Saul Williams Discusses New Album 'The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust'
By Ben Kharakh for Starpulse.com on November 21, 2007
How do you feel about people's reaction and reception of the album?
I feel great about it. I don't know too much about the reaction, but I know what it feels like to have released it. And when I say releasing it, I don't just mean putting it out there. I mean what it felt like to release the energy that I've spent to go to all the places that I've traveled to while writing. I know how that felt, being in that room at that time, and that was huge to me. It felt real, like I was living in some big forest for some time through the music, which I've been listening to for about year, in some way shape or form. So to release it felt wonderful.
Music can make people feel the entire gamut of human emotions. When have you been moved by a piece of music to the point where it made you cry?
The first time I ever cried listening to a song that wasn't attached to a movie, was one of the Public Enemy songs, Welcome to the Terrordome, which was actually the song we sampled for the track Tr(n)igger. I remember being at a party, and watching everyone dance, and I was dancing as well and everybody was into the moment, and then I started tuning into the lyrics, and I was so excited that this was music that was created by our generation, and that it was an answer to all the stuff I learned about from our generation and to all the stuff I've learned about from my parents and their generation. I felt the connection, I felt the blue line, and I knew what The Bomb Squad was doing musically was brand new, even if everybody didn't understand it or respect it yet, I knew that they one day would. It felt as important to me as I'm sure jazz did when it had to be fought for. It just felt amazing, seeing all these kids feel it, and I was a kid too. I think that was the first time I ever cried due to a song, was listening to Public Enemy. It had nothing to do with sadness; it was just a sense of exhilaration and witnessing a moment of beauty.
The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggytardust
It's the same thing I felt in the 80's when they played We Are the World on every radio station across the world at once. It was the most amazing thing I ever experienced. You could go through every radio station on the dial, AM of FM and they were playing the song. And you could hear the whole song in order. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I had come home from playing outside to listen to it because I had heard about it. It was crazy. That's the sort of thing that would bring a tear to my eye, musically. I was doing what everybody else in the world was doing at that moment.
Welcome to The Terrordome came off of Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, which also featured the song Burn Hollywood, Burn. As an actor yourself and someone who is a consumer of the medium, how do you think Hollywood's depiction of blacks has changed in film and television since that song was recorded.
It's hard to say. A lot of films that come out of Hollywood don't exactly come from Hollywood. Look at Tyler Perry's films, they don't come form Hollywood, but they are depictions of black people in films from Hollywood. How have things changed? It's a great question, but I'm not sure. I'm a big fan of Paul Robeson, who was a black actor from the 20's to the 50's, and decided the he didn't want to do any more big budget films and only wanted to do independent films. This was in the thirties that a black man was saying, "I only want to act in independent films because all big budget films lose their positive message to the cutting room floor. I have less control when it's corporate owned, so I just want to do independent." This was a black man in the thirties talking. So I ask you, how have things changed?
It seems like black actors and actresses are not being as pigeonholed as they once were.
When I did my role in Slam, the biggest thing was to make sure I didn't pigeonhole myself. If you have a history of being pigeonholed, after a while, you may pigeonhole your self. Think of a grasshopper in a jar with a lid on it from birth. It's going to hit it's head the first 150 times trying to get out on the lid, but after that, it's not going to jump as high anymore. You can take the lid off, but it's still going to be conditioned to think that it doesn't make much sense to jump any higher. In fact I saw in USA Today, that some polls show that some black people are more pessimistic and cynical about their progress in America than ever before. This was on the front page of USA Today, today.
What do you think contributes to that?
I think that we contribute to that. I listen to a lot of music, and watch a lot of film, and not only do people think of us inside of the context of the box, but we think of ourselves in the confines of a box. It's not only black people I'm talking about now; it's all people. If you think of yourself as black or you think of yourself as white, or any racial characteristics, you think of yourself in the confines of a box. Race, first of all, isn't even scientific. That's the problem with our species- that we think in terms of race instead of species. Like pugs, they know pugs are smarter than rottweilers. Whatever bro, they're all dogs! We're ending the lives of several species because we can't find peace amongst our own species. And that's pigeonholing. Putting that label in front of your self is a pigeonhole.
In the album's artwork, there's an illustration of a person that is two people combined into one. Was that an allusion to Plato's Symposium?
Everything is an allusion to Plato's symposium if you want it to be. I'm glad that you think that, but if you want the actual answer, I'd have to ask Angelbert Metoyer , the artist who did the work. But it's funny, because in the last interviews he was asked to speak but he said, "I don't want to talk", so I would say in some ways it's yes, but it's also an allusion to all that is two sided and double fisted. And to the Songkeeper, which is what all of that work comes from, a collection he's been working of for the past 7 to 9 years. The Songkeeper, which is who Niggy Tardust is, is what he's been working on in the paint world and what I've been working on in the poetry and musical world. We've only known each other for about seven months, but as soon as we met we realized we were working on the same project. Niggy Tardust isn't just a collaboration between me and Trent Reznor; it's also with artists like Angelbert Metoyer and like Melody Ehsani , who makes jewelry and clothing. And yes, we do reference all aspects of history and philosophy in our work, so yes.
I don't want to pigeonhole Niggy Tardust, but who do you think he's more like, David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust or Parliament's Starchild?
I'd definitely say he's more like the Starchild. But we have to be careful because it's the same sort of thing. On the one hand I was inspired by Bowie and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, by title and by concept. I also believe that Electric Ladyland was a concept album too, and Niggy Tardust is musically far more related to Electric Ladyland meets Afrika Bambaataa than it is to Ziggy Stardust. Where as Starchild and George Clinton, there's a huge connection to that because that's what I was listening to while I was recording, was a lot of Funkadelic. I think that music is extremely important when you think of the role that James Brown, Bootsy Collins, and George Clinton have played in contemporary music, there's nothing like that today. It's what transformed the bass and the sound of the bass into what it is now in contemporary music. There's nothing in our generation that rivals that.
Do you think there might be a panacea out there for all of our ill's similar to funk?
Yeah, I would call that Grippo. It doesn't need a new name though. Just like poetry doesn't need a new name. People call it spoken word because of all the things that get attached to the word poetry. You say the word poetry and people just get tired. Most people just don't want poetry, but you say spoken word or slam poetry and there's a new interest for it. A new name will do that, but there is a tendency out there.
Can you elaborate on the idea of Grippo, which is a recurring theme in your work?
Grippo came about when me and my best friend, I had recently become a father, and his girlfriend was pregnant at the time so he was about to become a father, and we were talking about what kind of music our kids would listen to. It's just based on what we experienced on the fact that our parents weren't listening to hip-hop but we were, so our kids would probably listen to something different too. It would just get faster and harder and all that stuff, but more beautiful too. When trying to decide what it would be, I decided to call it Grippo. I didn't know what that was, there was no real mission or philosophy behind it, it was just a way of saying that there was some uncharted territory out there that would be a fusion of all things that we have up till now. Hybrid music. Just like the car that is going to be saving our ecology. The music of Niggy Tardust is biracial music. It's hybrid music. It's definitely a generational story. It's global music. It's an American take on global music in that it fuses the roles that its about.
You mentioned on your forum that Trent Reznor, who produced this album, helped you become a better song writer. How did he do that and what changes did you see in yourself through the process of making this album?
Just the way that he approached the music, like Banged and Blown Through, which I did not work on musically. He handed me a track with no words attached, but it had the melody and everything. And just the approach with some of the colors that he used to paint with, inspired me to approach or do it in a new way. Upon hearing it, I thought, "I can't speak or rap over this. This needs singing. And it needs to be sung like this and this has to happen like this." And it started pointing out things to me. Of course it has to do a lot with the element of surrender and being open and being primed for that, and the album happened at a time where I was primed for that. I was thinking in terms of music and was open to exploring. I was recording songs right after I would get off stage, so I would have all of the energy of what I was discovering on stage and apply that to what I was discovering by listening to songs on my headphones. What's funny is that my last album, I wrote my songs and recorded them right as I was writing them, so I didn't really find those songs or understand them until after they've been released. I wrote much of it in May or June, but then it was released in September of '04, I really got to know the songs as I was on the road. If I was to record it now, it would sound a lot different. I learned a lot about album composition. And then I had an immediate opportunity to apply what I was learning. And I think that's what Trent was propositioning.
Have you thought of re-releasing or remaining your self titled album or releasing a live CD?
There's definitely live recordings, but I wouldn't go back and change anything. It's not that I don't like it, but it's that it's a part of my growth process. I'm open to releasing something live at some point, if it makes sense.
On the track Banged and Blown Through, you ask. "Conductor, conductor, can you bring out the song in me?" could you elaborate on what it would take to bring out the song in someone and what you mean by song?
We have to be willing to learn from our mistakes and accept them as part of the process. For example, Trent gave me that track with just music. The first thing I added was a viola, because it wasn't my job to only add words, I could add sounds. I took the track home and had a friend of mine, Maryam Blackshear, who plays viola and she played on my first album. Anytime you hear viola in any of my recordings, it's her. We're long time collaborators. So she came to my house so she could record viola in my room and in the next room I have all my equipment. And as soon as she started playing, I realized that the microphone that she was using to record needed some adjusting. So I tiptoed into the room when she was recording, but her eyes were closed. She heard me tiptoe into the room and she jumped a bit because she was startled, and that snap you hear in the beginning of that song, that crack is actually her bow hitting the bridge of the viola.
She laughed that I kept it, but I didn't want to record over that. I didn't have any verses for the song then. My first question was did she break it, because it sounded so loud in my headphones. And she told me that no, it was fine, so in my journal the first thing I wrote was "We are broken instruments, burst wide open smashed and bent". That mistake was what led to the words in the song. That's how the lyrics came about, was with that mistake right then and there. I used that mistake to write the lyrics in the same way. We have to be open to the fact that life is full of mistakes. We have to grow through them instead of trying to stick to some conventional norm. We have to be willing to experiment, to transform beyond our mistakes. That's what the word repent means actually.
It's funny, my dad was a Baptist minister, and I always hear ministers talking about how we have to repent, and I thought repent meant that someone has to get down on their knees and pray for forgiveness. That's not what it means. In the New Testament, that part of the New Testament is written in Greek. The word is actually metanoia and that means "beyond the mind", or "to change the mind." So the actual translation would not be repent, but change of mind. The Latin would be penser, to think. That's where pent comes from, so repent is to change your mind, to think again. You know? And sin comes from people who miss the mark and need to think again. So if you miss the mark and make a mistake, think again. It's real simple. Use your imagination and think again.
Ziggy Stardust came down to Earth to liberate people from banality. What is Niggy trying to liberate people from?
Niggy Tardust has liberated himself, and that's what he's celebrating. He realizes that there is no freedom in pointing to other people in certain things. He realized that his biggest enemy is himself, so he frees himself from all self-doubt and all fear, and he seizes reality. So in anyway, he is his own messiah, not in a selfish way. What he's tuning into is the frequency of everyone. He didn't have to come down to Earth; he had to come down from oppression. He's unlike Ziggy Stardust because where Ziggy is an alien from space, Niggy is an alien from Mexico. [laughs] He's what we label as an alien and are trying to build borders around. He's the actual hybrid. The one who says "Yeah, you can call me that because I am that. But I'm also this." He's all of the above and none of the below.
You reference The Mothership Connection on this album and one thing that Parliament did that was unique at the time was placing black people in situations where at the time they normally were not found, like the White House or outer space. Where does the music of today, or art in general, place the black experience?
We have to realize that we are no longer living in a race age. Like I said, it's not scientific. There is no major projection behind the musical experience of Niggy Tardust. He is the last Nigger. After that everything is everything. You can hear it in the music now anyway. All the hip-hop stuff is becoming synthy-pop stuff, which is the same thing that the indie bands are doing. We're all heading in the same musical direction. It's beautiful. It's all about the hybrid culture; it's about the United Colors of Benetton. Transcending those labels, borders, and boundaries that pigeonhole us, so to speak. It's not about denying anything. Yeah, of course I was born this. And there' a whole level of experience to that that I cherish, and I will continue to grow through that and then realize that life is about ascending and elevating beyond those boundaries. If I think of myself within the confines of race or any of those things, I'd hardly be thinking of myself. I'm restricting myself. Limiting the self I can be. And that's what Parliament did. No, you didn't see black people in the White House. You can't see it in real life until you're able to imagine it. That's the most powerful thing. You have to be able to envision it. So now we're in the process of starting to live in the world we've imagined. That's why we've been able to start having women, biracial people, black people in office nowadays. Because we've envisioned this time to come. That's why the people who have been in the power in the past have been waging war and acting out. They're like, "Wait a second, we're supposed to be in control like we were in the past." But that's expired now. That's what happens to a dream differed. It wages war in Iraq. It wages war in Iran. George Bush doesn't realize that the answer lies within the question. That's what happens. Your average American at this point is like, "This fool is on some other stuff." So we have to realize that we can't think in terms of race. We have to think in terms of species. That's what these times are about, realizing that we are in the age of species.
On the track Niggy Tardust you say that hanging out with Niggy may lead people to doing and being what they say. Whose inauthenticity are you commenting on?
Niggy Tardust's. First of all you, need to know who Niggy Tardust is. He's every single one of us. We all have an aspect of American history in our blood. You don't have to know your lifeline to lead to the Native American experience, the black American experience, the Chinese American experience, the rich American experience or the impoverished American experience. We can all relate, we can all tune into that frequency if we choose to. It's like a radio station we can all tune into. And now is the time to tune in. That may include simply being who you are. It's time for us to tune into beyond what's handed down to us by our parents and tune into what we feel. If you tune into your intuitive self, you'll know that you love humanity. Like while you're dancing to your favorite song, everything is as it is and it's wonderful, and, yeah, your rent may not be paid, but the exhilaration and the feeling is there. Not everyone dances the same way, and that's cool, but you can see the person you hate and still think, "I love you for loving this song with me." That's the power of music.
But what about the other route? Do you think there's a chance of humanity entering The Zone of Zero Funkativity?
Nah, man. Everybody reaches it in their own way. Rhythm is personal, like religion or diet. It's a personal thing. Humanity is too busy in the process of perfecting itself to reach those types levels. Individuals may, but humanity as a whole, never. We're actually becoming more the same, like white women growing asses.
Interview by Ben Kharakh