For the better part of two decades, musician, poet, writer, rapper, actor and philosopher Saul Williams has been challenging the status quo.
“At the end of the day, I just make beats while the world burns,” Williams tells the Observer. He's a quiet man with a reserved disposition and speaks in a slow, measured cadence. His voice has a world-weary air, but Williams isn't burnt.
Williams will headline the Dallas Poetry Slam at the Kessler Theater on Thursday, Oct. 19. The event will serve as the season opener for local literary nonprofit Wordspace.
A graduate of NYU's graduate acting program, Williams has been in a number of films, including Alain Gomis' Today and Marc Levins' award-winning Slam. Williams has been published in The New York Times and Esquire, and his poetry garnered him the title of Grand Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1996.
“I wouldn’t know what else I would do. I wouldn’t know what else to talk about,” Williams says. “It’s worth the fight. It’s worth it. … It feels good to fight [the wrong in the world]. The energy to fight it comes from fighting it."
Williams talks a lot about insanity and wisdom. He feels decision makers — gatekeepers, as he calls them — and Americans in general “ought to know better,” and he marvels at people’s willingness to resist progress for personal gain. It has made him believe in the existence of “pure evil.”
For Williams, pure evil is the opposite of compassion and often involves lying to oneself or others about the existence or veracity of evil. The antidote, as he sees it, is “pure love.” His solution, not to be confused with romantic or even unconditional love, is based in honesty and the willingness to call people out. It's why he keeps doing what he does.
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In 2011, during the creation of his album Volcanic Sunlight, Williams challenged himself to explore beyond his anger, the primary driver of his body of work. He thought his more pointed works were losing their relevance because of the progress he was seeing in the world, but now he feels stern poetic censure is again needed. His 2016 album MartyrLoserKing reflects his anger with heavy subject matter and a raw, dark soundscape.
“Now I sit here like, fucking hell, my work has not been sharp enough,” Williams says. “There is a beauty that comes from charged conversations, charged encounters … and when you connect that sort of mindfulness to industry and every aspect of society, it would put us in a different realm. We would be excited about who we are on this planet and how we have amended the bullshit.”
He's exhausted from fighting his holy war of art, but Williams finds solace in what he calls the inevitability of progress. “Hope is as hollow as fear," he says, quoting from the Tao Te Ching. "My so-called optimism is not based on hope. It is based on the inevitability of the truth prevailing, of the bullshit being revealed.”
Saul Williams, 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, Kessler Theater, 1230 W. Davis St., tickets $35 and up at thekessler.org.