"Defense of the Arts" / Saul Williams



{liberatormagazine.com exclusive feature}

Defense of the Arts
by Shamira Muhammad {Paris: France}

{photo via Flickr}

Getting directions from Saul Williams to his new home occurred in a very Caribbean fashion. A simple text from him, if followed directly, could have sufficed.

"Leave metro. Make a right at the flower shop. Park is on the right. Follow the road down. Our house has the red door."

Dozens of minutes and retraced steps later, Saul’s new place in the suburbs of Paris was found. When laughingly questioned on his mode of giving directions, he shrugged and said that he didn’t know the area well yet. Besides going to and from the metro, he had not explored his new neighborhood extensively.

"So much of my personal location is interior. Even here in Paris, I can’t say that I necessarily take advantage of Paris. I spend a lot of time trying to create caves so that I can play," he said.

Saul is a multi medium artist, known widely for his poetry. His starring role in the movie, "Slam" garnered him worldwide popularity along with his winning of several prestigious poetry prizes. Since then, he has developed his art through music, writing and acting. More recently, his new book, Chorus, has hit US shelves, keeping him busy with a tour of the same name.

Saul moved to Paris a few years ago after a 10-year stint in Los Angeles.

"I was never in LA for the reasons that most people go to LA. I enjoyed the nature there and seclusion. And, I could really care less about most of the stuff that was happening in Hollywood," he said. "Lies, and what have you. Of course, I came there interested. I soon lost interest and became more interested in just writing and music and the type of environment I could live in as opposed to New York. Which is to say, the nature of it all."

The idea of moving to France occurred after a friend mentioned that he was moving from his flat in Paris. It had not dawned on Saul to leave LA initially. He was looking for a new house and things still felt good.

"The main thing I thought was here’s an opportunity," he said. "I know I don’t have to live in a particular city to create and also that I don’t have to live off of performing locally or something like that. And so I knew I could be anywhere. And so I came."

One of his more recent projects has brought him back to acting. "Aujourd’hui," directed by Alain Gomis, opened last spring’s Berlin Film Festival and was the only African film to be featured. Set in an unknown town in Senegal, Saul plays the lead as a man told an unsettling truth.

"That was crazy," he said. "I was there to play a man who was about to die. In the film, he learns that morning that he’s going to die that night. But in my life, I knew for the nine months before when I read the script and for the two months that we shot the film that I had to play everyday as if it were my last day."

At the time of the film’s shooting, Senegal was up in arms against the then sitting president, Wade. Cars were set on fire daily. Marches were constantly held in the streets. And in a mostly Islamic Dakar, the energy was electric. But, it was the routine of connecting with his script that got to Saul the most.

"That had a stronger impact than where I was," he said. "The fact that I felt such a strong connection to where I was, that it made it feel more ceremonious, which was scary. Even when you think of great acting for example, the highest compliment that you can give an actor is that he became such and such. Jamie Foxx is Ray Charles. Which is to say that art has the power of bringing something to the point of being practical. Seeming really real. So, there are some performances that you don’t want to play too well."

Paris too has had an impact on Saul’s idea of spaces, though not in the same fashion as Senegal. He first became interested in the city after seeing the film, "La haine."

"That was the first time I felt like I saw a glimpse of Paris beyond the dream of Paris," he said. "I was impressed. I thought that was cool. For me, it was really awesome to see the effect of hip hop outside of America, and to see ghetto suburban kids claiming it like it was theirs. And it was theirs."

Saul freely acknowledges all of the issues that Paris, and any other big city, has. The politics, according to him, suck. Which is where he sees art as a necessity.

"Creativity for me is just interesting ways of putting up a middle finger," he said. "Me and my preference for art or creativity has to do with that I like seeing buttons pushed sometimes. Whatever those buttons are. Other people like to push emotional buttons or sensual buttons. Me, I like all of the buttons."

One sensitive button pushed recently was the art scandal that occurred in Sweden when mixed-race artist, Makode Linde, dressed himself in blackface and had a cake that, cut into, mimicked the act of female genital mutilation. Sweden’s cultural minister partook in the display and at one point even fed some of the cake to the artist, who was screaming and playing the role of a woman going through the procedure. The internet has been in an uproar about the event, causing the artist to defend his work in the public realm aggressively. Makode claims that he tried to expose Sweden’s hidden racism by presenting an art display where no one rejected the sight of a black body being cut into, and instead, cheerfully participated in the act.

Saul believes the idea was brilliant.

"I think it generates a response. Not everyone’s going to get it. Not everyone’s going to like it. A lot of people are going to be offended. That means you did something," he said. "I’d rather see a demonstration of violence creatively than actual violence in reality. As for people being upset by that, that’s people. As far as artists choices, or whether or not they should be questioned or not questioned, yes! Of course! Question the artist. I love being pushed. I think I’m not questioned enough! I wish someone would ask me a good question."

He paused here and looked at me. And then laughed.

"I’m not saying... well... I mean.... Print that!"

After he stopped laughing, he paused and tried again.

"I’m just saying that the defense of the arts sometimes is part of the art. Even if the artist chooses not to defend. And so be it."

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