Over the past two years, while living in Paris and traveling abroad in volatile, poverty-stricken countries like Senegal and Haiti, Saul Williams began to see a recurring pattern that proved both troubling and equally inspiring: Everyday citizens, increasingly marginalized by their respective governments and law enforcement, were taking to the streets to make their voices heard.
Even months before a slew of violent run-ins between African-American males and law enforcement made international headlines — most notably in Ferguson, Missouri; New York; South Carolina; and Baltimore — the acclaimed poet, MC, and activist felt compelled to lend his voice to the growing conversation around promoting change.
“The purpose of this project is to lead that angst and that adolescent spirit by pointing that energy in a direction that can help tear the roof off this motherfucker,” Williams says of his upcoming album, MartyrLoserKing, out in September. Williams has been at work on MartyrLoserKing for nearly two years. Despite his forward-thinking attitude, Williams can’t help but feel a twinge of “heartbreak” at the current injustices he is witnessing. “When I was thirteen, I was out marching in New York City with my parents for the same things as the people today,” he says. “I imagined that I was marching at that time so that the next generation would not have to face these things. It’s frankly startling.”
For MartyrLoserKing, his first LP in four years, Williams, 43, constructed a hip-hop musical — a genre to which the multitalented artist, who recently starred in the Tupac Shakur–inspired Holler If Ya Hear Me on Broadway, is no stranger. MartyrLoserKing centers on the story of a hacker living in Burundi who invades the internet and gets mistakenly labeled a terrorist.
“Horrendous acts have always occurred,” Williams explains regarding the inspiration for the project. “But what hasn’t always occurred is our ability to connect and to mobilize quickly to ensure that these things don’t go down any further.” Written in various locales across the globe, including the island of Réunion, where Williams penned the powerful anti-establishment screed “These Motherfuckers,” MartyrLoserKing became a way for Williams to address a multitude of inequalities he encountered throughout his international travels. His overarching motive was to “look at where we are at as a planet and find a way to tell a story that encompassed all of these things that also allowed me to talk about it without necessarily preaching.”
On the next page: “I want the words to carry the DNA of that rebellious energy and spirit” For Williams, who is best known for his lead role in the 1998 film Slam as well as his boundary-pushing 2001 debut album, Amethyst Rock Star, MartyrLoserKing‘s sonic element is even more vital than its message. “I really believe in the music itself before the words even enter the picture,” says Williams. “And then I want the words to carry the DNA of that rebellious energy and spirit.” Much of the album’s musical influences, which include thwacking percussion, far-out electronics, and crushing vocals, derived from his time spent in Senegal. The outspoken songwriter specifically took a liking to the way in which radio DJs there would add traditional drums over current pop songs.
“They do something really similar to the Jamaican dubplates, where whatever the popular songs are globally, they add their drums over them on the radio and on their mixtapes,” he explains of the Senegalese sound. “It could be a version specifically made for the Senegal streets, like over a Katy Perry beat or whatever. It was crazy!”
Williams points to his album’s first single, “All Coltrane Solos at Once” — with the repeating mantra “Fuck you, understand me!” threading throughout — as a prime example of how his music is able to convey universal truths. “If you don’t take the time to understand someone and they have everything there to be understood, the only thing they don’t have is your interest or the time that it would take for you to understand,” he says. “Nowadays, there are a lot of people out there who love black culture, but don’t necessarily love black people. We all, as Americans, have to work to shift that.”
Currently in the midst of a nationwide tour, Williams dismisses the idea he’s anything resembling a role model for the young and disenfranchised who often come to see him perform. “I’ve been treating every show more as a workshop than as a show,” he says. “I’m inviting the audience into the process.”
“There’s something going on in so many places now,” he concludes, “and the supreme goal of MartyrLoserKing is that we realize that the people who give their lives and their attention to effecting change are the other one percent. The martyrs are the other one percent.”
Saul Williams plays Brooklyn Bowl May 7. The show is sold out, but tickets can be found on the secondary market.