Ritual Sacrifice and Parallel Universes
Saul Williams on craft and storytelling.
MartyrLoserKing has just tagged his screen name onto the White House lawn via remote drone. He’s working from a remote e-waste camp in Burundi, Central Africa, neighboring the more well-known Rwanda, with equipment scrapped together from our old Dell PC towers and Sidekick IIs. Homeland Security, the NSA, and the CIA are tracing his signal back to a place that isn’t on the map or on the grid, and the alert level rises when he hacks NASA just to show he can do it.
At least, that’s what Saul Williams (b. 1972 Newburgh, NY) will tell you when you ask about his album and the story it’s inspired. Written and recorded between Senegal, Reunion Island, Paris, Haiti, and New Orleans and New York, Martyr Loser King is a multimedia project that engages the digital dialogue between the 1st and 3rd Worlds, and the global street sounds that yoke the two. “In Senegal, I was buying iPhones for $20, Beats for $10, because they get all the influx from China, with no regulation,” Williams explains. “So everyone’s online. Everyone’s high tech.”
Williams has been breaking ground since his debut album, Amethyst Rock Star, was released in 2001. After gaining global fame for his poetry and writings at the turn of the century, Williams has performed in over 30 countries and read in over 300 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.
Saul talked with LAAB Magazine about his creative process, the purposes and possibilities of storytelling, and the mystery of creative inspiration.
Illustrations by Ron Wimberly.
Ron Wimberly: So what’s good? You’re back from Haiti, been jumping around… are you touring right now?
Saul Williams: I am about to go on a little tour actually, next week with David Murray. But mainly I’ve been home finishing the script for the graphic novel, and mixing songs for the next installment of the MartyrLoserKing project. The next album is called Neptune Frost and I’m in the process of mixing that.
RW: Oh, so the saga continues?
SW: Of course. The saga’s been continuing for three years now, my friend.
RW: Well, I mean, it deserves the space. It’s an epic.
SW: Well, my idea all along was to take the space, to focus all my energies in kind of a single direction, although the topic covered in the story is multi- if not quantum-directional.
RW: It’s interesting how a project can write you. You start out with kind of the germ of an idea and do the diligence to honor the subject matter and the characters — do you make them? Or are they in service of an abstract idea that you’re in service of, kind of bringing it into existence?
SW: What I’ve found is that the characters reveal themselves in kind of hilarious ways. Once I started writing the script, I was trying my hardest but I was avoiding dialogue. I was scared of the moment I was going to hit dialogue. But once I did, that fear turned into excitement because I started to hear the characters’ different voices. And even though it’s coming out of my pen, I would say that the characters revealed themselves, their different personalities. They started to build themselves through me being present, and engaging with them, and having them engage with each other. So it’s a revelation for characters to go from the point of creation in our heads, to them telling you who they are.
RW: I feel like a large part of engaging for me personally is just getting to that point where the characters start to take over. The struggle is — and it manifests in a similar but different way for me — when you start to write a character, you maybe have a grand idea, and I think if you’re not careful it can be very masturbatory. It’s like you’re speaking through a bunch of puppets. But once I let them go, wow. All right, well this character is informing me. It’s almost like in Black Orpheus when they have the scene when the priestess is opening the crossroads, you’re trying to get the characters from another world…
SW: It’s like you’re channeling them. I agree with you that at first it’s is kind of masturbatory, because at first you’re just writing with your ideas, just kind of chopping up your own monologue into the voices of different people. Me, I arrive in the writing position every day, even if don’t write every day. I’m ready to receive.
RW: It’s as if it’s some sort of a ritual sacrifice is required, like, the blood of my ego. I know what I want the character to be. That’s me, and in order for me to get that to that magical place where you look back and ask yourself “How did I write that?” I have to get past myself. It’s a big opponent.
SW: Also, because it sounds like rhetoric, “to get past myself.” We don’t know what that means and the only way to get past yourself is through yourself. You do have to get out of the way but getting out of the way takes many forms. Sometimes it could be a lot of editing and getting out of the way. Other times it’s no editing at all, you know? There’s a sort of flexibility and vulnerability that is necessary to engage and stay engaged. I liken it to staying on the board if you’re surfing. It’s not one rule, it’s many. Some are conscious and others more instinctual.
RW: Do you surf?
SW: Not at all. (laughs)
RW: (laughing) Hey, Jack Kirby never surfed and he made the Silver Surfer.
SW: There you go.
RW: How do you find the art practice of comics [as opposed to music]?
SW: The thing about my writing and my music is that neither one of them are studied practices for me in the conventional sense — which is different from my relationship to acting, because I have studied acting. In some ways, my training in that craft informs my other creative practices, even if it just means I’m acting like I know what I’m doing. (laughs) In terms of comics, I know the drama as it relates to storytelling and conflict and protagonists and antagonists. My biggest epiphany in the script writing for this comic was actually writing the screenplay for this thing almost simultaneously. I went to Rwanda last year to shoot the sizzle reel of this eight page script, and that put me in the mind of approaching it like I would write a script for a film. Except — and this is the epiphany — there was a moment when it clicked and I realized that I was actually writing for an audience of one — for the illustrator. What that entails is when you’re writing the script, you’re giving the script details of what the aesthetic is.
RW: Maybe it’s a pet peeve of mine, but you’d be surprised… it would seem obvious, but when you’re working with visual storytelling the difference between that and say, a prose novel, is that the interior space is made visual. In a book you can describe two sides of a thing at once. In a comic it may require some sort of a visual device or multiple panels to do this sort of thing. I think it’s interesting that that’s occurred to you, when I definitely worked with comic book writers who haven’t really understood that.
SW: Yeah but what I’m really clear on — like, someone considering me and poetry and politics and messages, I guess they’d be imagining that I was really strong in what I wanted to say. And the fact of the matter, is that I was more strong on what I wanted to see.
RW: One of the things you said about not being formally trained [in comics] is that in the truth of the matter there aren’t many examples. There are organic intellectuals who developed from doing the work, doing a large output month to month. And you have bit of an academic tradition. But I feel like the people who are making the work by and large aren’t producing an academic record on [the craft of comics] I had actually said at a certain point that I would never work with musicians on a comic, [but] it’s interesting because of the way you approach music. How did you approach the Tupac project?
SW: Well, you have to acknowledge that even musicians make music differently. For me, making music is more like painting. I mean, I’m most interested in color and textures. So I listen to… what’s homeboy’s name? From Chicago, who was, like, artist of the year last year — Chance the Rapper. So I listen to his music and hear the synths and the keyboards, and musically it feels like primary colors: major chords, not someone who’s tripping off of oscillating synth and trying to find weird organic or inorganic sounds — which you can hear a lot in the church, for example. You don’t necessarily hear someone fucking with the synth in the same way, like a Trent Reznor might find a less recognizable sound. For me, with music I’m looking at textures and an ambiance that builds a world, like how a fantasy writer does. And then when I start adding text to that, I’m interested in breaking into that world, blending it or disrupting it and providing the counter balance… I would say that my approach to writing this comic is first and foremost as a filmmaker, and then as a poet. The image is everything.
SW: When I’m through [creating a comics page], the first thing I want to do is pull all of the text off of the page and see if I can follow the story. What I need to inspire — and I don’t mean in a corny way, like the same way that you [described it as] animation in a book, that [the page] is just someone walking from one room to another and the reader says, “OK, I can tell [the story] without words.” I’m talking more about world-building. I’m very interested in the visual aesthetic. And it’s interesting to be interested in that. I’m not capable of doing this comic. Not in the slightest. (laughs)
RW: Man, I swear to God, every time I talk to you, you break through some of the more rigid and antagonistic sides of my personality. (laughs) The way I’ve thought about comics, particularly regarding writers often is mild disdain.
RW: And I think when I’m hearing you talk about this . . You, and Jose Muñoz is another artist — I really appreciate his relationship with his writer Carlos Sampayo. But usually it isn’t like, “I’ve done this writing and I’m really excited to see what the artist does with the writing.” It’s more like… let me find the words for this. And I know I can use this with you without sounding derogatory — but it’s like it’s a very submissive way of thinking about the story and the partnership. You understand –
SW: I’m writing for the artist. I’m writing to inspire and excite. I want the artist to feel excited about their charge.
RW: One of the things that’s really interesting about MartyrLoserKing is how, at this particular point in time politically, we have a lot of these discussions regarding where identity is meeting the political dialogue. We’re looking at a moment in history where politics are becoming aestheticized. How you deal with narrative that addresses the issues — like not representation, which is like a word I’m becoming somewhat sick of — but how you chose the characters and what you chose to write?
SW: MartyrLoserKing takes place in a parallel universe a lot like ours, but not exactly ours. Now of course, that can mean many things, because you could you visit another country, a tribe in the Amazon today, and you would automatically feel like you were in a parallel universe. Your phone wouldn’t have reception and you’d be immune to the tweets of the President and you’d be immune to discussions about refugees and migrants and just be wrapped up in your surroundings. You’d be disconnected, in a sense, but perhaps more connected to the world or the planets or the stars or particular vibrations. The story takes place in a parallel universe and those characters of course correspond closely to characters in our own world, in that they have direct experiences that shaped them. What is particular is, for example, if the story were based in Western Europe in 1945, did we know that we were getting with the world of people who had just escaped or survived war? My story takes place in Burundi, which is situated near Rwanda, near the Congo, near Uganda in Eastern Africa. There is a reality in that land that’s very much connected to history. Even if the story is not about that, my characters are infused with a subtle nod to what that might mean. From there, I’m also looking at some contemporary issues [such as how] there are hundreds of thousands of refugees exiting Burundi as a result of how the current president Nkurunziza forced himself into a third term and has stoked the flame of horrendous violence. And so there is a sort of thing that takes place when the idea of an authoritarian society is revealed to you. For Americans [now] it may be easier to imagine what it must mean to live in North Korea or something. Now you’re in New York and I’m in L.A., and in both cities right now there’s probably a line of kids outside of the Supreme store (laughs), in a sort of privilege. That may not carry the same weight in another land.
RW: Yeah, that’s abstract in another place.
SW: So I have a character that is a miner. Martyr Loser was a miner, he mined coltan before he became a hacker. That kind of puts him on both ends of the spectrum of technology. He’s been a part of the mining of the precious minerals that go into the making of our computers and smartphones, and then he’s introduced to those very computers and smartphones and and learns how to insert himself into that world of social media. There’s another character who is essentially a chemical engineer who worked at a coltan processing plant. I had an opportunity to visit a coltan operating plant in Rwanda –
SW: Yeah — and so this engineer is someone who has a different understanding of geology, of chemistry and engineering itself, with the process of balancing properties. There’s another character who has the name of Memory — you remember her.
RW: Yeah. (laughs)
SW: She is really interesting to me. She’s got a really strong role. There are two characters, Memory and Psychology, who were both students at universities before being called to MartyrLoserKingdom. And so their world is both academically and politically charged in a way that is kind of on the frontlines because of their relationship to academia and the sorts of movements that often stem from university campuses and what have you. But she’s got another faculty, which is her relationship with a twin brother, and a bird. And she — what am I trying to say? She has an awareness and ability with languages. That sets her in an interesting place.
RW: One of the qualities that we share with birds is our language center [in our brain].
SW: Yes. And of course there’s Neptune Frost which I won’t go too deep into, but she’s probably the most interesting of all the characters.
RW: I. CAN’T. WAIT. Man. One of the things that’s really interesting — and I think maybe you knew this before but you’re finding out is just– whatever, man, everyone’s creative is different, but I find in a lot of people who make dense work, your approach to the process, which is similar to mine in many ways is… you know they say “perfect is the enemy of the good?” In my experience, with writing or with my art practice in general, I certainly start out with a notion of what it is and how long it’ll take, and then almost by the function of how long it takes, I have no idea what it’s going to be about again. When I’m looking back on the project I’m doing now, Sunset Park, I’m like, wow, I’m so happy. I’m so happy I couldn’t just snap my fingers and make it happen. Because over the course of trying to figure these things out — let’s say I run out of money and I have to do a project, or I pick up a book and that book completely adds a whole other dimension to the work that I was doing. I have this idea about storytelling and writing when it’s like — you have a problem, and life necessitates me fucking off and doing something else for a little while, sometimes it’s like, downloading. (laughs) And then I come back and I’m like, the whole thing downloaded, right? (laughs) 1080p, the highest resolution. And there it is, right in front of me all at once, and in five hours I put the whole thing down.
SW: Sometimes taking that space away, even if it’s reluctantly, a lot of times your creative juices are still at work so that when you come back to it, you’re sharper. I’ve found that in many ways. For years I was teaching myself how to play the acoustic bass guitar. And then I stopped and I didn’t bring it on tour and I was gone for two months without it, basically not even thinking about it while I’m on some other shit. And then when I finally come back to pick up that bass guitar, I was further ahead than when I left it, because something clicked. Something clicked, and suddenly I can execute something greater than I could when I was so deeply engrossed in it. Detaching for a minute actually helped me attach even stronger.
RW: I’m excited to have you be a part of the conversation that is comics. I’m a little mad because — how many fucking disciplines do you have to jump into, you feel me? You know, I might have to start making music, or acting —
SW: It’s a little crazy, man.
RW: Real quick — I had this crazy conversation [with a friend] about her kid, he comes home from school one day and he’s gotten into a fight and the boys roughed him up a little bit and he’s like, “The reason why those kids roughed me up is because they don’t have daddies like me, they’re Black kids, they don’t have dads.” And she’s flipping her shit, right? And we’re talking about that, and it just comes down to, regardless of how you bring them up at home, it’s kind of hubristic that of think that your kid isn’t going to be –
SW: — exposed to racist ideology.
RW: Yeah. And I have another homie who’s doing children’s books, and I go “I want to do a children’s book,” but then the whole time I’m thinking, I want to do it, but I don’t want to fall into that trap we tend to fall into, I guess black artists, where for a lot of us — it’s not that we intend it, but I think it can fall into the trap of just being advocacy on behalf of black people. You know? I mean, like, trying to get in between the people that we care about and white supremacy. Like, I’m going to make a book for white parents so they can talk to their kids [about race]. I mean, what the fuck? (laughs)
SW: And before you know it, you’re “that dude.”
RW: Yeah, hell no. I’m talking to my homie about it and I might come up with this idea and I haven’t worked it out yet, but I’m like I want to put out a book and the title of the book would be “This Book Is Not For Black Children.” (Laughs) It’s like “Well, this isn’t for Black children and this isn’t for Black children”, and then at the end of the book it’s like “really, this book is for YOU.” Essentially that’s what it comes down to, is because I know I want to protect the black children out there.
SW: That was my thinking on a lot of projects, from NiggyTardust to The Dead Emcee Scrolls, to have that sense that this is for black kids –
RW: Yo, NiggyTardust was for me, man. I don’t know if I ever talked to you about that, but that record was for me. Like, when I heard that shit? — and first of all, the movie Slam, which was for me too, because being a little black kid from DC, all that shit, man. You know, I’m telling you that shit, and I’ve had occasion to have kids say that to me, and I know how much it means, and so I’m saying that to you. That shit was for me. That was my fuel. It sustained me. It made me make Prince of Cats. That kind of fuel — if I didn’t have that, who knows? It sustained me.
SW: That’s a crazy idea. It reminds me of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book.
RW: Oh, yeah yeah yeah!
SW: But I don’t know how much luck you’re going to have on the bookshelf. (laughs) “This Is Not For Black Children.” But don’t forget MartyrLoserKing was first a kid’s book idea.
RW: Oh, are you serious? I don’t remember that.
SW: Just the word. The first birth of MartyrLoserKing before the concept came about was when I had been asked by Nickelodeon to write some poetry that they were going to shoot videos for Black History Month. And so I sent them a bunch of poems. I was inspired by the idea like, holy shit, I’m going write poems for kids for Black History Month? And I wrote these fucked-up, kind of funny poems, and one of them was about Martyr Loser King, and so I had two different poems, two alternatives — one where Martyr Loser King was a dog’s name? Like a kid had just learned about Martin Luther King in school — a little, kid like six years old — and came home from school and asked if he could name this dog Martyr Loser King?
RW: Oh, man. (laughs)
SW: And then the other one — I forget what the other one was but it but I had all these kids’ poems titled Martyr Loser King. And Charlotte sent it to a literary agent and one of them wrote back that “This is the most offensive thing, how dare you, blah blah blah blah blah.”
RW: Well, I told you, in the Columbus Museum of Art? One of the older heads there — like, you know this guy who wound up in Columbus, Ohio, but like, he had been part of like the Black Arts Movement stuff — just an old head, a real cool cat, you know? And when he saw that shit, he was like, yo… what do you mean by that? (laughs) See what I mean? That’s our thing — “Why is it associated with a middle finger like that? What is that? Loser? Loser? What do you mean by loser?!?” (laughs) He went from being mad cool, to — well, I mean he’s still cool, but he’s like, “Yo, what’s up, though? What do you mean?” And I was like, oh shit. Maybe you’re better with this than I am, but I’m in my little art avant-garde world, and sometimes I come out of it and I am completely blind-sided. I forgot —
SW: “I forgot people could be offended.” People who don’t encounter shit like this. I’ve encountered more than one person, of course, who’s questioned what that means and why. And it’s a direct challenge to them because, one, especially the “Loser.” Identifying with the so-called loser. And what that means to me in the context of the story and in the context of a capitalist society, anything from… who is that actor who was running around talking about winning? Charles or whoever the fuck I can’t think of his name. From Two and a Half Men. He’s just drugged out.
RW: Sheen! That’s funny, because I can’t remember whether it was Trump or him who said that, but yeah, the tiger blood shit.
SW: Winning, winning, that was his hashtag all along. And if this is what winning is? The fast car and the trophy wife? Yeah, fuck that.
RW: Yeah, we’re all losers. (laughs)
SW: Yeah. And not because you don’t have that shit, but because you don’t fucking want it.
This interview originally appeared in LAAB Magazine #0: Dark Matter, published by Beehive Books, 2018.