"I'll be in synch with the moon, while you run from the sun. / Life of the womb reflected by guns. / Worshipper of moons, I am the sun. / And that's why, I, am public enemy number one. One. One. One ... " When Saul Williams completed that verse, freezing a prison courtyard of would-be killers in the film Slam, finally a general audience bore witness to the power of spoken-word poetry, and to the genre's first superstar: Williams' band, Amethyst Rock Star. Much of his early work is featured in his new book, The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop (MTV Books), which includes an opening salvo on his lyrical origins.
Why is "niggah" spelled "NGH" in your book?
If you look at the Old Testament and the original language it was written in, Hebrew, when they referred to the name of God they wrote "Yahweh," but it was capitalized and spelled YHWH. In the first section of the book I correlate the name "niggah" to the name "God." Essentially, [despite] the intellectual debate of taking the word "niggah" out of our vocabulary, I realized it ain't really going nowhere. So instead of putting it down why not lift it up?
The book's language often references terminology of the self-deifying Nation of Gods and Earths. Do you belong to that association?
Seventy percent of the slang of hip hop came from the Nation of Gods and Earths. I never belonged to it. When I speak to those who are familiar with those references, they think [they] are only referencing the NGE, but I get Buddhists who come up to me and point out the same references. So those references are cross-catalogued. I don't want anyone to feel overlooked or feel as if something they believe in has not been considered. I'm definitely very Wu-Tang-influenced. Sometimes writers try to bury their influences but I do the exact opposite.
The idea that man and God are the same is steadily creeping into popular culture. But not long ago, people who espoused this â€” such as KRS-ONE and even yourself â€” were written off as egocentric or messiah-complexed. What's changing?
I believe that we have God within us. If I'm not aiming for my highest form of self, am I manifesting the God within me? It might be better understood as tuning in to the God frequency, like a radio station. For others it's just all static. You don't get that frequency without doing the work that's about refining everything from your health to your perspective to the health of your perspective.
Your book's confessional prelude would lead some to think you've been spittin' someone else's lyrics. What's the real deal?
It's more of a parable than a literal story. There's a quote from Picasso: "Art is a big lie through which we realize the truth." The story of the [Dead Emcee] Scrolls is there to set up what it feels like to be an artist who writes something that feels bigger than them. I do feel the presence of God in my life in a very specific and practical way. I spend as much time trying to decipher what's in my poems as anyone else. Anyone could have written this, and even if I am the author, I don't want anyone walking away saying, "Saul Williams is a genius." Saul Williams is no different than any other Williams. We all have the ability to create if we allow ourselves to be spoken through.
Do you remember the dispute you had a few years back at Pitt with the late Rob Penny and his wife about your comments on Amiri Baraka?
I didn't know those people and they misunderstood me from the jump. I'm friends with Amiri Baraka and have spent plenty of time with him since then. They thought I was trying to be disrespectful to him. It was unfortunate on their part, but cats want to appropriate what you say and want you to say it the way they feel you need to say it. My father is a Baptist minister. Imagine the conflicts I had with him?
At root, the dispute was over gender identity versus racial identity. Where are you at in that debate?
My prevailing critique has to do with the fact that we have disenvalued the power of what it means to be a woman. The woman is not seen in the course of the Christian trinity or the Black Power movement. We have to be more than just inclusive of women, otherwise that's still hierarchical and patriarchal. I'm critiquing it primarily along those same lines because it's turned us against our own selves, thus turning us against our own mothers. Niggah, you come from a woman. Once you refute the mother you've refuted everything. The father is the Holy Ghost: That's the absent mothafucka.
There are issues that we have that essentially stem from our lack of understanding of what is feminine. The story of Jesus isn't accurate, but there's still a list of parables that were talking about a vulnerable man who didn't seem like he was a bodybuilder, but he wasn't no punk. Our sense of power does not revolve around vulnerability, but we are a vulnerable people. That's what led us into slavery. And we have prevailed despite our vulnerability, and that has been our power.