Saul Williams is desperately trying to reinvigorate the conversation about race. geordie wood

Saul Williams cast his vote for Barack Obama and then promptly left the country for Paris, France, where he lived for most of the president's tenure in office. Though Paris was his home base for a while, he traveled all over Europe and Africa. When he returned to the United States, his publishers commissioned the book that would become US(a.). They wanted poems about America from the perspective of someone who'd been away for a while.

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Williams came back to Michael Brown and the demonstrations in Ferguson. He came back to Eric Garner. He came back to the opening of Holler If Ya Hear Me, a Broadway play based on Tupac's music, in which Williams played the lead role. The play closed after a very short run due to "lack of interest," but he'd heard reports of show promoters telling potential ticket buyers that the show was "a bit of a downer." He came back to an increasingly homogenized New York City. In essence, he came back to the same conversation about race in America that he'd been having with other artists back when he started getting big as an actor/poet/rapper in the late 1990s: Institutionalized racism is everywhere, and the voices who can speak most convincingly to that reality are being silenced.

Hence the book: US(a.), which contains a few short essays up front, a collection of poems, a verse play, and a short screenplay about the relationship between Miles Davis and Juliette Gréco.

In all these modes, Williams is desperately trying to reinvigorate the conversation about race. As he says in the foreword to US(a.), he thinks the fight is "beyond the petty/profound travails of racial injustice," and he wants to focus on issues of "class and entitlement," but he knows America isn't ready for that yet. His time abroad showed him flashes of what such a conversation might look like. In Sierra Leone and South Africa, people asked him why some rappers in the United States glorify diamonds: "Don't they know the ramifications?" The Parisians he met treated him like a rock star—once they found out he was from America. Palestinians in Jerusalem and French kids on the Metro used the N-word to describe themselves. Still, in other places, he was a spectacle to those who hadn't ever seen a black person before.

Based on all these experiences, Williams felt—in a way he'd never felt before—the fact that race is a social construction used to oppress people in different ways across the globe. These ways are connected and complex, and they intersect with that issue of unchained capitalism and money-lust that he wants to talk about. Rapping about diamonds increases the demand for diamonds; production of blood diamonds rise, and so people in Sierra Leone and South Africa die. Apple creates the must-have iPhone; demand for coltan (a mineral necessary for many electronics) rises, as does death in Congo. In his poem "Coltan as Cotton," Williams condenses all of this into punchy, prescriptive, and, okay, didactic lines: "Hack into doctrine. / Capitalism in relation to free labor and slavery. / Hack into the history of bank." He goes on: "Hack into heart / cardio-Congo / blood rich in oil. / Hack into suffering and despair."

The word "hack" here isn't just a proxy for "learn." In these lines and in others, Williams is trying to expand the notion of "hacking" to include artistic expression, which he sees as an avenue that allows the artist and the viewer, the writer and the reader, to actually feel the way systems of oppression operate and to potentially break free from them. The failure of the human imagination leads to a whole lot of suffering, and, Williams hopes, various kinds of art will help expand that imagination in productive ways. You don't need a computer do the kind of hacking Williams is talking about. As he dramatizes in his screenplay Sketches of L'Héroïne, a trumpet took Miles Davis to Paris, where he would carry on a love affair with Juliette Gréco. Though they both suffered racist attacks because of that relationship, carrying it out publicly in the United States during that time would have been a death sentence. With his trumpet, though, Davis hacked the racism of America and found love—however briefly and however doomed.

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In US(a.) and Martyr Loser King (a project that seems to include the book of poems, along with several music videos and a graphic novel), Williams is using a whole arsenal of genres and artistic outlets to hack global capitalism and racism. If you haven't read or seen a single thing by Saul Williams, you need to go to YouTube, type "Black Stacey" into the search bar, and then watch him perform that song/poem a cappella. His vocal inflections and gestures provide brief sketches of melody and percussion, so your brain kind of fills in a backing band. Dark puns like "untie that noose, son, we ain't free, we loose" hit with such power and speed that you will quietly be thanking the YouTube elves for that easy-access replay button. He gave that incredible performance more than seven years ago, and the new stuff that he's been putting together proves he's still got, to borrow a phrase from Cornel West, "that black prophetic fire."

I should say: There aren't a lot of "page pleasures" in this book of poems. Most of the lines break only to control the breath, not the way you see an image or understand the meaning of a sentence, and there's a lot of unjustifiable center-justification typesetting going on. The book is more like sheet music for a symphony—the performance will end up being way better than its script. Which is why seeing him perform at Town Hall is the only way to determine the book's full impact. recommended

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