Infecting Nike, Intiating Obama: An Interview With Saul Williams

Saul Williams is an artist whose tentacles that reach into every sphere of entertainment. He’s a spoken-word wonder, an actor, a musician, an entertainment visionary and, most recently an accidental pitchman for Nike. It’s a curious move: Williams’ tune “List of Demands” is an anti-poverty anthem that blasts hyperconsumption and the human wreckage it leaves behind. Yet there it was, in a Nike commercial featuring the best and brightest athletes in pro sports.

Talk about your cognitive dissonance.

But Williams is turning the tables on the deal, arguing that it is Nike whose rep has been “infected,” not his own. It’s a questionable argument, but one hard to combat, given Williams’ activism and creative output over the last decade. From films like Slam and K-Pax to solo albums like his most recent, the Trent Reznor-produced The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, he has straddled the bleeding edge of change in the entertainment industry. He even gave Niggy Tardust away for free online, a bold maneuver that has gained traction in a cratering music biz brought low by the RIAA and the overt waste of the CD age. Which is to say, Nike may own sports entertainment, but it does not own him. Does it?

I asked Williams about that compromise, free downloads and America’s bright future at the hands of a hopeful Obama. He was slippery, but poetic. As always.

You’re out front of the download future with Niggy Tardust and Reznor. How did the free giveaway idea arise, and what has the response been like?

Well, to be fair, Trent, had mentioned trying to find a way to give the album away for free from the start. After finishing the album we it seemed clear that an alternative route of distribution would make the most sense and the climate seemed perfect.

What are your thoughts on the changes the industry has made, and what else needs to be done?

I don’t think the answer is always giving stuff away for free, but I do think that we need to find creative ways of acknowledging the option. I’m very excited about the resurgence of vinyl which seems to parallel a growing interest in live performance. The downfall of the industry seems to actually be good for art. I think the industry will find their way once the focus shifts from its greed-based origins, downsizes, and begins to support creative visions that speak to our times and shifting ideals.

Niggy Tardust is sweet satire, but it’s also artistry. How do you merge your poetic and musical sides

Well, the aspect of my work that resonates as poetry or poetic is something that others have said about who I am and what I do. I see it as a compliment that basically says my choice of words work well together, like a nice outfit. I have an acquired taste for language, yet it is seldom an actual focus of mine. It just is, even as it develops through my growth and exposure.

My goal with this album was simply to provide a clear representation of where I am now, in life, vision, and aesthetic. By placing a concept/character in the mix, I simply wished to heighten the story by depersonalizing it. So I guess that is how I merged my poetic vision with the music.

Talk about the Nike deal. Do you think working with a company with a questionable labor history skews strange with “List of Demands,” which I read as a commentary on poverty and oppression?

I think it guarantees that the people in power in that corporation are listening close to what I’m saying and what their kids are dancing to. I think it makes them question their ethics as much as fans or reporters question mine. It also exposes a whole new world of people to my music, my thoughts, my world view which will perhaps enlist more casual listeners into questioning authority, realizing their power, and all of the things that my music demands.

At the end of the day, I think its a dangerous decision for Nike to popularize a song like “List of Demands.” My belief in the power of music tells me that it could possibly work against them. So I applaud their courageousness. My intention remains for these songs to be heard by as many as possible. They are the virus that I wish to spread. I’ve infected Nike and all within their reach with a song that raises awareness as well as fists. It is indeed written in the voice of the impoverished and oppressed, which includes the factory worker. They know its their song when they hear it. The last thing it does is make someone want to go buy sneakers, but it may encourage someone to hit their boss over the head with a tennis racket. So be it.

Are you stoked on Obama? Crazy fucks like Bush and Cheney seem like they’d want to go out with a bang. Are you worried about that bang?

It’s important not to waste energy on worry and fear. I am hoping for peaceful transition into a new age. Obama has already played a great role in initiating us into that vision. If he were to be harmed in any way, it would spawn the birth of a million Obamas.