In keeping with the post I wrote earlier about speaking with actor/musician Saul Williams before his show and then my heightened experience afterwards, on Monday I had the pleasure of receiving an emailed fan letter containing developing thoughts as he considers his role as an artist, human being and American during an election year. Those topics simmered and then bubbled over as he traveled via plane to his next show after his Lollapalooza set last week.
It goes without saying that the letter is an engaging read and I’m always challenged by his previous open letters. But the reason that I post it here is because–even though the some of the ideas he expresses are a bit beyond me, or disagreeable—the thoughts he expresses are nonetheless ones that followed after a live show. And it’s during those after-show moments that I like to peek into an artist’s mind and see what’s going on, especially when they name specific books that spurred the thoughts, as Williams does. And it is also interesting to see the progression of thoughts he expressed from our pre-show interview back in April.
And by the looks of this letter, which was in tandem to the new video single “Convict Colony,” Williams is certainly progressing and proposing ideas related to his show experiences and songwriting, giving us a peek into what the conversation might have been like had we been sitting next to him on the plane after the show.
Although I cannot boast a lifetime of keeping my views to myself, I have seldom taken on the responsibility of trying to change someone (alright, maybe a few girlfriends, but you’ll never hold me to that). However, this year for me has been one of aggressively shifting from a reluctant pursuit of change and growth to taking a proactive stance on what I believe in times that I see as clearly representative of a societal paradigm shift both necessary and urgent for our country and world.
I received a lot of questions from some about why I would allow my song ‘List of Demands’ to be used in a Nike campaign. Ironically, half of the people now reading this post never heard of me until that commercial aired. That, indeed, was one of my reasons for allowing it. A small circle of poets and conscious do-gooders are not enough to effect the change necessary to shift our planet in peril. We must enlist people from all walks of life, people not accustomed to questioning the norm, people who may simply want to dance uninterrupted without message or slogan. I see no glory in ‘preaching to the converted’. Furthermore, I believe fully in the power of music and have branded my work with it’s own conscientious stamp and stomp of attitude fueled to steal the show in the face of the nonsensical. Quite simply, it was clear to me that people would not be rushing to the store to buy Nikes after seeing that commercial, but rather rushing to youtube or itunes to hear or download the song. I even imagined those who would be rushing to blogs to question how I could allow this to happen and the subsequent discussion of the ethical treatment of factory workers and how new minds would be informed and enlisted in the struggle for ethical change.
As an artist that characterizes himself and his work as a hybrid synthesis of creativity and responsibility I am forced to make politicized choices, weigh evils, and work strategically to make a living and contribute to the change I wish to see in my lifetime. For instance, the groundbreaking digital release of The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! wasn’t done simply because I wanted to give my album away for free and maintain my independence as an artist, but also because record companies left me little choice. As a musician I have been signed to both Columbia/Sony and Island/Def Jam rosters and have faced consistent naysayers who have basically insisted that I choose the type of music I am going to make and if the choice wasn’t according to their definition of hip hop showed little faith in it or in the possibility of a wide public supporting it, without realizing their role in determining what the public supports. Radio stations followed suit in determining my music not urban, alternative, or rock enough. Of course my music showed more rock influence than Eminem but the KROQ’s of the world seemed to be basing their definition of rock on something a little more surface than sound, at the time. Thus, I have always found myself with fans that have through their own hard work and diligence fought through the norm to find me, yet still voice surprise that more people haven’t.
The compliment “you’re ahead of your time”, often feels more like a curse than a gift from a well-wisher. I have never considered myself ahead of my time simply because a few executives may not have been visionary enough to determine where music or antiquated ideas of race are heading or to realize their role in continually underestimating the intelligence of the listener and our generation. Rather I have seen those ‘powers that be’ as behind the times and perpetuators of an old cycle. Likewise, I have seen their over-turn as inevitable. Thus, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! simply came at a point when I realized that we were, indeed, living at a crossroads and Victor Hugo’s saying, “There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come”, came to life.
Without question, we are living in powerful times, a time where the powers of being will truly prevail over the powers that be. This is evident in the political sector where it has become clear, at least to me, that my support of Barack Obama is not because he’s black, but because he seems to represent both symbolically and ideologically many of those ideas and ideals whose time has come. Ideas of the divine need for change (“God’s just a baby and her diaper is wet.” Get it?) in how we look at the world, ourselves, and at our individual and communal powers. The idea that might is right, that we demonstrate our power with aggressive force is great for football teams, but hardly the best idea for a country whose running source of pride has historically been the evidence of our collective imagination: our music; our films; our amusement parks; and the technology we create to share it. These products of peace are the things that made the world initially fall in love with us. We have rooted ourselves in a growing sense of independence as evidenced through our historic social movements, always upgrading our beliefs and laws to reflect our broadening understanding and vision. Of course, many, if not most, would label this a very optimistic perspective of the ongoing struggle for justice and equal opportunity for all people in this land. There is still a fight to have our voices heard and many of us when given the opportunity to speak seem to have very little to say. Then are those who have consistently fought against growth and change, who would rather fight for their right to maintain their antiquated, sometimes ignorant points of view, as if the age of the perspectives themselves is what validates them. Yet, the first technology is of the mind. It is the shift in perspective that allows us to streamline possibilities of understanding as reflected through invention. And quite simply, we are coming of age.
In this age it is our responsibility to challenge ourselves beyond cultural traditions and delineate between what we have perpetuated through ignorance rather than wisdom. We face an opportunity to broaden our worldview through the exchange of technology and information. We need not rely on what teachings of the past could not anticipate. It is an opportunity to forge ahead and beyond the wavering shortsightedness of our religious leaders, elected officials, teachers, principals, and sometimes parents and live in simple accordance with what we can feel deep within ourselves. We should no longer be surprised to sometimes find ourselves seemingly more intelligent, informed, or insightful than our leaders and bosses, rather we should feel encouraged to inspire and share our most informed selves in our every encounter. And that, my friends, is what has led me to write you today.
While sitting on a plane, on my way back from Lollapalooza, reading Thanking The Monkey by Karen Dawn, it struck me that this was the second awesomely inspiring and informative book I was reading this summer without sharing my thanks by spreading the word. I am sometimes hesitant about making a big deal about my vegan diet, as I have considered it a personal choice worth little discussion. Yet more and more, I have found myself attempting to encourage people who ask me where I find my inspiration, or what issues do I find important, or how can we curb warfare and violence to consider what we ingest. A story was recently recounted to me of a popular TV chef who chose to raise little piglets on his show to insure that they were fed organic food and not injected with chemicals (as is the practice on most factory farms), all for the sake of fattening them up for their slaughter and another primetime recipe. Yet, the time that this chef spent with these pigs taught him a valuable lesson (more valuable for the pigs, no doubt). What he learned was how intelligent pigs are. In fact, in recent times, it is common knowledge for most that pigs are arguably more intelligent than “mans best friend” and companion, the dog. For our chef, this meant switching gears and realizing that he could not consciously kill this intelligent animal, that it would constitute a murder as brutal as slicing your fluffy pets neck and watching it writhe and bleed to death, or sticking an electric prod up its ass and electrocuting it, if the fur or skin is of value…
It may seem like I have just taken a turn to the graphically extreme, I wouldn’t want to make you “lose your lunch”, but these are the common practices perpetuated by the factory farm industry on millions of animals a day, in the name of your breakfast lunch and dinner. And, no, I’m not simply talking about pigs, but also cows, chickens, turkey, horses (that’s right horses. Everyday), and fish. Everyday, our species participates in the mass genocide of other species without care or concern or even questioning whether the violence that we ingest and condone plays any role in our apathetic support of the war machine we have become. How is it that we as human beings can represent both the highest and most developed and lowest and least concerned forms of intelligence of any living species? Are we simply glued to age-old barbaric traditions that cloud our senses and render us inhumane in our dependence on comfort foods and practices? Is our dependence on foreign oil the only thing we need to curb? What about not so foreign species?
Some might argue that artists are a race or species apart from the common person. Yet we all identify with the teachings of Gandhi, the genius of Einstein, the art of Leonardo Da Vinci, Picasso, Rembrandt and the talent and compassion of living artists like Alice Walker, Will Smith, The Mars Volta, Dead Prez, Prince and countless others. Some of us choose to emulate their styles, their fashion, their career choices, but why not their diets? If our brightest most celebrated stars all have this one thing in common why are we so slow in connecting the dots for ourselves? Perhaps the biggest issue at hand is not what our cars run on, but essentially what do we run on? The fact is that factory farms are the number one users of crude oil, not cars. That’s basically what it takes to kill approximately one million chickens per hour (just in the US). More than half of our water supply goes to feed animals being fattened for slaughter. The methane gases that contribute to global warming are produced majorly by cow farts in factory farms, not to mention the amount of fossil fuels needed to create just one pound of beef.
Yep. You doing the math? Basically if we shifted our compassion towards animals, the domino effect would heal the planet. We’d no longer be cutting down rain forests to create more space for cows to graze, we’d stop depleting the ocean of the necessary (keyword: necessary) food chains that our eco system depends on, diseases including many cancers, heart disease, obesity, and others which find their root in the food/toxins we ingest would slowly disappear as would our taste for violence.
Which brings me to the other book I read this summer that inspired me to reevaluate every aspect of what I’ve been taught through the news and media, especially concerning the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. That book is The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein.
So what are you reading?
I know what you should be listening to,
Aftr reading this I had mixed emotions, because, like I said before, Williams is never one to hold back some hard to swallow thoughts, which is the same reason why I think he is an artist worth writing about (and listening to) more than once.
And when it comes to most music fans, the truth is that many are quick to judge and many artists suffer from speaking their mind, and as a result choose not to for fear of losing their fans because of differing views and opinion beyond the music.
Hey, so what about you there? Have you ever read a letter or a quote from an artist that you enjoyed and then afterwards lost interest in their music because of what they said, or vice versa?