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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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Out orbiting another freaked-out planet is Williams' coming-out as recording artist, Amethyst Rock Star.
20 March 2002

Saul Williams has been the star of a film; now he's the star of his own record. It's even called Amethyst Rock Star. But his incandescence goes far beyond such oft-proffered turns of phrase.

In a world in which the pop-cultural star system seems ignorant and oblivious to the star system whose hundreds of billions of celestial constituents will outlast all of this by a few hundred billion years, Williams knows that humans are much greater than their established concepts of "stars," that these perceptions of greatness only retard ideas and ghettofy whole skies of luminous thought.

He sees humans — the manifested equivalent of five buckets of water and a handful of minerals — as holding the same basic chemical properties as stars. So we, gaseous spheres, held together by our own gravitation, need to know that intrinsic brightness is within us.

my plan was to attack
in the 43 seconds
that it takes eyes
to adjust to moonlight
after lights out
no one told me
that dreams glow in the dark

In the history of his own stellar evolution, Williams has graduated from acting student to poet, to actor, to poet, to spoken-word artist, to recording artist, to artist. But a good place to see his star rising in a clear night sky is "Slam," the 1998 fiction film made by documentarian Marc Levin ("Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock," "Thug Life in DC," "Soldiers in the Army of God").

Shot in a verité style, "Slam" offers a take on the American justice system that manages to echo the spirit of both realists and surrealists. Its unaffected, unscripted, unflinching rawness is nothing less than arresting. It achieves this effect through words, and takes as its much-repeated mantra "The Power of Words."

Now, to me, "The Power of Words" sounds like the title of a bad power-ballad; or even worse, a bad film. Anyone with any rudimentary understanding of the power of words would never need to condense that sentiment into such a sentimental statement, an unfeeling phrase that smacks of an unexpected insincerity. But read up on "Slam" and you'll encounter that turn of phrase turned over again and again by the film's stars, writers, producers, and a scrapbook full of film-reviewin' folk. "Slam," as it is, isn't merely about the power of words, but about the power of art, the force of belief, the idea that art can raise levels of consciousness through its necessary explosions of expression and communication.

"Slam" won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, and the Camera D'Or at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, but you can't judge it by such bouquets. There's a litany of terrible, terrible films — shallow and meaningless, delivering an affected air of caring as a means of cynically manipulating an audience — that have won major prizes at even the most art-centric film festivals. Now, this condensed space hardly proffers enough room to go into just why "Slam" is so different from the film culture that took it under its wing once it had been completed, but there's one thing that sets it far apart from so much pop-cultural fodder. Its star, a child of hydrogen: Saul Stacey Williams.

We are left to make magic of our own names given to us through the love of our parents. I have found the sun in mine. The point where the sun is furthest from the equator: Saul Stacey = Solstice.

Williams calls his turn in "Slam," as central character Raymond Joshua, "a mission." His mission in making the film is portraying a world, in this world's verité, in which words call worlds into existence. All this comes out when Williams, as Joshua but also as Williams, responds to the looming physical threat of prison thugs by bursting into verse, yelling his verbal declarations — "Never question who I am, God knows, and I know God personally, in fact he lets me call him me" — with the defiant presence of what Kahlil Gibran termed "a poet who composes what the world proses, and proses what the world composes."

The poem he screams is "Amethyst Rocks." It was the first poem Williams ever wrote, his "coming out" as poet. But it's not just its words — "check your flagpole: stars and stripes; your astrology is imprisoned by your concept of white" — or their delivery that stop ultra-violence in its tracks, it's Williams himself. Robert Leaver, a production assistant on "Slam," calls him "regal-looking, an African prince," and "the poet from the 'hood, the brother from another planet."

But Williams isn't just from another planet, he's the freaked-out electromagnetic light radiating through a whole other freaked-out galaxy. And his nuclear starlight is most vividly refracted through his first appearance as recording artist, Amethyst Rock Star, an album that arrived in 2001 after Saul had spent five years acting ("Slam," "One True Thing," "K-PAX"), writing ("The Seventh Octave," "She"), and turning up, in musical mode, on various singles and compilations (Black Whole Styles, Lyricist Lounge Volume One, The Carve Up).

His debut album finds Williams speaking, rapping, and singing his way over an ungainly mix of breakbeats, string parts, and peace/love drug-rock flourishes, the whole sounding like it's dropped in from a freaked-out cosmos devoid of self-consciousness and flushed with earnestness. It invariably sounds like naught else released last year, a record whose luminous glow burns with the brightest of intrinsic light.


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