Saul Williams’ one-sheet—the publicity piece summing up an artist’s life—must be written in about six-point type. It has to be that small to cram in all of his achievements, accolades, publications and appearances. The list spreads across the entire page, noting Saul’s wide-ranging talents, which include everything from poetry to acting to lecturing at over 300 universities.
Williams began his career as an open-mic slam poet in New York City.
In 1996, at age 24, he won his first title of Grand Slam Champion at Nuyorican Poets Café, the iconic forum known for poetry, art, hip-hop and theatre in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. From there, Williams branched into music. He appeared and performed with other artists including Nas, The Fugees, Erykah Badu, KRS-One and De La Soul. He released his own EPs and albums featuring a signature blend of hip-hop, slam poetry and spoken word. He then went on to star in the Tupac Shakur-inspired Broadway musical Holler If Ya Hear Me.
These days, Williams is focusing all of his art’s attention on political issues plaguing the world. His most recent work is the 2016 album MartyrLoserKing. As NPR Music noted in its review of the compilation, the songs are “a defiant middle finger raised to humanity's oppressors and an empathetic hand extended to those who are oppressed (including the unwitting and unwilling agents of oppression).” The work is a blend of sounds—hip-hop, punk, dance, Afrofuturism, rock—all connected and infused with social and political commentary.
The album’s lyrics trace a hacker who battles against injustices around the world. It must be a character near and dear to Williams’ heart, as a poet whose most recent publication is a collection that questions the times and realities of our current climate and focuses on the acerbity of class and entitlement issues. As Williams notes in the foreword of that latest collection, titled US(a.), the fight is “beyond the petty/profound travails of racial injustice.”
This incisive, cutting writing on the page is brought to life when Williams performs. He speaks his words with the authority and skill of someone who has mastered an art form. And he has. In fact, he’s mastered a few. When asked why he works within such a range of genres, Williams explains, “It’s not that I balance those arts ... all the different arts balance me.” Williams knows which ideas and emotions need which specific genre in order to make their point best. It’s this knowledge along with his clear passion for words that have cemented his role as the “poet laureate of hip-hop.”
Saul Williams appears Saturday, Sept. 9, at Prochnow Auditorium, Northern Arizona University. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are through the NAU Central Ticket Office and are free for NAU students, but must be reserved; $5 for NAU faculty or staff; and $10 for all others.