Born in 1972; son of a schoolteacher mother and a preacher father; raised in Newburgh, New York; children: a daughter, Saturn. Education: Morehouse College, BA in philosophy; New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, MFA in drama.
In an oft-quoted remark, Saul Williams recounted his birth: "My mother was rushed from a James Brown concert to give birth to me." It was 1972 and Brown's song "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" was becoming an anthem for a new generation of African Americans. As Williams told Time Out, "I didn't have to go through what my parents did to 'say it loud' because it's implicit in my nature." Indeed, as a poet, rapper, actor, and musician, Williams has made a career of speaking up, shouting out, and saying it loud. "That's the most invigorating feeling," he told Time Out, "speaking truth into a microphone."
Influenced by Hip-Hop and the Bard
Williams was born in 1972 to a schoolteacher mother and a preacher father. His family enjoyed a middle class lifestyle in Newburgh, New York. From both parents Williams inherited a desire to feed his mind. "Reading was compulsory," Williams told London's Independent. He tackled Shakespeare in third grade and first stepped on stage in an elementary school performance of Julius Caesar.
Of his father, Williams told Interview, "My father's influence was just realizing the importance of having a calling." The 1980s hip-hop group T La Rock put Williams on the path to his own calling. He was in fourth grade, and upon hearing the group's song "It's Yours," Williams wrote his first poem. After that he led a dual life as student of literature and a self-taught student of the spoken word. "It was always important to me to be that kid who could rock the party as well as rock the English professor's mind," Williams told Interview.
Following high school, Williams followed his cerebral bent, earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Atlanta's Morehouse College. Next, he was off to study acting at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in New York City. He soon earned a master of fine arts degree, but instead of heading for the theater, Williams encountered a poetry revival that was based in coffeehouses, and found himself front and center in the culture of "slam."
From the Café Scene to Cannes
Williams first made a name for himself on New York's poetry scene at the infamous Nu-yorican Poets Café. As a breeding ground for up-and-coming word artists, Nu-yorican had developed a reputation for cutthroat "poetry slams." In a "slam," poets are given a few minutes to mesmerize the audience with their verbal wizardry. Would-be poets not up to the challenge suffer the vicious jeers of the crowd and are booed, often in tears, offstage. Of the often cruel nature of the slams, Williams told Interview, "I'm not into the competitive aspects, but I am all for getting people to become poets or poetry critics." Yet his dislike of the battle didn't stop him from slamming his competition, and in 1996 he scored the esteemed title of Nu-yorican Poet Café's Grand Slam Champion.
As a result of his victory, Williams caught the attention of independent film director Marc Levin and was cast in the lead role in 1998's Slam. Williams played the main character, Raymond Joshua, a small-time Washington, D.C., dope dealer who is imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Against the harsh chaos of prison life, Joshua finds refuge in his own voice as he realizes the power of his poetry.
Williams wrote all his own lines, and the film wowed audiences worldwide. Slam won the 1998 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d'Or and Audience Award at Cannes. For his performance Williams received an award for "Breakout Performance" by New York's Independent Film Project. However, for Williams, audience reaction was far more rewarding. Veteran actress Alfre Woodard tearfully told Williams that Slam was the most important film to have been made in the past 25 years. A French woman in Cannes grabbed his arm to tell him she had seen the film twice because she had been a resistance fighter in World War II and Slam reflected her own struggle for freedom. Williams's poetry was reaching people and making a difference in their lives. He told Time Out, "I realized that we have the power to change reality, because we dictate reality ... but if we want to change how it is, then we have to make a film about how it should be."
Williams continued to evolve as an actor. In 2000 he had a role in the film Kings of L.A., and also provided the voice for Jean-Michel Basquiat's character in Origin of Cotton, a movie originally made in the 1980s but whose sound was lost during a break in production. His first major motion picture, K-Pax, starring Kevin Spacey, was released in 2001.
Turned Life and Dreams into Poetry
As his fledgling film career gained momentum, so did his work as a poet. "[My poetry] is about making things matter. Making those invisible, intangible ideas and dreams, things that you can touch, that you can feel," he told Interview. So far he has done that in three volumes of his work. In 1998 his first book of poetry, The Seventh Octave, was published. His 1999 effort, She, is an intimate account of the demise of his relationship with the book's illustrator, performance artist Marcia Jones, with whom he bore a daughter, Saturn, in 1996. The book has enjoyed three printings and publication by MTV Pocket Books. Williams acknowledged the privilege he felt at being able to share his poetry. "To be a young poet and publish books is quite a blessing, because publishers print poetry like churches sing hymns--to maintain some sort of traditional stance," he told Time Out.
In the spring of 2001 his third book of poetry hit the bookshelves. Called Sorcery of Self, it is distilled from seven years of journal writing. Its publication reinforced the advice he gave to aspiring poets in the Hoya, George Washington University's student paper: "Experience things and write it down." He also advised the use of poetry as therapy, saying, "If you can channel [pain] into something, that's the healing."
Where No Rapper Has Gone Before
Like his role model, the African-American singer, actor, athlete, and civil rights activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976), Williams kept adding to his roster of talents. In 1997 he recorded his first spoken word piece on the well-received album Eargasms: Urban Hip Hop. He also appeared on several other poetry/hip-hop compilations in the late 1990s. He has performed live with Erykah Badu, The Roots, and The Fugees.
After Slam, famed record producer Rick Rubin approached Williams to produce a full-length album. The result, Amethyst Rock Star, was released in the United Kingdom in August of 2001 and was slated to be released in the United States soon after. Following the release, Williams embarked on a popular European tour with a six-piece band. On the album Williams combined his literary training, slam-cured word work, and minimal, almost surreal music to produce a rap record unlike any other. "This is not a pop release, nor will it prove popular," he told the London Observer. "I'm taking rap somewhere it's never been before." Still, he was confident that it would find its own audience. "I do believe in the power of what I'm doing, and people's ability to think for themselves beyond what's being sold to them," he assured the London Independent.
In 2003 Williams released a self-titled print collection of his work. In Publishers Weekly, a reviewer noted that Williams's occasional "messianic postures and pronouncements" were "shopworn," but praised the book's "understated moments of lyrical intimacy and self-scrutiny."
Williams has successfully introduced Shakespearean form into hip-hop, has brought poetry to the rock arena, and has made his way in Hollywood--all by speaking his own brand of truth. "The most positive thing you can do when someone puts the microphone up to you is to speak truth," he told Time Out. Williams has shared that truth through his books, films, and CDs.
by Candace LaBalle and Kelly Winters
Saul Williams's Career
Since 1995 has performed poetry readings; published books of poetry include: Sorcery of Self, 2001, She, 1999, The Seventh Octave, 1998, Saul Williams, 2003. Film works include: K-Pax, 2001; voice over for lead character, Origin of Cotton, 2000; Kings of L.A., 2000; star and coauthor, Slam, 1998. Recordings include: Amethyst Rock Star, 2001; appeared on poetry/hip-hop compilation albums, including: Eargasms: Urban Hip-Hop, Lyricist Lounge, Black Whole Styles.
Saul Williams's Awards
New York's Independent Film Project, "Breakout Performance" Award, for Slam; Nu-yorican Poet Café, Grand Slam Champion, 1996.
- Selected discography
- Eargasms: Urban Hip Hop 1997.
- Amethyst Rock Star American, 2001.
- Saul Williams Fader, 2004.
- Selected writings
- She 1999.
- The Seventh Octave 1998.
- Saul Williams MTV/Pocket.
- Sorcery of Self 2001.
- Selected filmography
- Slam 1998.
- Kings of L.A. 2000.
- K-Pax 2001.
- Black Issues Book Review, March-April 2002, p. 63.
- Hoya, February 25, 2000.
- Independent (London, England), August 17, 2001, p. 18.
- Interview, March 2000.
- Music Week, August 4, 2001, p. 11.
- Observer (London, England), August 5, 2001, p. 14.
- Publishers Weekly, September 1, 2003, p. 85.
- Skipping Stones, May-August 2002, p. 3.
- Time, October 19, 1998, p. 106.
- Time Out, New York, October 15, 1998.