Connecting the dots with Saul Williams / by Jason

On the Sunday morning of Lollapalooza, I dragged myself out of bed at the ungodly hour of 8 AM, sulked through a shower, did some last minute research on my interview subject, and hopped on a city bus to get to Grant Park. I arrived a few minutes ahead of my scheduled 11:15 slot and found a relatively peaceful media tent. The man I was slated to interview, Saul Williams, was curled up catlike in an oversized plastic Adirondack chair, finishing up an interview with a TV crew, so I set up my laptop nearby and did a little eavesdropping.

Saul Williams, dressed to impress before his mid-day set at Lollapalooza.

Williams, the slam-poet/spoken word artist/culture jammer/musician whose song "List of Demands" - nominally about reparations - made its way into a Nike commercial earlier this year and spawned legions of arguments about whether Saul Williams was selling out to Nike or conning them into distributing his message, strikes many people as angry. Hell, he wrote a song about reparations for slavery fer cryin' out loud. A song with lyrics like "I ball my fist and you're gonna know where I stand." So I, predictably, had a slam-dunk question about Saul's anger, but with a green slant.

Fortunately, the interviewer in front of me fell for the trap first. He put on his serious-question face and asked this man--this articulate, educated, unafraid black man with an almost-mohawk and tight yellow pants who is dangerously close to being the new face of black America for a media that is seemingly unable to confront or even acknowledge racial issues in this country--about his anger. And he got his ass handed to him for doing it. Williams' answer: "I don't think I'm angry. A lot of people seem to think I'm angry but I'm not sure why." Flabbergasted, the man with the microphone found a way out of it somehow and moved onto other questions. I tried to stifle a giggle and praised my luck for not having pressed snooze once more on the alarm clock, for I surely would have repeated the gaffe.

A few minutes later, while the ill-fated interview was wrapping up, I overheard a journalist with a major music television network explain to Saul's press liason that her interviewer and cameraman had apparently exhausted themselves too thoroughly at one of the afterparties around town to make it in to the press tent and conduct their scheduled interview. This is where Saul Williams' career is today. He's big enough to draw a sizeable crowd at Lollapalooza yet gets more publicity for a 30-second Nike ad than he has for his previous 10 years' worth of work, he doesn't seem to rank high enough for a television crew to get out of bed for an 11:30 AM interview because they were too busy trying to get footage of some blonde lesbian sending text messages the night before, and everyone wants to know why he's pissed off.

On the brighter side, the television defection leaves me with extra time to talk to the man of the hour. I find him to be completely relaxed and frighteningly intelligent. My first impression of Saul reminded me more of Hannibal Lecter than anyone else I can think of. He's used to being in control, charming, smart, witty, and so intensely focused that when I finally hit him with a question that grabs his interest I'm afraid I'll wilt under the pressure he puts back into his answer. Fortunately, as I find out when we begin our conversation about the greening of music, he's also a vegan, so my liver is safe.

He unintentionally draws blood early in the conversation. I've been a conflicted carnivore for the last couple of years, continuing to eat at McDonald's even after watching Super Size Me, enjoying steak even after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, putting away Boston Market chicken like it's my job even though I read Fast Food Nation more than 3 years ago. Williams doesn't know any of this, of course, when he wraps up his discussion of the merits of veganism by saying with a laugh, "You'll hear me focus a lot on diet when we talk about the environment, because I have a really hard time interacting with environmentalists that eat meat." Inside, I'm cringing--he's pegged me for a phony, and I immediately vow to give being a vegetarian another shot for all the reasons I know that I should.

But while I know that I shouldn't eat meat because it's bad for me in the quantities consumed by a modern westerner, because I know that the way we produce meat in western society is responsible for some of the greatest environmental damage on the planet, and because I know that confined animal farming operations are grotesquely inhumane both for the animals in the system and the migrant workers who do the butchering, I'm not quite prepared for what Saul's about to drop next.

"Well," he says in response to my query about the possibility that we could raise farm animals in a more humane and environmentally friendly manner, " a person that's a member of a race that used to be deemed as animal, I know what it feels like to be treated as animal, and I think until we upgrade our understanding of compassion and spread it beyond human....there's racism but there's also a sense of speciesism that exists. And it's because of our arrogance as a species that we ruin...and exploit the earth the way that we do.... And so I think that we have to...connect the dots in order to experience any real change in society....if we shifted our focus on being compassionate towards wildlife and animals, then everything else would be a domino effect. That would be us treating the forests, the oceans, water supply, we'd treat everything better as a result of just focusing on animals."

That's pretty heavy stuff, and a lot of it is true on some level. I'm still not prepared to cede the point that after a few dozen millenia of us co-evolving with a handful of other species, we should just abandon those species. The vegan v. carnivore debate, however, can all too easily turn into Roe v. Wade or Brady v. Heston, so I don't pursue it much further.

What about other, less controversial green issues? Saul tells me that he did his last tour in a Dodge Sprinter powered by biodiesel, and that finding biodiesel was a bit of a challenge. Then he jumps in to discuss the music industry's least favorite topic: declining CD sales. "I believe that technology is here to free us from the constraints of history....I was able to release my album for free online digitally, meaning that I initially did not use any plastic or whatever-it is on vinyl and CDs now, in limited distribution-but we started for the first six months digitally."

Of course, he made waves when he released the album digitally for free on his website, but it's a surprise nonetheless to see him make an explicit connection to the waste generated by CD manufacturing. After all, CD sales are a big part of his bread and butter-substitute income. I ask him if he thinks artists will be able to survive in the new digital era without physical record sales to support them. His answer is refreshingly honest, and characteristically to the point:

"Artists have survived through time. Artists will always survive. Will every artist be able to live off of their art? That is never the case. But more artists today will be able to live off of their art than 10 years ago, 100 years ago. We may not all live as extravagantly as some in the past, but even those who lived extravagantly in the past, all that stuff is based on exploitation, and it's harder to exploit because people have upgraded their sense of awareness and realized their power a bit more. But we'll be fine."

He continues on with a discussion of the consumer side of the equation. "People are holding onto what has worked in the past. For some that's damning and for some, it's a lesson to be learned. We're still selling CDs, and they are selling. But digital downloads are a huge business and people are learning to value streamlining. A lot of people don't want to unwrap the plastic. But there are some in a consumer culture that don't value what they're given unless they get to unwrap it and open it and look at it and hold it in their hand. So it's an interesting time, it's a crossroads that we're at."

What about fans downloading his album on bittorrent, where I found it, or some other P2P application? Does he have a problem with that? "Not at all, I gave away my album for free, and the main reason for doing that was to honor the fact that they could do it anyway. The only thing that I gained by giving it away for free in that sense was instead of them doing it from peer-to-peer, they were able to get it directly from me, which meant that I could monitor it, that I could add some email addresses to my fanbase to, you know, press send on poems that I come up with every now and then and want to share."

Eventually, we move back around to the greening of Lollapalooza. Having just arrived in town the night before, Williams demurs to speak on specifics. But he notes without the slightest trace of detectable irony, given his breakout song deal with Nike, that Lollapalooza is heavily sponsored by multinational corporations that might not share Perry Farrell's green agenda. "The problem comes in when you start accepting money from all these different huge sources who don't have the same vision as you. There has to be a way to maintain that vision and to maintain control, but it's hard when you have all this money coming from different corporations who have their own list of demands."

And with that, I'll leave you not with List of Demands, but with one of his other anger-management classics, Grippo. Enjoy, and keep an eye out for a possible Saul Williams schwag giveaway in coming weeks.

Saul Williams isn't angry.