Get to know the man tasked with the weighty responsibility of presenting the work of the legendary Tupac Shakur to a new audience.

The Source was very privileged to have the opportunity to speak with musician, actor, poet, and all around citizen of the world  Saul Williams.  Williams lays the lead role of “John” in the newly opened Broadway musical “Holler If Ya Hear Me” (read our review here) ; inspired by and centered around the life and music of the late Tupac Shakur.

Sitting outside of his favorite local coffee shop in Harlem, New York (the same place Shakur was born) Williams spoke PASSIONATELY about the process of choosing to be in the play, what Tupac meant to him an so much more.

The Source: So you’re originally from New York right?

Saul Williams: Yeah, both of my parents are born and raised in Newburg NY, 16 miles out of the city, commuter-ville.  I took acting classes in the city at 12.  You know I was lucky enough to be here, to witness the birth of hip hop.  I have two older siblings so they would take me to parties in the park and the whole nine.

The Source: So before you really even know what it was even?

Saul Williams: I knew what it was intuitively, I knew what it was in the way that like kids know what a fucking iPhone or Ipod is,  like OS 8000 or whatever, it’s just there, they get it from the beginning.  From the moment I heard hip hop, I was like “Oh, that’s us! That’s us, that’s Me!”.  It’s not like my mom got it, as a kid it was like that’s our shit.  I always had this protective thing with it.  I could list the moments and songs that made me cry. Because I would have this sort of pride of just like “Oh my god look how far we’ve come”.

The Source: So you were living in France for a while right ?

Saul Williams: Yeah for the last four years I just moved back here in September

The Source:Why did you move back, was it for ‘Holla If You Hear Me” ?

Saul Williams: I had moved back because I was starting to miss theatre so heavily that I started creating my next album around the idea that the longing for music was so strong.  So I was writing a hip hop musical called ‘Marty Loser King’.  So I came back here to put it together. I signed with Fader for the music, it’s an album, a graphic novel, and a play, so I got the BAM Center in Canada to pay for the development of the script.  I got the culture project on Bleeker [Street] and Lafeyette [Street]  to agree to premiere the play. I got First Second books down in the Flatiron district to agree to publish the graphic novel which was co-written and illustrated by Ronald Wimbley.  So I was piecing all of that together working my way back to the stage aaaand then this happened {holler} .  I didn’t get attached to this project until April 2104.

The Source: I had read that you were so busy working on ‘MLK’ that you had to do the audition on short notice and even had to do a cold read [not having seen the script before hand]

Saul Williams : Yeah, exactly.

The Source: Did you consider passing on the lead role in Holler If Ya Hear Me?

Saul Williams: Yea, that was the plan.  Before I read the script I thought, I want to meet Kenny Leon, I knew who he was as a director and I really would like to meet him.  I don’t know if I’m going to be in this project, but it would be really cool to get it, so I can turn it down (laughs).  Then I read the script.  My wife started teasing me, because she saw I was getting more and more animated about the project.  She’d be like “don’t forget , you’re gonna turn it down” and I’m like (in a joking voice) “f*ck you, I’m not turning it down, don’t you realize…”

The Source: So the script really won you over?

Saul Williams: Yea it definitely won me over.

The Source: What did Tupac mean to you?

Saul Williams: Well, me I’m a child of activists, just like Pac and you could just as easily ask me what does hip hop mean to me.  Because to me it’s kind of the same answer, in that I don’t front or sleep on the fact that when I first fell in love with hip hop it was party music; champagne, cavier and bubble baths, it was party shit.  But when it found its focus in the late eighties, I was there.  Because I had to defend it to my parents and to teachers the whole time, those rappers like KRS Once, Public Enemy, Rakim, they all kind of gave me the fuel to go back to all those naysayers like “o yea , you think it’s all just bullshit , what about THIS”.  I remember playing for my mom and dad Public Enemy “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me you see, straight up racist, that sucker was simple and plain, mother fuck him and John Wayne”.

My parents as activists, they were like, “hmmm that’s what your listening to, it’s fucking awesome, turn it up!”  That’s when my dad starting saying things like, we’re having a drug rally just say no to crack at the church on Sunday, it’s going to be 1200 people, do you want to write a rhyme for that?  I was like yeah. I got my beat box, my break dancers, yeah let’s do it.  So I started writing rhymes for political rallies.  At that point, I realized and the world realized … most international countries’ relationship to hip hop started basically with Public Enemy, and the international understanding of hip hop is that it is the voice of the disenfranchised people speaking up and out against the system.

That’s what people started understanding about, and that became at some point how I identified myself.  Like I would listen to a song and be like yeah that’s me.  Then there was a shift, mid 90’s gangster shit.  When I was listening to like Biggie complain about someone calling the cops on him when he’s trying to sell drugs outside of the building, and there was this shift toward this like capitalistic narcissistic type of thing.  Where I’m listening to rap songs like  that’s not me, what the fuck is this? That point I was thinking hip hop was going down a fucked up road.  Pac though was always like a band mate or team member to me, I always knew that Pac was on my side. He was really clear on what was bullshit & what was really important.  When I got my first deal with Rick Rubin, I mean yeah I bought a range rover, I mean yeah I did some of that shit. But I didn’t rap about it.  To me someone putting a microphone in my face, meant I had a responsibility I feel to speak up and out about what is going on in the community, and what is going on in the world.   I couldn’t look at the privilege or look at the opportunities that came to me without thinking about the responsibility that came with it.

So as I saw hip hop get further and further go away from that, and turn into a kind of glorification of the kind of role that the CIA & FBI played bringing crack into our communities, I started looking at motherfuckers like they probably working for the FBI.  You’re trying to tell me how to sell crack, the FBI was just here last week trying to show us how to sell crack, now you’re doing it for them.  It was never cool to me, it’s as corny as like anything.  We’ve literally gone from listening to Pac and Malcom X to like not giving a fuck about correctional officers rapping.  We all know and we all dance, and I’m dancing too, but there’s a part of me that’s like yeah but this is that bull shit.  I’m about that revolutionary shit, that Dead Prez shit.  That whole backpacker thing wouldn’t of happened if Pac hadn’t been killed.  Being against the system, being a revolutionary, a revolutionary gangster as Dead Prez says is very different than like just idolizing gangsters.   Amiri Baraka writes about that, idolizing revolutionaries versus idolizing captives.  What the Rocafeller represented, Nelson I mean, what he represented for the black community for America, you know  was essentially full of shit.  It was more of that like, not right wing, but in terms of that like 1 percent, he was that full time. Listen to what Che Guevara what he had to say about the Rocafellers.  When we got to the point where like our heroes are now Rocafellers, that to me had to do with the fact of like getting caught in the game.  I mean I have nothing but love for other artists, rappers, but I feel like some cats got played by the system itself, and played into the system, without realizing.

Pac on the other hand, was somebody because his parents were straight up victims of the COINTEL Program.  His parents were labeled as terrorists, the same way we now target terrorists in the middle east.  Shit his aunt Assata Shakur is still on that list, the number one woman on that list today.  They labeled her a terrorist for a crime she could not have committed, thankfully she escaped and got political asylum in Cuba.  But there’s a lot of cats who just seem willing to stand on the wrong side of history, who didn’t really understand the forks in the road as they were presented to us.   I understand because when you grow up poor and you’re a “have not”, it’s easy to get excited about HAVING.  I’ve been excited about that too.  But to me the opportunity to speak with the public is an opportunity that came with a responsibility, and I could never front on that, and I think Tupac understood that, too.  That’s not to excuse or ignore the moments when Pac wilded out, Pac had a temper, he saw red and he got angry.  He got angry at bullshit, rightfully so, but you could still hear him speak truth to power even in those most angry moments.  He didn’t suddenly forget where he was, and started siding up with the FBI & CIA on some shit.  He was never in that position where his words can be mistaken for the type of shit that they can feed us, you know?  I mean who is perfect?  Pac valued his voice and his position in life, he realized that he had power before he had money, and that’s the confusing thing now.  A lot of these cats, you know celebrity is a drug and thus your witnessing a lot of “crackheads”, it’s a crack epidemic out this bitch right now.

The Source: Right, and Instagram is the plug.

Saul Williams: People are on celebrity now like it’s the answer to something.  That’s where [Andy] Warhol was right, he called it before it came [15 minutes of fame].  Pac never lost himself in those regards, when the cameras hit him he became more articulate, more focused.  That’s what I’m talking about, he didn’t become a revolutionary just because he had a kid and NOW he wanted to do something.

The Source: I think my favorite Pac lines may be from his interviews , like “I’m picking the lock comin through blastin”

Saul Williams: EXACTLY, like you compare that to these motherfuckers “yea you nah what I’m sayinnn” lean drinking bs .  If you’re going to rep Pac, then rep Pac. That’s gonna mean a lot to what you rep in life.

The Source: Have you heard the new audio recording of Tupac and Saniyka Shakur where he talks about wanting to fix the inner cities with sports programs etc.

Saul Williams: Yea, and that’s why I have big respect for The Game right now, for Snoop Dogg with the football leagues.  I’ve always felt like sports are crucial, like sports can replace war.  I mean that’s what the Olympics were set up for essentially.  We have to find creative ways around war, because this war for profit shit isn’t working.  We have to be creative in that, Pac was definitely creative in his vision and you hear that in that interview.  Yea it definitely helps you admire his presence.  Also the week before where that article came out with Pac’s last words, like COME ON!  That’s all I needed.

The Source: You’re a poet yourself so what was it like, and what was the process like reciting Tupac’s words on stage part of the play.

Saul Williams:  I learned the words, I listened to Pac for about a week and then I learned the words to the instrumentals and did it the way that it worked for me.  It ended up having a lot of the same placement as Pac but at some point I had to take his voice out and just deal with his words over the beats, and then it was just about riding the beats.  My background is in theatre, so my background is rooted in the tradition of interpreting the words and writings of others writers.  So I had no problem taking Tupac’s words in this context, out of context and putting them over beats.  It made perfect sense to me, it worked for me.  Most of what I found was very close to what Pac found, where the words would be.  It wasn’t about trying to re interpret Pac or anything like that.  These are the words, these are the beats, and what can I do with that.  Granted if it were a Saul Williams production or album I probably would of like trapped up the beats, remixed the beats and such.  But here the goal was to stay true to form.

The Source: I heard you say once that every work that you do is based on some work that you did on yourself.  With ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’ , what part of yourself were your working on?

Saul Willliams:  I’m from Newburg NY, and it’s one of the craziest cities in NY state.  Over the past 40 years, it has 40,000 people, it’s had the highest crime, murder, drug trafficking rate, by ratio, more so than NYC.  So I grew up in this crazy city where characters like the ones we depict in this play are real.  So my goal with this performance is really to just represent all the cats I grew up with, most of whom who are dead or in prison.  As cliché as that sounds, it’s true.  To represent their voices, and to represent the reality that I know so well from where I grew up.  Because I know that essentially that not only helps heal, it could also help heal theatre and Broadway to see those authentic modern day stories being told.  There’s been no other plays on Broadway about the crack game, about all this shit, so it’s like a real first with it being a hip hop theatre production.  I wasn’t thinking so much about what I’m working on, I mean I’m always working on some thing as an actor.  My goal as an actor is really just to get better and better at hitting those emotional points.

For instance, Kenny Leon told me about working with Puff Daddy [Sean Combs] in ‘A Raisin in the sun’, because he directed him in that ten years ago.  He said the points and moments when Walter Lee , the character that Puffy played; he couldn’t find that depth in Puffy easily because he had done such a good job of blocking those, putting up walls around those emotions, having to deal wit the loss of his father and all this other shit.

But as an actor those walls have to come down so you cant be like, I don’t want to investigate that,  I don’t want to think about.  I mean I’ve been in a love triangle like what happens in the play.  It’s how I actually started writing poetry

 

The Source:  So you’re saying you didn’t start writing poetry to GET girls, more so to deal with getting girls.

Saul Williams: (Laughs) I started writing to deal with that reality, to deal with the idea of betrayal and dreams being corrupted by everyday situations and circumstances.  Trying to make sense of it all, since the first time that I ever felt any real pain emotionally was then.  This girl had cheated on me with my fucking roommate, and so I had a lot of self-reckoning to do.  So when I’m in a play like this that has similar situations, I’m forced to revisit some of those experiences.  Which is not fun, not if you really access those memories and thoughts.  A lot of them are like suicidal, you’re forced into dark places.  But that’s what the work requires.  So my goal as an actor is to be available to that work and to make myself open so that anyone sitting in the audience can relate to it.  Can feel like it’s real, like its authentic.  In order for it to feel that way, it has to be that way for me on stage.  In the play there’s my father who’s been shot in the head and survives, and at one point speaks a coherent sentence to me and I’m like holy fuck, I didn’t know he could even do that.  My father in real life is a minister, just like my father in the play.  My father passed eleven years ago, and I don’t belong to any religion or church, and I’m sure that what that guy has to say to me on stage is something similar to what my dad would say to me if he could.  So I’m forced to reckon with all those real things in those moments, in order to make it real and make it plain.  It’s really just emotional and psychological work that’s exhausting.  Even though I’m playing a character that’s very hard, I have to personally be very vulnerable to achieve that.  I just end up being some what of an emotional wreck every night as a result of going through this, and then like having to rev up to do it again the next day (laughs).

Stay tuned for the second part of our Source Exclusive interview with Saul Williams where he talks about current hip hop.  Who he’s listening to, his hopes and concerns for Young Thug, being a fan of while also knowing personally Earl Sweatshirt’s father and much more.

To find tickets for the musical ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’ click HERE.

 

Spencer doesn’t joke or try to be clever when it comes to Pac.  He was truly honored to speak with someone – in Saul Williams – who is not full of shit AT ALL.  Read more of his thoughts and ramblings on Twitter- @Sjeezs