Pac for rappers to also come off as hard and try to make some money and sell some records. But 'Pac to me seems pretty vulnerable and always did. I was always a fan of 'Pac and what he represented.

I lived in Atlanta when 'Pac shot those off-duty police officers and won the case. For little cats like me, that was some hero shit! Just to be honest. We were like, Holy fuck--and that wasn't even the first time Tupac had beat the law. In 1991 'Pac got beat down in Oakland for jaywalking and won $41,000 form the Oakland Police Department. Not to mention what they tried to do with him in terms of gangsta rap, Tipper Gore at the time and him being put on trial for the influence of his music. I always loved 'Pac's responses to the questions he was asked. I loved his interviews, I loved his charisma. To me he was always a wonderful spokesperson for what was going down. And without a doubt, this cat saw red when he got angry and it is what it is. But I was always a fan of him.

OKP: What about the medium of theater made you think it was the way to translate Pac's message?

SW: Well, I can speak on the idea of hip-hop being ready for theater. On the other hand I know that Afeni Shakur approached August Wilson with this idea about 17 years ago. And that's how this thing started bubbling. It was when Afeni met with August Wilson and August had an assistant at the time named Todd Kreidler, who had not been listening to hip-hop at the time, but he made Todd Kreidler listen to Tupac... and Todd is the writer of Holler if Ya Hear Me.

OKP: So this play could have been set in Pittsburgh, in another universe?

Exclusive preview of Saul Williams in the Tupac-inspiered Braadway musical 'Holler If Ya Hear Me' (poster)

SW: Exactly! And that's part of the lineage of the piece that made me excited about being a part of it, knowing that it at least the idea of it had passed through August Wilson...that August Wilson died with a bunch of Tupac in his iPod was crazy to find out.

Theater, on the other hand, I grew up in theater and at the same time I grew up battle rhyming. By the time I was ten, because of studying Shakespeare and writing rhymes, I was trying to write rhymes in old English. I was always trying to fuse hip-hop and theater. That's what I considered myself as doing with Slam, which is really my thesis project from when I graduated from grad school at NYU for acting. My whole purpose of wanting to do that film was that I felt that the teachers and students were acting like what Shakespeare did was never going to happen again, that no one was going to have as much audacity with the language again. And I was like "You should hear this newfound modern sense of audacity with the English language that is happening right now through hip-hop. And if you're missing it, you're missing what you're looking for." And so I always thought that a lot of people in the acting program that I was studying under were missing a lot of the changes that could be happening in theater by not paying attention to hip-hop, in the same way that I felt like poetry professors were missing a lot of what's happening in modern day poetry if they weren't paying attention to hip-hop and then to the slam and spoken word movements.

OKP: I wanted to ask you about how those things, poetry and acting and music, fit together for you. You kind of came out as a poet, at least in my mind. And then Slam established you as an actor. And then you moved into what we would recognize as rock music or recording that's not necessarily poetry...and now you've made a strong return to acting with a couple of independent films and this play. Are those things always connected all the time for you?

SW: The two weirdest things in my existence are music and poetry. I grew up acting and I grew up rapping. Theater was my first love, and I had every intention of pursuing it. At Morehouse I double-majored in theater and philosophy, and then I went to grad school for acting at NYU. I had every intention of acting. I discovered poetry while I was at NYU. I discovered the poetry scene in New York, and then slam came about and pretty much hijacked my so-called dreams in that it opened doors for me to publish poems and record albums.

Of course I took that route because it's fun and fresh and something I hadn't considered. I really never considered myself a poet, even as I was writing and being lauded as one. Really it was just journal entries, and it felt like poetry to someone. It felt a little arrogant--like it was something nice to be called, but it felt arrogant to call myself a poet. But an actor, I could always say "Yes, I'm an actor" because that was something that I had studied and owned. So the fact that it's come full-circle is just...the cycles of life. It's a beautiful thing. I came back to New York from Paris this past September. I came back because I was in the middle of writing a hip-hop theater piece.

OKP: Separate from the play?

Yeah. I came back because my next project, before Holler came along, is a project called Martyr, Loser, King. And it's multimedia. It's my next album, it's my next book, and I conceptualized a play for that. I was piecing together all of the aspects of that project, and had just gotten everything together the same week that I was asked to participate in Holler.

You could call it spooky, it was fucking crazy actually. I had just landed the theater that was going to debut my piece, and then this happened.

OKP:Tell us about Martyr, Loser King...

SW: Martyr, Loser, King is a concept album in the tradition of Niggy Tardust that tells the story of a hacker living in Burundi.

OKP: Okay, keep talking.

SW: So, there is a virtual you may have already seen, or people may even encounter elements of Martyr, Loser, King before they even realize what they are. Seeds have been planted. I'm working with hackers, essentially. But the first thing that will be obvious will be the music. We're working on a graphic novel. We're doing that with First Second Books and we're super excited to work with them, they're one of the coolest graphic novel companies in America right now. Ronald Wimberly, he's the artist. But we're co-writing the graphic novel together.

Because out of necessity I've learned how to lead things and create my own projects and be the boss of these ideas and bring them about. But it's also really cool sometimes to be hired. That was a feeling that I had forgotten about as an actor, because it's been a long time.

OKP:In terms of the other films you've done recently, Dreamstates is obviously a different scenario, but with Tey were you hired, or cast, correct?

SW: Well, I was hired, but I didn't audition. It was written for me. And Dreamstates is something that Anisia conceptualized and my job was just to stay it's course. I was there for the entire process. But Holler is something that has been blossoming for 17 years without me being involved. And they were not thinking of me, and I had to audition. I was already in the process with my team of learning everything we needed to know about bringing a theater piece to its feet. And then this came about and it was like, Why not learn from the inside, why not go on this ride?

OKP: Has that, then, changed what your plans are for the next few years, in terms of what you were planning for Martyr, Loser, King?

SW: It's just made it more solid.  Martyr, Loser, King, musically, I've been writing for the last two years. I stepped into Holler if Ya Hear Me with most of Martyr, Loser, King written and recorded already. The project was really almost done. There is some mixing to do, that's what's left of it in terms of music. We just have to mix the songs. And of course I like the mixing process because if I do have anything I want to change, there's still time for that.

I don't know what the influence of this stuff will have on my music. I'm going into the studio to mix in August, actually. I have to imagine that it's going to have some influence, but I can't call it. I don't know what it is.

But the other reason why I took this job is that I wanted that influence in me--the influence of 'Pac. It's like saying, Hey, would you like to spend six months in a Tupac sanctuary? Sure! Hell yeah. Yeah it'll have some influence on my music. It'll probably affect me for the rest of my life.

I know one way it already fucked with me was the other day I had an interview at CBS. I went to the CBS building, and while I was there all these cats came out and said "I saw the show, it was amazing!' And I was like "Oh you guys work at CBS?" And they said "No, actually. We work at BET. BET is on the 8th floor of this building." And I didn't know that, so I got out of my CBS interview and I was like "Fuck it, I'm going to the 8th floor" because I've done every fucking TV station except BET, and it doesn't make sense to me.

I took the elevator up to the 8th floor and the publicist was like "Do you know anybody up there?" And I said, No, but they'll know me. I walked into the vice president's office and said, Yo, I've been on every station except yours. You know what we're doing here on Broadway, we're making history here, and it doesn't make any sense to me why I haven't been on this station. We need you all. We need to be present here as well. How can we be on this week?

He was like "Well, uh...."--that was like five days before the BET Awards--"there's nothing we can do." And I said "No, no, no. We have to be on this week." That was Monday, and that Wednesday I was on 106 & Park. And I think it was that 'Pac influence that gave me the balls to walk into the BET office and demand to be on TV.