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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Saul Williams Talks Martyr Loser King, Hackers, and Drones

Posted By on Wed, Apr 22, 2015 at 11:18 AM

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Saul Williams is a veteran poet, actor, musician, and writer who has been infiltrating international artistic communities for nearly 20 years. The multitalented artist starred in the award-winning indie film SLAM in 1998, performed in the Broadway hip-hop musical Holler if you Hear Me, and has released six books and seven albums throughout the span of his career. Still, Williams continues to embark on an exploration to create new experiential art projects.

His latest endeavor, a graphic novel and album entitled Martyr Loser King, is an exploration of Williams fascination with hacker culture, art, technology, feminism, and finding new ways to connect with the world's evolving youth culture. We caught up with Williams ahead of his April 25 performance at Slim's to talk about his new work, drones, why hacking is not voyeurism, and several books he's been reading to find inspiration for his new project.

Your new graphic novel and album, Martyr Loser King is a concept you have been talking about since 2013. When was the actual moment the concept became realized in your imagination?

The moment the idea clicked for me was after I read this graphic novel named Habibi by Craig Thompson. At the time the story of a hacker was kind of floating in my mind but I was uncertain as how I wanted to tell it. The graphic novel opened me up to how I would tell the story using that format, and it informed me on how I would make the music. I started writing the words and the music for it as a graphic novel, as opposed to a book of poetry. The breakthrough for the music came from living in Paris and being exposed to a lot of different kinds music and a lot of different people. I travelled to Africa while I was based in Paris because it was way more accessible. I was encountering a lot of kids and cell phones were everywhere. iPhones were everywhere. Technology was everything. Africa as a continent has the highest number of people connected to the internet because of it's size. It is also the only continent where the majority of people are under 25. I realized, "Ok, this is who I have to talk to."

What's your interpretation of a hacker?

I think of disruption. It's the modern way of disrupting the norm. A hack is something that makes life easier. It is a shortcut. I hack by writing poetry. I'm coding the decoding in poetry. I'm finding new codes and shorter ways to output ideas quicker through poetry — hacking ideas, hacking frames of thought and references. I've been doing that for years. It doesn't only belong to what we relate it to in terms of computers.

I was reading a book Testo Junkie by Beatriz Preciado and she considers herself a "gender hacker." It's about a woman who injects herself with testosterone every day to feel the effects. There are all these ways of unwiring, rewiring, dewiring systems of thought and systems of being.

Do you look at hacking as voyeurism or an act of war?

Are those my only two options? (laughs)

Yes, for this question.

In my sense of it, hacking is not voyeurism, for example, a life hack can be as simple as finding a simpler way to tie your shoes. In terms of an act of war, I see hacking as a means of stopping or pausing acts of war. When I look at someone like Edward Snowden, better yet let's look at Aaron Swartz — that doesn't fit into voyeurism or an act of war. Downloading those books free from MIT and being given 13 felonies by the US government when he should be on the cover of New York Times as the future of America as one of its most promising pupils. Instead he committed suicide at the age of 26.

The act of war is set against the hacker because they're trying to set the standard, and they don't want us to go against it. 

Maybe war was a bit of a dramatic word. What about it being used with a level of malice, like when Ben Affleck's emails were leaked, asking that he not have the news shared publicly that his ancestors owned slaves?

Well, there are white hat hackers, grey hat hackers and black hat hackers. There are hackers that do good, there are some that set themselves up just to say, "Hey, there are loopholes in the system that need to be fixed." There are hackers that set themselves up to be of aid to power structures. It's not always malicious, but it's not always benevolent.

When you want to communicate and create a project exploring information or a topic you are interested in, do you research heavily or do you tap into an intrinsic stream of consciousness to express your ideas?

I research and then stream. For example, I was just reading this wonderful book called The Theory of the Drone. It is a philosophical piece on the usage of drones. What does it mean for an act of war to not involve physical combat? What does it mean for someone to receive a metal of honor when now the form of combat is actually non-combative? They're sitting in a room hitting buttons like a video game and there is no real courage involved. What does that mean in terms of transparency and surveillance? There was enough material recorded in 2009 that it would take 24 years to view it all.

In relation to the usage of drones to replace physical combat, and the new influx of feminine independence and fourth wave, post-modern feminism: Do you think the usage of drones could be a way for the American patriarch to implement self-preservation of men's bodies?

I think that men in particular are privileged on this planet. The thing about privilege is that it creates a sort of comfort where you don't really question the norm or fight against it if you don't have to. There is a sense of obliviousness or a faux obliviousness that exists. I don't think that men are particularly thinking in the ways you are expressing, although some are paid to do so, but I do think that men have a structural form of existence embedded in them that makes them want to maintain the status quo and maintain power over women in society. I think many men are heavily invested in that, whether they realize it or not.

You're going to be performing at Slim's in San Francisco on April 25. Since we've just talked a lot about technology and cultural issues that are effecting the world and nation, will you have a message to address the local issues of displacement and the imbalance of wealth, class and the arts in San Francisco?

I'm super aware of what's going on there. My purpose for this album is to provide what every activist needs. I want to provide that creative fuel. The best I can bring to the table is what I do best. I'm here to inspire artists and people who feel compelled to resist the gridlock that these new situations are creating. The purpose of Martyr Loser King is to make people realize that everyone has the capacity to bring about change and that we can do it together.
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