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A verbal "Slam" with poet/actor Saul Williams
Monday, November 2, 1998
By Ethan Machado
Special Writer, The Oregonian
In our entertainment culture, with its disposable movies and songs, a rare gem has arrived on the pop scene -- an artist with something to say.
Poet Saul Williams, a star of the spoken-word circuit, can move metaphorical mountains -- and, judging by his riveting performance in the new film Slam, he's someone who might help people realize once again the power of words.
He certainly did that in Portland while starring in SlamNation (1998), a film shot partly here while documenting the 1996 National Poetry Slam, in which poets "battled" to win audience approval. The film will play Dec. 4 at Cinema 21 in Northwest Portland.
"Williams really stood out," says Carl Hanni, who organized the Portland event. "His whole approach was so unusual. He took you on a cosmological journey and left a big impression."
Slam has already drawn praise from critics and audiences, including the 1998 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the 1998 Audience Award at Cannes.
Williams plays Ray Joshua, a small-time dealer arrested for marijuana possession in Washington, D.C. Joshua is destined to become yet another young black man locked in prison without a future -- a serial number trapped in the system. But he has a gift, the ability to weave words and rhythm in magical and gripping ways. In jail he begins to realize, with the help of a teacher (Sonja Sohn) who is also a poet, the ways that language can set him free.
In one poignant moment, he reaches out to a fellow inmate in the cell next to him by trading raps, his own more ethereal flights of fancy bumping against the other inmate's insistent, angry verses. In another scene, he avoids a prison-yard confrontation, at least temporarily, by launching into an adrenalin-fired poem that leaves a circle of hardened, prison characters speechless.
In these two shattering vignettes, Williams, who wrote his own verses for the film, establishes himself as a spokesman not only for the oppressed and forgotten, but also for the average person aching to move beyond the simplistic modes of expression found in the latest MTV video.
"The film is not only about those imprisoned in jail," Williams said from New York after returning from a film screening at the same Washington, D.C., correctional facility where director Marc Levin shot the jail scenes.
"Prisons are not the only thing locking people up: It's inside. There are spiritual prisoners, material prisoners, people who think their possessions make them free."
Williams resembles the Beat poets in many ways -- fighting for inner freedom against mind-numbing cultural conformity. His metaphysical poetry, though, draws on the style and energy of contemporary rap. But in its Whitmanesque flights, its sudden leaps from the sacred to the profane, its unpredictable metaphors and conclusions, his poetry achieves an escape velocity rarely acquired by contemporary rappers.
At 26, Williams has a raw power comparable to that of John Singleton, who chronicled life in the inner city at age 23 as director of "Boyz N the Hood" (1991). Like Singleton, Williams speaks authentically about the black struggle and is able to reach a wider audience at the same time. And like jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, Williams can comfortably perform outside a hip-hop context, the form that seems to drive most contemporary commercial black art.
He also has written a book of poems called Seventh Octave and can be heard on two CDs -- "Eargasms: Crucial Poetics Volume 1" and "Lyricists Lounge: Volume 1." Williams talked to us recently about Slam, his political feelings and his experiences growing up in Manhattan.
What was the goal of Slam?
To awaken people in various forms. People already know about the ills in society. Through this realization, it is necessary to find your voice, to find the power of words, to define your own reality. Art should be to enlighten, not just to escape. Too many people don't invest themselves in their art. . . . I hope people walk away from the film inspired to write from their hearts, as opposed to conforming to what will sell.
Hip-hop music and rapping seem to greatly influence your poetry. Why?
My introduction to poetry was through hip-hop. It was hip-hop first, (Nikki) Giovanni and (Amiri) Baraka second. In fourth grade, I started rapping. I would listen to T La Rock, Run D.M.C., LL Cool J, Rakim and Chuck D. I wrote rhymes in high school, and by my senior year at Morehouse College (in Atlanta) I wrote poetry in a magazine we started called Red Clay. I then got into an acting program at New York University. By then, the emphasis had really shifted to spoken-word poetry.
You seem to be one of the leaders in changing hip-hop, reinvigorating it as an art form. True?
I don't like to be labeled as a hip-hop poet. I don't like labels . . . but there is a changing of the guard taking place. The elements of commercialized hip-hop are self-destructive. There's a lot of nonsense about "keeping it real.'' These rappers become subjected to their ill-proportioned definitions of themselves. You are about to witness the art form evolving -- you will see the effect of these evolved lyricists more.
Does success affect your art?
I started out emceeing almost 20 years ago and have evolved beyond what others can do. It hardly makes sense anymore, "my Mercedes," "my Rolex"; as an art form, it is wasted.
I mean, I grew up in a poor background, and I'm praying that wealth doesn't affect what I write about. I've tasted sashimi, drunk Moet, and those things still haven't appeared in my verse.
Slam suggests that our judicial system is criminalizing an entire generation. Do you agree?
It's a broad generalization to say that, but we do run the risk of self-actualizing that, in the face of the nonsense our country was founded on.
Ray doesn't feel guilty about selling marijuana? What is the message?
I was watching a VH-1 show recently with Madonna in it, and she was talking about bringing America's hypocrisy to itself. In her case it was sexuality. In Slam's case, while we don't focus on drugs, it's clear he doesn't feel guilty. It's hard to find someone who hasn't smoked it. There's a lot of hypocrisy.