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The Evolution Of Saul Williams

All he wanted to be was an actor, but now he's juggling careers as an actor, poet and rock star.

Interview Anthony Carew

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"I had all these beliefs about the power of word, the power of us being able to call our world into existence just through what we say." — Saul Williams
Anthony Carew: What is your earliest memory of poetry?

Saul Williams: My earliest memory of poetry is probably some Easter Sunday children's recitation hour. My mom headed the Sunday school at my father's church, and every Sunday, like, kids were supposed to recite poems — "He is resurrected, blah-blah-blah" — and so I think that's probably my earliest memory.

But I wasn't by any means inspired by that. My earliest memory of poetry, in a way that it inspired me, was definitely connected to hip-hop. That would be when I was 9 years old, when I heard T La Rock's song "It's Yours," which is the first single that ever came out on Def Jam. And that song made me want to write rhymes, which I clearly saw as street poetry, and that's what made me start writing.

But I know I was reciting poetry before that — in church, for Black History Month, reciting the poems of Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka. I remember having to learn Langston Hughes poems before the age of 9, but that was all just regurgitating what I was told to.

Carew: So, when you were a kid growing up, did you always want to be a writer when you grew up?

Williams: Not at all. I wanted to be an actor. They started this public school program in the '80s called magnet school programs, where they were public schools but they could specialize in different areas, and I went to a school that focused on performance. And they had this class called "Shake hands with Shakespeare," and so we were responsible for putting on all of the school plays. When I was 9, we did Julius Caesar, and I played Marc Antony, and came home and said, "I want to be an actor when I grow up!" And my father said, 'I'll support you as an actor if you get a law degree." And my mother said, "Well, you should do your next report on Paul Robeson." And that same year was when "It's Yours" came out, so I decided that I wanted to be an actor, because you could study acting in school, but my hobby was being a rapper, since you couldn't study rapping in school. So, I spent all my spare time writing rhymes, and all of my academic career I tried to shift to acting.

Carew: What was a greater aspiration, the acting that you were studying or the rhyming that you were doing on the side?

Williams: The greater aspiration was acting, for sure. That's all I wanted to do. If I got lucky enough to get signed as a rapper, then I would've been totally satisfied. I was definitely trying to do that; I was rapping every day, and battling every day, and what have you. But if anyone asked me what I was going to be, I'd say, "I'm gonna be an actor!"

Carew: Which is funny, because in the film "Slam," it would've come across to an audience not really familiar with you that you were a rapper playing at being an actor. But that's not the case, it's almost the opposite.

Williams: Yeah, I was more like an actor playing at being a rapper. But when we shot "Slam," we shot it after I had already been on the poetry scene in New York for about three years.

I didn't get involved with writing poetry until I graduated from college. I was in grad school in New York, at NYU, studying acting, and became introduced to the poetry scene here, which was connected to the underground hip-hop scene, but it was a place where a lot of lyricists were going to "Take away the beat, take away everything, let's just focus on evolving lyricism." And I was basically writing poetry to fill the void between the hip-hop I was hearing and the hip-hop I wished I was hearing. Because, at that time, that whole gangsta bullshit hip-hop was becoming commercial, and we, as lyricists, had to try and create to fill our own urges, to satisfy our own desires about what we wanted.

So, even then, I was in grad school for acting, and when the director of "Slam" saw me in a poetry slam at the Nuyorican in 1996 — which means a year after I'd been on the poetry scene — he came up with the idea of the film, and asked me if I'd be willing to collaborate with him. Initially, he asked me if I'd be able to collaborate with him as a writer on the project, and I said, "Well, actually, I'm in graduate school for acting, and I will not collaborate with you as a writer unless you let me play the part."


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