Poet Activist Saul Williams is “Middle Finger All Day”

Saul Williams by Thomas M Jackson (Getty).

“For the most part I vote. I’ve registered to vote. I voted the last couple of elections. But the other side of where I stand is, I’m all for burning it down. Most of the stuff I believe will not be aired on CNN ‘cause I’m middle finger all day.” – Saul Williams, interviewed by CNN

A classically trained actor who draws on hip-hop and punk as primary influences among so many, Saul Williams is one of spoken word’s most esteemed and influential figures. With several books, films, CDs, and multi-media projects under his belt, he’s also one of the most prolific, refusing to be bound by genre, medium, or discipline. He’s forever on the grind.

Two recent back-to-back interviews – one for CNN and the other for the writer’s organization PEN – bring fans up to date on his latest projects as well as his thoughts on censorship, the artist’s responsibility, and the notion of the public intellectual.

 From his PEN interview:

PEN: When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?

Saul Williams: Self-censorship has its benefits in crafting results. Censorship by another is more questionable. I see nothing wrong with guiding the experience of a reader, suggesting one book before another, based on study, discipline, age, etc., yet the actual act of censoring what a writer writes cannot benefit the art and progression of expression.

The writing that shocks and disturbs me is often the most influential. It seems a well-read public would reach greater heights than its dumbed-down alternative, but would be far less easy to control.

Both interviews are fairly boilerplate, but Williams manages to invigorate them. You can just imagine the people at CNN feeling pretty edgy merely having him on set, feeding off his energy while staying safely in their own politically neutered comfort zone. (How truly interesting a turn might things have taken if he’d at least been asked a follow-up question to the quote at the start of this piece: “Mr. Williams, what beliefs do you hold that you think we’re too wussy to air?” That, of course, would never happen.) What the viewer gets instead is a game of coyness and heavily mediated, carefully measured cool that both parties play in order to achieve their similar but crucially distinct ultimate goals: maintenance of their own brand while taking just what they need from the other party to bolster that brand.

And for once, it’d be refreshing if an artist, when asked as Williams is by PEN, What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?” would give a real response:

Do you really think governments that arrest, torture and execute writers would give a fuck about any book sent to them in the hopes of changing their minds or practices?

Williams doesn’t give that kind of answer, of course, and respectfully indulges the inane question. Read the full interview here.