Skip to main content
Select Source:

Williams, Saul 1972–

Saul Williams 1972

Poet, actor, musician

Influenced by Hip-Hop and the Bard

From the Café Scene to Cannes

Turned Life and Dreams into Poetry

Where No Rapper Has Gone Before

Selected writings

Selected filmography

In an oft-quoted remark, Saul Williams recounted his birth: My mother was rushed from a James Brown concert to give birth to me. It was 1972 and Browns song Say It Loud, Im Black and Im Proud, was becoming an anthem for a new generation of African Americans. As he told Time Out, I didnt have to go through what my parents did to say it loud because its implicit in my nature. Indeed, as a poet, rapper, actor, and musician, Williams has made a career of speaking up, shouting out, and saying it loud. What has he been saying? Nothing less than the truth. Thats the most invigorating feeling, he told Time Out, Speaking truth into a microphone.

Influenced by Hip-Hop and the Bard

Williams was born in 1972 to a schoolteacher mother and a preacher father. The family enjoyed a middle class lifestyle in Newburgh, New York. From both parents Williams inherited a desire to feed his mind. Reading was compulsory, Williams told The Independent. He tackled Shakespeare in third grade and first stepped on stage in his elementary schools performance of Julius Caesar.

Of his father Williams told Interview, My fathers influence was just realizing the importance of having a calling. The 1980s hip-hop group T La Rock put Williams on the path to his own calling. He was in fourth grade and upon hearing the groups song Its Yours, Williams wrote his first poem. After that he led a dual life as student of literature and self-taught student of the spoken word. It was always important to me to be that kid who could rock the party as well as rock the English professors mind, Williams told Interview.

Following high school, Williams followed his cerebral bent with a bachelors degree in philosophy from Atlantas Morehouse College, a liberal arts college for African-American men. Next, he was off to study acting at New York Universitys Tisch School of the Arts in New York City. He soon earned a Masters of Fine Arts, but instead of heading for the theater, Williams found himself center stage in a poetry revival based in coffeehouses and the culture of slam.

From the Café Scene to Cannes

Williams first made a name for himself on New Yorks poetry scene at the infamous Nu-yorican Poets Café. Of that time, he told annonline.com, It was a great moment in my life. It felt like a calling. As a breeding ground for up and coming word artists, Nu-yorican had developed a reputation for cut-throat poetry slams. In a slam poets are given a few minutes to mesmerize the audience with their verbal wizardry. Would-be poets not up to the challenge suffer the vicious jeers of the crowd and are booed, often in tears, offstage. Of the often cruel nature of the slams, Williams told Interview, Im not into the competitive aspects, but I am all for getting people to become poets or poetry critics. Yet his dislike of the battle didnt stop him from slamming his competition and

At a Glance

Born in 1972; son of a schoolteacher mother and a preacher father, raised in Newburgh, New York; children: Saturn. Education: Morehouse College, BA in philosophy; Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, MFA in drama.

Career: Poet, Actor, Musician. Since 1995 has performed poetry readings; published books of poetry include: Sorcery of Self, 2001, She, 1999, The Seventh Octave, 1998. Film work includes: K-Pax, 2001; voice over for lead character, Origin of Cotton, 2000; Kings of L.A, 2000; star and co-author, Slam, 1998; recordings include: Amethyst Rock Star, 2001; appeared on several poetry/hip-hop compilation albums, including: Eargasms: Urban Hip-Hop; Lyricist Lounge; Black Whole Styles.

Awards: Breakout Performance Award, New Yorks Independent Film Project, for Slam; Grand Slam Champion, Nu-yorican Poet Café, 1996.

Addresses: HomeLos Angeles, CA.

in 1996 he scored the esteemed title of Nu-yorican Poet Cafes Grand Slam Champion.

As a result of his victory, Williams caught the attention of independent film director Marc Levin and was cast in the lead role in 1998s Slam. Williams played the main character, Raymond Joshua, a small-time Washington D.C. dope dealer who is imprisoned on trumped up charges. Against the harsh chaos of prison life, Joshua finds refuge in his own voice as he realizes the power of his poetry.

Williams wrote all his own lines and the film wowed audiences worldwide. Slam won the 1998 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and both the Camera dOr and Audience Award at Cannes. For his performance Williams received an award for Breakout Performance by New Yorks Independent Film Project. However, for Williams the reactions of the audience was far more rewarding. Veteran actress Alfre Woodard tearfully told Williams that Slam was the most important film to have been made in the past 25 years and a French woman in Cannes grabbed his arm to tell him she had seen the film twice because she had been a resistance fighter in WWII and Slam reflected her own struggle for freedom. His poetry was reaching people and making a difference in their lives. He told Time Out, I realized that we have the power to change reality, because we dictate reality. but if we want to change how it is, then we have to make a film about how it should be.

Williams continued to evolve as an actor. In 2000 he had a role in Kings of L.A., and also provided the voice for Jean-Michel Basquiats character in Origin of Cotton, a movie originally made in the 1980s but whose sound was lost during a break in production. His first major motion picture, K-Pax with Kevin Spacey was due for release in 2001.

Turned Life and Dreams into Poetry

As his fledgling film career gained momentum, so did his work as a poet. [My poetry] is about making things matter. Making those invisible, intangible ideas and dreams, things that you can touch, that you can feel, he told Interview. So far he has done that in three volumes of his work. In 1998 his first book of poetry, The Seventh Octave, was published by Moore Black Press. His 1999 effort, She, is a searingly intimate account of the demise of his relationship with the books illustrator, performance artist Marcia Jones, with whom he bore a daughter, Saturn, in 1996. The book has enjoyed three printings and publication by MTV Pocket Books. Williams acknowledged the privilege he felt at being able to share his poetry. To be a young poet and publish books is quite a blessing, because publishers print poetry like churches sing hymnsto maintain some sort of traditional stance, he told Time Out.

In the spring of 2001 his third book of poetry hit the bookshelves. Called Sorcery of Self, it is distilled from seven years of journal writing. Its publication reinforced the advice he gave to aspiring poets in The Hoya, George Washington Universitys student paper: experience things and write it down. He also advised the use of poetry as therapy, saying If you can channel [pain] into something, thats the healing.

Where No Rapper Has Gone Before

Like his role model, the African-American singer, actor, athlete, and civil rights activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976), Williams kept adding to his roster of talents causing biographers to add more commas behind his name. In 1997 he recorded his first spoken word piece on the well-received album Eargasms: Urban Hip Hop. He also appeared on several other poetry/hip-hop compilations in the late 1990s. He has performed live with Erykah Badu, The Roots, and The Fugees. Of his recordings Melody Maker, as quoted on ninjatune.net, called Williams, A poet redefining the boundaries of the possible and the impossible in hip-hop.

After Slam, famed record producer Rick Rubin approached Williams to produce a full-length album. The result, Amethyst Rock Star was released in the United Kingdom in August of 2001 and was slated to be released in the U.S. soon after. Following the release, Williams embarked on a popular European tour with a six-piece band. On the album Williams combines his literary training, slam-cured word work, and minimal, almost surreal music to produce a rap record unlike any other. This is not a pop release, nor will it prove popular, he told The Observer, Im taking rap somewhere its never been before. Still, he was confident that it would find its own audience. I do believe in the power of what Im doing, and peoples ability to thing for themselves beyond whats being sold to them, he assured The Independent.

And why not? Williams has successfully introduced Shakespearean form into hip-hop, has brought poetry to the rock arena, and has made his way in Hollywoodall by speaking his own brand of truth. The most positive thing you can do when someone puts the microphone up to you is to speak truth, he told Time Out. His own multimedia outlet, Williams has shared that truth through books, films, and CDS. Expect to hear more from him.

Selected writings

The Seventh Octave, 1998.

She, 1999.

Sorcery of Self, 2001.

Selected filmography

Slam, 1998.

Kings of L.A., 2000.

K-Pax, 2001.

Periodicals

The Hoya, February 25, 2000.

The Independent (London), August 17, 2001, p. 18.

Interview, March 2000.

The Observer (London), August 5, 2001, p. 14.

Time, October 19, 1998, p. 106.

Time Out, New York, October 15, 1998.

Online

www.aalbc.com/poet.saul.

www.annonline.com.

www.ninjatune.net.

www.saulwilliams.com.

Candace LaBalle

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Williams, Saul 1972–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Williams, Saul 1972–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/williams-saul-1972

"Williams, Saul 1972–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/williams-saul-1972

Williams, Saul

Saul Williams

Poet, actor, musician

In an oft-quoted remark, Saul Williams recounted his birth: "My mother was rushed from a James Brown concert to give birth to me." It was 1972 and Brown's song "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" was becoming an anthem for a new generation of African Americans. As Williams told Time Out, "I didn't have to go through what my parents did to 'say it loud' because it's implicit in my nature." Indeed, as a poet, rapper, actor, and musician, Williams has made a career of speaking up, shouting out, and saying it loud. "That's the most invigorating feeling," he told Time Out, "speaking truth into a microphone."

Influenced by Hip-Hop and the Bard

Williams was born in 1972 to a schoolteacher mother and a preacher father. His family enjoyed a middle class lifestyle in Newburgh, New York. From both parents Williams inherited a desire to feed his mind. "Reading was compulsory," Williams told London's Independent. He tackled Shakespeare in third grade and first stepped on stage in an elementary school performance of Julius Caesar.

Of his father, Williams told Interview, "My father's influence was just realizing the importance of having a calling." The 1980s hip-hop group T La Rock put Williams on the path to his own calling. He was in fourth grade, and upon hearing the group's song "It's Yours," Williams wrote his first poem. After that he led a dual life as student of literature and a self-taught student of the spoken word. "It was always important to me to be that kid who could rock the party as well as rock the English professor's mind," Williams told Interview.

Following high school, Williams followed his cerebral bent, earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Atlanta's Morehouse College. Next, he was off to study acting at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in New York City. He soon earned a master of fine arts degree, but instead of heading for the theater, Williams encountered a poetry revival that was based in coffee-houses, and found himself front and center in the culture of "slam."

From the Café Scene to Cannes

Williams first made a name for himself on New York's poetry scene at the infamous Nu-yorican Poets Café. As a breeding ground for up-and-coming word artists, Nu-yorican had developed a reputation for cutthroat "poetry slams." In a "slam," poets are given a few minutes to mesmerize the audience with their verbal wizardry. Would-be poets not up to the challenge suffer the vicious jeers of the crowd and are booed, often in tears, offstage. Of the often cruel nature of the slams, Williams told Interview, "I'm not into the competitive aspects, but I am all for getting people to become poets or poetry critics." Yet his dislike of the battle didn't stop him from slamming his competition, and in 1996 he scored the esteemed title of Nu-yorican Poet Café's Grand Slam Champion.

As a result of his victory, Williams caught the attention of independent film director Marc Levin and was cast in the lead role in 1998's Slam. Williams played the main character, Raymond Joshua, a small-time Washington, D.C., dope dealer who is imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Against the harsh chaos of prison life, Joshua finds refuge in his own voice as he realizes the power of his poetry.

Williams wrote all his own lines, and the film wowed audiences worldwide. Slam won the 1998 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d'Or and Audience Award at Cannes. For his performance Williams received an award for "Breakout Performance" by New York's Independent Film Project. However, for Williams, audience reaction was far more rewarding. Veteran actress Alfre Woodard tearfully told Williams that Slam was the most important film to have been made in the past 25 years. A French woman in Cannes grabbed his arm to tell him she had seen the film twice because she had been a resistance fighter in World War II and Slam reflected her own struggle for freedom. Williams's poetry was reaching people and making a difference in their lives. He told Time Out, "I realized that we have the power to change reality, because we dictate reality … but if we want to change how it is, then we have to make a film about how it should be."

Williams continued to evolve as an actor. In 2000 he had a role in the film Kings of L.A., and also provided the voice for Jean-Michel Basquiat's character in Origin of Cotton, a movie originally made in the 1980s but whose sound was lost during a break in production. His first major motion picture, K-Pax, starring Kevin Spacey, was released in 2001.

Turned Life and Dreams into Poetry

As his fledgling film career gained momentum, so did his work as a poet. "[My poetry] is about making things matter. Making those invisible, intangible ideas and dreams, things that you can touch, that you can feel," he told Interview. So far he has done that in three volumes of his work. In 1998 his first book of poetry, The Seventh Octave, was published. His 1999 effort, She, is an intimate account of the demise of his relationship with the book's illustrator, performance artist Marcia Jones, with whom he bore a daughter, Saturn, in 1996. The book has enjoyed three printings and publication by MTV Pocket Books. Williams acknowledged the privilege he felt at being able to share his poetry. "To be a young poet and publish books is quite a blessing, because publishers print poetry like churches sing hymns—to maintain some sort of traditional stance," he told Time Out.

In the spring of 2001 his third book of poetry hit the bookshelves. Called Sorcery of Self, it is distilled from seven years of journal writing. Its publication reinforced the advice he gave to aspiring poets in the Hoya, George Washington University's student paper: "Experience things and write it down." He also advised the use of poetry as therapy, saying, "If you can channel [pain] into something, that's the healing."

Where No Rapper Has Gone Before

Like his role model, the African-American singer, actor, athlete, and civil rights activist Paul Robeson (1898–1976), Williams kept adding to his roster of talents. In 1997 he recorded his first spoken word piece on the well-received album Eargasms: Urban Hip Hop. He also appeared on several other poetry/hip-hop compilations in the late 1990s. He has performed live with Erykah Badu, The Roots, and The Fugees.

For the Record …

Born in 1972; son of a schoolteacher mother and a preacher father; raised in Newburgh, New York; children: a daughter, Saturn. Education: Morehouse College, BA in philosophy; New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, MFA in drama.

Since 1995 has performed poetry readings; published books of poetry include: Sorcery of Self, 2001, She, 1999, The Seventh Octave, 1998, Saul Williams, 2003. Film works include: K-Pax, 2001; voice over for lead character, Origin of Cotton, 2000; Kings of L.A., 2000; star and coauthor, Slam, 1998. Recordings include: Amethyst Rock Star, 2001; appeared on poetry/hip-hop compilation albums, including: Eargasms: Urban Hip-Hop, Lyricist Lounge, Black Whole Styles.

Awards: New York's Independent Film Project, "Breakout Performance" Award, for Slam; Nu-yorican Poet Café, Grand Slam Champion, 1996.

After Slam, famed record producer Rick Rubin approached Williams to produce a full-length album. The result, Amethyst Rock Star, was released in the United Kingdom in August of 2001 and was slated to be released in the United States soon after. Following the release, Williams embarked on a popular European tour with a six-piece band. On the album Williams combined his literary training, slam-cured word work, and minimal, almost surreal music to produce a rap record unlike any other. "This is not a pop release, nor will it prove popular," he told the London Observer. "I'm taking rap somewhere it's never been before." Still, he was confident that it would find its own audience. "I do believe in the power of what I'm doing, and people's ability to think for themselves beyond what's being sold to them," he assured the London Independent.

In 2003 Williams released a self-titled print collection of his work. In Publishers Weekly, a reviewer noted that Williams's occasional "messianic postures and pro-nouncements" were "shopworn," but praised the book's "understated moments of lyrical intimacy and self-scrutiny."

Williams has successfully introduced Shakespearean form into hip-hop, has brought poetry to the rock arena, and has made his way in Hollywood—all by speaking his own brand of truth. "The most positive thing you can do when someone puts the microphone up to you is to speak truth," he told Time Out. Williams has shared that truth through his books, films, and CDs.

Selected discography

Eargasms: Urban Hip Hop, 1997.
Amethyst Rock Star, American, 2001.
Saul Williams, Fader, 2004.

Selected writings

She, 1999.
The Seventh Octave, 1998.
Saul Williams, MTV/Pocket.
Sorcery of Self, 2001.

Selected filmography

Slam, 1998.
Kings of L.A., 2000.
K-Pax, 2001.

Sources

Black Issues Book Review, March-April 2002, p. 63.

Hoya, February 25, 2000.

Independent (London, England), August 17, 2001, p. 18.

Interview, March 2000.

Music Week, August 4, 2001, p. 11.

Observer (London, England), August 5, 2001, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly, September 1, 2003, p. 85.

Skipping Stones, May-August 2002, p. 3.

Time, October 19, 1998, p. 106.

Time Out, New York, October 15, 1998.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Williams, Saul." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Williams, Saul." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/williams-saul

"Williams, Saul." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/williams-saul