Blood of a poet
Versifier Saul Williams is doing rhyme while doing time in the festival hit Slam
By Margeaux Watson
"My mother was rushed from a James Brown concert in order to give birth to me," says 26-year-old lyricist-musician-poet-actor Saul Williams as he leans his slender torso across our tiny table at Time Cafe in Soho. "At that concert, he sang 'Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud,' and that shit came out in my bloodstream. I was born with that in me."
That helps explain the way Williams manages to burn up the screen in his feature-film debut, Slam, directed by acclaimed urban documentarian Marc Levin and costarring newcomers Sonja Sohn, Bönz Malone and Beau Sia. Williams plays the film's protagonist, Raymond Joshua, a petty marijuana peddler who is devoured by D.C.'s predatory criminal justice system after being arrested on a minor possession charge. While incarcerated, Ray is reborn through his relationship with Lauren Bell (Sohn), a writing instructor who encourages him to use his inherent gift for spoken-word poetry as a means of coping with imprisonment as well as voicing the internal struggle of his abandoned generation.
Like Ray, Williams was originally inspired by hip-hop; he credits T La Rock's "It's Yours" as the song that first prompted him to put pen to paper back in the fourth grade in Newburgh, New York, helping him realize his ability as a poet. "I was young and susceptible to some new shit, and hip-hop was the new shit of my era," he recalls, adding with a smile, "I'd open up the dictionary and use big words I didn't know in my rhymes."
Despite his success as an actor, music still remains one of his primary passions. In addition to appearing on several recent spoken-word compilations, Williams just inked a deal of his own with Rick Rubin (the producer of "It's Yours") to release an album of "experimental music" in the coming year.
"The only reason why my music is experimental is because hip-hop isn't," argues Williams, who, as a spoken-word artist, considers himself an "evolved lyricist." "Creative genius is no longer celebrated at this moment in so-called hip-hop--the music has become a caricature of itself. Everyone's looking for a new sound. I think drum 'n' bass is the drumroll leading to that new sound--it's not quite there, but it sure as hell is on its way there. Something's coming, though. You just have to experiment until you find it."
Armed with a degree from NYU's Graduate School of Fine Arts, Williams has tried to break with tradition in the publishing world as well. His second volume of poetry, She, is being published by MTV Pocket Books next year. "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 says. "Usually, publishers don't even read the [new] shit anymore."
Williams cites this neglect, coupled with the dismissal of the legitimacy of young black voices by their elders, as the root of the widening generation gap plaguing the black community. "I actually had a conversation with Amiri Baraka where he was like, 'Who are we gonna pass the baton on to? Who is picking up our struggle?' And I was like, 'Look! I've been to poetry readings where I was scheduled to read directly after you, and each time you left, never once listening to me. You question who you can pass the baton on to, but never stay around for the answers.' " Even so, Williams admits, the struggle, which Slam provides a glimpse of, has changed since the days when Baraka was better known as LeRoi Jones. "I didn't have to go through whatever my parents did to 'say it loud,' because it's implicit in my nature," says Williams. "That's what I was born with, so I move on to the next step. I have no choice."
Slam is without a doubt that next step. Having racked up the 1998 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival as well as the Camera d'or and Audience Award in Cannes, the film is at once a bracing entertainment and a strong dose of political advocacy on behalf of those society has deemed beyond rehabilitation.
Veteran actress Alfre Woodard presented the cast and filmmakers their prize at Sundance. "She came up to me crying, a day or two before the awards, and said, 'I think your film is the most important film to have been made in the past 25 years,'" says Williams. "It was surreal--and it was then that I realized we have the power to change reality, because we dictate reality, and the more films we make about how it is, the more we dictate how it is. But if we want to change how it is, then we have to make a film about how it should be." That's what Williams hopes to accomplish with future film projects. "You don't have to compromise your soul," he adds emphatically. "The most positive thing you can do when someone puts the microphone up to you is to speak truth. That's the most invigorating feeling--speaking truth into a microphone."
Slam is now playing. See also Review.
Issue 159: October 8-15, 1998