Saul Williams, one of the main acts of the 6th Annual Bushfire Festival, brought an electric energy to those who attended his performance last Saturday night. Hours before he took to House on Fire’s stage, Okayafrica’s Mona Hakimi had a conversation with Saul about the significance of his presence in Southern Africa, his artistic role as a “provocateur,” and the theme of Bushfire – the art of self-discovery. Go here for more photos from this year’s festival.
Okayafrica: Bushfire’s call to action this year is “Bring Your Fire,” What do you hope to take away from the experience?
Saul Williams: Every time that I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to come to the continent of Africa, which has been maybe six or seven times at this point, there’s always a kind of unspoken connection. It does something to me to be able to talk to, connect, hang out with people, eat, laugh, & dance with people, hear stories – I’m all ears when I’m here basically. Primarily for obvious reasons, being African American, not knowing necessarily how to trace your lineage, you develop a sort of fixation on the continent as a whole…just wanting to connect.
Being here [in Swaziland] specifically, on the one hand I don’t know the last time I was ever in a kingdom, so that’s special. It’s very small, probably about the size of New Jersey, but to me it’s really interesting for it to be so very close and connected to South Africa, and for it not to share the same history – that is amazing to me. Swaziland’s colonization ended in ’68 and I’m very aware of what was happening in South Africa up until ’94. I think it represents this sort of oasis for some during that era and I recognize that in its historical context. I remember all that from the books I would read so I feel that sense of… I don’t want to use terms like “magic” but even when you look at the nature…it’s the same problem when I go to somewhere like Jamaica and everything I say to describe it just feels cliché. So it’s cool to be here.
*All photos by OKA contributor Thulani Rachia.
OKA: In South Africa, art has been a form of resistance. You’ve said before that “an ideological revolution is preferable,” can you elaborate on that?
SW: I grew up in New York in the ‘80s in a really political household. For example, we boycotted a lot of goods because they were invested in Apartheid. I had an older sister who was an activist who would come home from college and be like, “We are not purchasing Coca-Cola products; no you cannot get those Reeboks…” But it was kind of popular at that time; we weren’t the only family doing that.
I grew up meeting a lot of cast and crew from Sarafina and all these other plays that were on Broadway at the time, which is to say I grew up on political theatre, theatre where you do a play so good that you get exiled from the country. I grew up around those artists and watching those plays…where something you said on stage is going to cost you your life. Because I was a teenager when I encountered that that was the most punk rock shit ever. I liken that with Public Enemy and the stuff I was experiencing in New York. It was really amazing to me and even when I went on to university, I was doing Athol Fugard plays. My biggest break-through in theatre came when I was 20 years old and I did My Children, My Africa, which was a play about a young South African student reciting poems. This is before I started writing poems. I really grew up inspired by this so the first time I landed in South Africa, it was like…I’ve been praying and meditating on this space for a long time, I can’t believe I’m here. That was in 2003 I think the first time when I landed there; and so I feel connected to that here in Swaziland as well.
OKA: The theme of Bushfire this year is “The Art of Self-Discovery.” How did you discover the artist within you?
SW: I think that’s really my forte; that’s what I’ve given my life to – the idea and the exploration of self. That’s what I mean by opening up, realizing that all things are part of you and that you don’t even have to necessarily travel or seek outside to find the connections to it all.
It’s not only about relating to the plight of the poor, but even relating to the plight and struggles of the privileged, which as an American, I think any American could understand, “What do you mean it’s not open all night?! What do you mean there’s no hamburgers?! What do you mean the cable went out? What do you mean?” That Sade song where she talks about a woman struggling in Somalia and saying that it hurts like a pair of new shoes. To me, it’s finding the juxtaposition between all these different forms of suffering and privilege, and realizing the privilege of living and having the time to think about these things. We’re not thinking about social justice if we’re hungry. If we’re hungry, we’re thinking about eating. And so to even get to the point where I can sit back with my coffee comfortably and be like, “I didn’t make any money off that album,” it’s still privileged.
So it’s a wonderful dance, the process of discovering yourself, discovering your voice, discovering the role that you can play in bringing about a more consistent reality, which is different from globalization. Globalization means a more consistent reality in the sense that you would find an ATM or a Starbucks anywhere. But there’s something else that you would want to be able to find anywhere – people are fed, people are educated, are taken care of, provided for health-wise everywhere. In order to think and find ways of realizing, making these desires practical, it’s a matter of becoming awake in more than one way at once, and that is also part of self-discovery. It’s realizing that yes, I can be aware of this, connected to that, participating in this, and working for this greater picture.
OKA: Last words – do you have any advice for young African artists who are in the process of self-discovery?
SW: I don’t know if I can particularize that for an African artist; for any young artist I would say it’s such a rewarding thing to go into the arts. George Clinton has this wonderful quote about funk, and he says, “The funk is its own reward.” If you listen to his music, you know it’s true. For me, being on stage, being able to hear these songs loud, to be in the song and to realize halfway through that you’re the one singing it – to be on that rhythm and on that beat, it’s really like surfing. I can only relate it to what it must be like to be riding a wave. I would encourage anyone to explore that.