Saul Williams is Making the Work He’s Always Wanted to See in the World

Photo courtesy Girlie Action Media

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Language is a form of technology. The elements that make music are, too. These truths are both the precursors and underlying foundations for the latest work from poet-actor-musician Saul Williams, who, with Rwandan actress and playwright Anisia Uzeyman, has created a new film and accompanying soundtrack that juxtaposes ideas of liberation, technology, and traditional African languages and sonics, which then, in turn, offers a mind-bending window into how work gets done. The film is called Neptune Frost and the soundtrack is called Unanimous Goldmine: Original Soundtrack to Neptune Frost. The former dropped last year, and the latter was released on July 1. But the origins of the work go back to Williams’ childhood, a time when, around 1980, he first began to learn about songs, stage plays, and Shakespeare. The son of artists, Williams was supported when he expressed his interest in creativity as a possible profession. Little did he know then that his Magnum Opus would find the world some 40 years later. Now, it has.  

“I identified as an artist from the time I was about eight years old,” says the now 50-year-old Williams. “That’s when it became official.”

At that time, he’d been cast in his first play, a school production in New York, cast as the role of Mark Antony in Julius Caesar in third grade. After his first rehearsal, Williams told his parents he wanted to be an actor when he grew up. His dad said that was alright, as long as he got a law degree. His mom suggested he study Paul Robeson, who was an actor and a lawyer. Around that same time, Williams began listening to rap music, rapping and breakdancing. He read Shakespeare in the car and on the bus. He loved musicals, exposed to Broadway and Off-Broadway theater. At 10, he began writing songs for his school chorus. He dreamt of his first musical at 13 and began to write it at 16. 

“My parents were, themselves,” Williams says, “highly exposed to the arts, highly influenced by the arts. It wasn’t far-fetched [for me to be an artist]. It was practical.” 

One fellow who would often come by Williams’ parents’ house was the folk songwriter Pete Seeger, who also frequented Williams’ father’s church. As a kid, Williams wondered why Seeger would sing songs in the church. He’d soon find out that Seeger had written some important songs that helped the cause of the marginalized. Seeger would show up on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, even before it was a Federal holiday, and sing songs like, “We Shall Overcome.” The American artist Odetta would, too. Williams, who begged his parents to take him to auditions for television shows and the like, was allowed to take acting classes. And while he never ended up on The Cosby Show, his love of language and performance was fostered. 

“My appreciation for poetry,” Williams says, “really came from theater, from Shakespeare.”

In early plays, Williams and the cast, as is custom, would, before practicing the work on stage, do table reads. That’s where breaking down language and finding the playful aspects of it really began to jump out into his mind. The early ’80s in New York City also meant the infancy of hip-hop, which he loved. Williams remembers trying to write raps in Old English. His father was a pastor, so oratory skills were fascinating and fertile ground from which to learn, as well. Not to mention the seminal works of authors like Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez. But though poetry and verse were important, he never labeled himself a poet. 

“I never identified as a poet,” Williams says, “until I was identified as a poet.” 

He wanted to be an actor, the next Denzel Washington. At the same time, hip-hop quickly was becoming more and more character-driven (hello, “Gangsta Rap”) and less lyrically driven. But Williams found language lovers in local open mics and poetry slams. 

“When those doors first opened in poetry for me,” he says, “I felt like I was part of a crew that was cracking a new technology.” 

With the fundamentals and wordplay supplied by hip-hop, Williams began turning poetry on its head, into a performance art where delivery, tone, sound, and style were on par with substance. Slang was now a tool. Bombast, glue. Doing so, he says, felt like he was inventing a new sense of coding and decoding. And students and English teachers, alike, responded. Suddenly, poetry was exciting again. He remembers telling his mother that he was slated to give a reading with the legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Yet, not everything was coming up roses. At the same time, Williams felt slighted. He wanted to act, but the roles he felt in consideration for were mostly stereotypes. He was asked to write his own parts, but felt annoyed at that, thinking Jack Nicholson isn’t asked to write his own scripts! Neither was James Dean or Denzel. Even then, he felt poetry was a hobby and acting was his true calling, his profession. 

“I was faced with the same thing so many Black actors faced,” he says. “Asked to play stereotypical roles. Sometimes the only way out of that box was to build something else. That’s what Neptune Frost is. I needed to build something that I wanted to showcase.” 

It’s tough when you’re so talented. It can be hard to know for certain which road, which lane, to take forward. Throughout his career, Williams has both shown much, given much, and had much available to him, thanks, largely, to his massive talents. His draw. He’s worked with KRS-ONE, Erykah Badu, Trent Reznor, and more. He’s been the centerpiece in documentaries like SlamNation and dramatic movies like Slam. He’s a legend. Yet, despite these privileges, the struggle remains. As did the question: what’s next? 

“I will say,” Williams says, “feeling connected to tech as a poet is not a new idea for me. You can find a poem of mine online from 1999 called ‘Coded Language.’ [With that] I am very clearly in my mind making a connection between language and coding and decoding.”

Williams has held onto these themes—language as technology—for years, working and reworking them. Now, with Neptune Frost, he was pushed to incorporate them in a bigger work. The project forced him to learn to articulate those connections to the realm of computers and computer software, he says. In his research, he remembers learning about the industrial age and how it was born from the colonial age. Slaves, treated as cattle, were eventually replaced with machines, the makeup of which still used terms like “master” and “slave” in their various compartments. Human beings were dehumanized to the point of animal or fleshy robots so that the work of a new country could be undertaken. Free labor is free labor. Even the word “robot” has an etymology that goes back to Czechoslovakia and means “forced labor.” The word “chattel” was often used to refer to slaves or property and, Williams found, its roots come from just another way to pronounce “cattle.” 

“It’s fascinating,” Williams says, laughing to avoid weeping. 

The idea for Neptune Frost and its accompanying soundtrack was born, the artist says, around the “Arab Spring,” or the early 2010s. The world was in upheaval. The American government was helping to institute oppressive laws in other countries around the world in the hopes of normalizing them and bringing them home to the United States—laws against homosexuality, for example. Wikileaks was happening, too. Technology had new uses. Social media, Amazon. And the feeling was so much could be done with machines, but in so doing, often the people behind those machines were forgotten. Neptune Frost plays with these ideas, wondering in a sci-fi, fantastical way what it might be like if someone could sleep on the earth and be “recharged” like a phone is with a “smart” table. But, one wonders, does all this discovery about the past, about dehumanization ever get to Williams?

“Unfortunately,” he says, “I’ve been managing this sort of thing my entire life, both consciously and unconsciously. I had no choice. I grew up a dark-skin man in America, with sisters and a mother.”

The “compartmentalization” is always a fact of life when you’re Black in America. So easy is it to slip into depression if the mental work is not undertaken to stave it off. Though we think slavery is in the distant past, it isn’t. Harriet Tubman was alive, Williams points out before Thomas Jefferson died and after Ronald Reagan was born. In the 1800s, in South Carolina, drumming was banned because landowners knew Blacks were communicating with them. They knew the rhythms were coded. Today, Black history remains coded in art. While states argue about Critical Race Theory, rappers like Chuck D talk about the Black struggle in song. And when Williams hears these works, he’s lifted. 

“For me,” he says, “music has always been political, partially because I’ve always felt like that music hits harder. Why wouldn’t you want your music to hit harder? That’s why Nina Simone stands the test of time, Billie Holiday, Fela Kuti.”

There is power in confronting the darkness, for Williams. That’s what Toni Morrison wrote about: beautiful sentences looking directly in the eye of evil. And that’s the work Williams has always undertaken, especially so in Neptune Frost and its soundtrack. The movie was born of two of his previous albums, MartyrLoserKing (2016) and Encrypted & Vulnerable (2019). Those albums, which he released and toured on, were essentially the demos or blueprints for Neptune Frost and its soundtrack. On them, he worked and played with language and polyrhythms. He started with the music and found the words after the fact. He looked to other musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Black Orpheus. And he wanted to adapt, too, bringing in sounds and beats from hip-hop. Where Hamilton brought rapping to Broadway, Williams wanted to take it another step forward, bringing in 808 drum machines and the sounds of the genre, not just the verbal acumen. And Lin-Manuel Miranda later became a producer for Neptune Frost

“Why are we restricting ourselves?” Williams wonders. 

It’s not about being commercial. It’s abound finding yourself in the work, honestly. Williams also looked to the field recordings from the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, which chronicled field songs and prison songs. To Williams, those songs didn’t sound old, they sounded, in a way, futuristic. Though perhaps that was also because he was seeing his own future unfold in them. His creative partner, Uzeyman, also had much to do with this research, offering examples and motifs from her experience in African art. Now, Williams says, with the movie complete and the soundtrack unleashed into the world, it feels like he’s made the thing he’s always wanted, ever since he was a youngster learning about theater and music and the power of words. 

“If I’m honest,” he says, reflecting. “Yes, it does feel like I’ve finally achieved what I’ve always wanted to achieve.”

He asked many people to give their ideas and talents to the project, including the trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde, who added to its web of wonders, its sounds, and historical tapestry. In the end, the completed project offers new looks at the understanding of language, technology, and American and global histories. It also provides works that both Williams and Uzeyman say they wish they’d been privy to as young people. Imagine what Neptune Frost and the accompanying music could have done for their young, burgeoning imaginations. Now, though, at least it’s here. 

Adds Williams, “Anisia and I both feel we made the film we wish we could have seen when we were children.”

Photo courtesy Girlie Action Media

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