Saul Williams Talks Poetry, Politics, and His Life as Niggy Tardust

Busting Out the Box

Saul Williams
Paul Wellman (file)

Be it as a poet or rapper, writer or actor, cultural watch dog or simply a street savvy philosopher, Saul Williams has a voice worth listening to. First introduced to the world in the 1998 independent feature film Slam, the native New Yorker has welded his undeniable way with words-both spoken and harmonized-to captivate his audiences. His newest album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, doesn’t just mark an evolutionary step in his artistic journey, (“[It’s] the album I have been trying to make for years,” Williams said), it also provides a groin kick straight to the recording industry-a world that eats up creativity only to spit out dollars. Produced by Trent Reznor and available exclusively through Williams’s Web site for a mere $5, Niggy Tardust is one hell of a lyric-and-beat-heavy ride. And its release has made Williams one of the first real non-mainstream artists to take the power back from the labels and offer up their work, essentially for free, on the Web. What’s most surprising, the album far out-sold Williams’s previous two records.

Returning to Santa Barbara for the first time in more than a year-and promising an all-out poetry-meets-punk, hip-hop-meets-heavy-metal assault-Williams hits Velvet Jones this Saturday, March 22. I caught up Williams earlier this month. What follows is a portion of that conversation.

So you are coming back to Santa Babylon and you’ve got a new album. What can we expect in the show? A little bit of everything. But the main focus is Niggy Tardust. It’s the Guitar Spangled Banner Tour and it’s completely connected to the character I created for this album.

So you are in character when you perform Niggy tunes? Ahh yeah. That’s the thing-Niggy Tardust itself is a hybrid. Who I am is absorbed within who that character is, and my estimation of who we all are is absorbed within who that character is.

Saul Williams
Paul Wellman (file)

So Niggy is a little bit of all of us? I basically describe him as an angel of mercy. It’s like when your voice of reason comes with a song instead of a gun. Essentially he is, as I said, a hybrid. What I mean by that is that he encompasses all the things that it means to be alive and of a healthy mind state and American in this day and age, which means he is beyond being, you know, beyond belonging to a particular race or a particular genre. He realizes all of those things come to be who he is. He is the ideal American; someone who realizes he isn’t the box he was born into.

How did you decide to create a new persona for an album? What inspired you? Life and my own personal experiences. We are all caught in the boxes we are born in. I had to fight with record label executives who, after taking one look at me, imagined exactly how my music should sound; people who, after taking one look at me, automatically think they know who I am, or where I am from, or how my voice should sound. I think we all have been somewhat victimized by the polarity that exists from the boundaries that we instill on our children in the name of race, nationality, gender, and all of these things. Where Ziggy Stardust (or really, David Bowie) raised questions about androgyny and those characteristics that we deem feminine or masculine, Niggy Tardust is here to raise questions about even more. Everything, like, isn’t race a social construct? It’s 2008 and we all know that science has disproved the theory of race, yet we all still swear by it. : Niggy Tardust is just somebody who dares to live beyond it.

It was your poetry that introduced you to the world at large. Are you still writing? Oh definitely. But poetry isn’t really something you do. It is a way of living and looking at life. Poetry is one of the nicknames of philosophy. It’s a cathartic process of emoting and channeling your experience so that I am always writing in my journal. And if I share what is in my journal with anyone, then it’s no longer a journal entry-it is called a poem.

You have never been one to shy from politics and right now is a very interesting political time. How are you feeling about the landscape these days? Pretty crazy, man. It’s exciting. I’m definitely someone that has been run over by Barack Obama and I’m excited, but it’s weird. I basically liken [it] to, if you have a little sister who has gone through a horrible breakup with someone who has cheated on her and just crushed her; and you have seen her go through years of depression and finally she has fallen in love again and the whole family is like, “Oh my God, I hope this guy doesn’t hurt her,” because if he does you know how jaded she will become. In that same way, I look at hope as being a beautiful thing, but also a dangerous thing. Because if now all those people who are now stepping up to the plate have their hopes let down in any way-not by Barack, but by the system that exists around him-then we will be living in dangerous times, as we already are.

If you had to, what words would you use to describe your music? I’d ascribe many, but that’s why Niggy Tardust exists as a hybrid. I could call myself black if I want to, because that’s how I appear. But anyone black in America knows that if they exist in this day and age they definitely have white blood in them, and probably have indigenous Native American blood in them-so that calling myself one thing is just a choice. It’s the same way that we call Barack Obama black even though he is a hybrid. We could just as easily call him white and not put anything after it. But we’ve taken sides. So you are asking me to take sides with my music.

: In a hip-hop setting I’d say it’s hip-hop. In a punk setting I’d say, “Oh it’s definitely punk.” In a rock setting I’d say, “Oh yeah, it’s rock” : And in all of those settings I’d be right. Hybrid-that’s the word I’m pushing. : It’s not that it’s genre bending-it’s beyond genre bending. It’s a middle finger up the idea of genre, up race, up all of these boundaries that never even fucking existed in the first place.

You hear all the time that “one world” is the direction we are headed as a culture. Exactly. But we are already there. That’s why everybody can get behind Obama-not because he is a black man, but because he is hybrid. That is what is so interesting to me about [laughs]-wow, I almost just called Hillary Clinton “Whitney Huston”-what she, and now John McCain, are attempting to do by pointing out the idea of Barack not having enough experience. That’s a really interesting thing to me because, as an African American, the type of experience I’d look for in a candidate would be the sort of experience someone would have when they are not born under this sort of blindsided privilege that being born white in America gives you, and that’s what excites me about him. He has the experience of knowing what it feels like to be overlooked in this country, and to be judged and disqualified before you even open your mouth. That’s the experience that they don’t have. Washington is not going to give you that experience.

So in this day of the emerging hybrid, what happens next? Where does Niggy Tardust go from here? I already told you, man-the White House!


Saul Williams will play Velvet Jones (423 State St.) on Saturday, March 22. Call 965-8676, or visit for details.


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