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

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…

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Eddie "STATS"

Imported from Detroit.

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Eddie "STATS"

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