Black Stacey: Saul Williams

Black Stacey: Saul Williams


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



except for the older men still trying to hit on the younger women, most of my peers are uncomfortable around young people. whereas, i tend to be uncomfortable around many of my nostalgia-loving, over-50 peers, a significant number of whom are former rebels now turned responsible citizens.



Books by Kalamu ya Salaam


The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement  /   360: A Revolution of Black Poets

Everywhere Is Someplace Else: A Literary Anthology  /  From A Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets

Our Music Is No Accident   /  What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self

My Story My Song (CD)


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Black Stacey: Saul Williams

my generational son, the punk-hop poet/musician

By Kalamu ya Salaam


new orleans, 22 nov. 2004. when he got in my car, i told him i was proud of him, “very proud, really.”

it hardly seemed over a decade ago when we sat on the carpeted floor together in a barely furnished apartment in atlanta. he was at morehouse. my daughter kiini was at spelman. and their small group of friends, the red clay collective, was groping forward toward a glorious future, or more accurately groping toward a gloriously-hoped-for future. they were poets and writers, photographers and dancers, some were into the hard sciences, not saul williams, he was a philosophy major.

they published a journal and i contributed writing and advice. after graduation when a hard core of them, kiini included, moved to new york, saul would go to graduate school at nyu in acting. kiini traveled for a year and then did a masters in publishing at pace university.

i would visit them in new york, not often but whenever i visited it was good to get together with them. their energy was energizing to me; always left me with more to contemplate, inspired to do more. at one program they asked me to read poetry in a feature spot—kiini cried that night, so happy, so proud.

in later years, as saul’s star rose, he and i would sometimes share platforms and panels—once in boston i stood with him as old heads attacked what they perceived as the irrelevance of these black youth for whom blackness was neither a badge of honor nor courage; indeed, from the youth perspective, their blackness was, in fact, not a badge of any kind.

many of us, the black power generation of parents, never dreamed of children who were not focused on the color, culture, and consciousness of their/our blackness.

now, in 2004, our future has arrived but the reality of our social landscape is no dream zone; bitterness sours our intergenerational relationships. it’s complex. it’s blatant. it’s infuriating. it’s tough being black in the 21st century if you were born before the sixties. and it’s even tougher relating to today’s young people, particularly those born in the eighties or later.

we old heads figured that if richard pryor could publicly give up the word nigger, well nobody had an excuse to keep slinging that epithet. but little did we know that eddie murphy, crouch-grabbing, cursing and generally acting like a, well, like a niggah, was only the beginning. murphy was cool compared to martin, and def comedy jam, and gangsta rap, and shit, what the fuck is going on? these young negroes really are crazy!

i once asked a group of young people what they thought was the biggest problem with “today’s youth.” one perceptive young man fired back without a moment of hesitation: “today’s adults.”

and i knew precisely what he meant. there is not only a disconnect, there is also deep disappointment. young and old look at each other and are thoroughly uncomfortable with what the other has become. are these our children/are these my parents? what happened to them?

except for the older men still trying to hit on the younger women, most of my peers are uncomfortable around young people. whereas, i tend to be uncomfortable around many of my nostalgia-loving, over-50 peers, a significant number of whom are former rebels now turned responsible citizens.

as saul and i sat in café nicaud, he drinking a latte and eating a portabella mushroom and avocado sandwich with a fruit salad cup on the side, me chugging down nantucket lemonade, our conversation unfolded at a leisurely pace.

i asked him what he was up to.

he was in town for a gig at the house of blues with his band.

same band as amethyst (which was a rock group he led for his first album)?

no. this was stripped down, a quartet. he was now into “punk-hop,” kind of a mixture of punk and hip hop. violin, turntables & bass, i believe he said drums, and i know saul said he was doing guitar.

i didn’t know he played guitar.

he didn’t really play. he kind of just played what he wanted to play.

ok, i thought, i’m sure that’s an interesting aggregation.

we talked on about his daughter saturn, his son (i forget his name). i had met saturn in new york, but never met his son. they have different mothers. saul is a twice-time, proud father/single parent—he had been the primary care-giver for his daughter for two years while marcia returned to college for a masters.

i asked saul about acting. he said he really wanted to continue acting, if he could get good parts. he was signed on for a handful of films he looked forward to but none of them had yet been “greenlighted.” actors actually spend more time waiting for other people to get their act together than they do actually acting.

saul’s music career was not so interesting to me because i’m not into the type of music he’s making. saul views it as a role he’s developing for himself, a role that gives him a platform, partially because, as saul explained, actors don’t have a public platform. even when they get a hit movie, as he had with slam, they don’t get to interact with their audiences and say whatever they want to tell folk.

i was more interested in his writing career. saul told me about his next book, which he is committed to delivering to his publisher (mtv, yeah, mtv is publishing books) in late may 2005. i won’t give away the subject matter, except to say it is a mix of fiction and autobiography (parts of the book are literal transcriptions from saul’s journaling). as saul described the structure of his book, a point snapped into focus.

then saul got a cell call from frosty, his tour manager, he had to get back to check out early because they were going to get on the road right after the show rather than leave in the morning as originally planned. but before we left, saul urged me to finish making the point about the differences going down.

our relationship to race was radically different. he with his dark skin and nappy-headed fro—you know, not neatly trimmed like a superfly, more like the raggedness of a runaway whose head knows neither comb nor scissors. i, with my dark skin (although a shade or two lighter than saul), and my grey beard and uncut-but-not-uncombed afro, we could easily have passed for father and son, except we were talking amicably, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company.

i explained that in the seventies there was a major clash between the black power folk and the integrationists. we believed in nationtime and worked hard at creating alternatives: political organizations, schools, musical groups that didn’t include whites, hell, some of our venues didn’t even allow whites in the audience. and also at the same time we were doing that, there was a major push to counter our every move with mainstream supported, integrationist organizations. thus, at the height of the black arts theatre movement, rockerfeller and/or ford funded, in a major way, the “negro” ensemble company. how much clearer could they make it that there was a battle going on for the hearts and minds of black folk? moreover, the mainstream did not intend to concede one iota, indeed, they intended to win. and win they did.

i pointed out to saul that i recently read that the venerable dance theatre of harlem was defunct, kaput, finished, stick-a-fork-in-them; they started up in harlem teaching ballet at a time when blacks in modern dance were doing eleo pomare or else following chuck davis into institutionalizing african dance among african americans. and it was but a short pirouette from n.e.c. and d.t.h. to the modern day golddust twins, colin & condi. as i pointed out to saul, the twins had been groomed to do the jobs they were doing and they were good at it.

we have a whole generation of black folk who are deep into americanism, which reductively means into western values: fundamental christianity, winner-take-all democracy and global capitalism. but that was a choice and that was their right to choose to do so, even as i felt it my responsibility to chart a separate course. a course which includes a complex relationship to whites in general.

i recalled attending the sixth pan african conference in tanzania and meeting liberation leaders and seeing their european spouses. we had thought the struggle was for black freedom. both saul and i laughed as he said, yeah, it meant to be free to marry europeans.

part of me understood. during the civil rights era, the union of interracial couples was a very specific, and often very brave, political statement, a statement that could not be easily dismissed (even though many of us were often casually contemptuous of such relationships). and, as i told saul, today i co-direct a writing program in the orleans public schools. my fellow co-director and founder of the program is jim randels, a twenty-year-veteran public school teacher and union organizer. we work at black high schools. some of the kids call jim “jesus” because of his appearance: beard, long hair and white skin: the irony, of course, is that jim does not really look like jesus looked, only like the picture that europe has enshrined of how racists wanted jesus to look. many of the older teachers hate jim, for them he represents white supremacy still asserting itself in what they perceived is the guise of benevolence. yet, their politics is the flip story.

on the one hand, white-skinned jim is opposed to the status quo. on the other hand dark-skinned colleagues want to force our students to conform to the american way. i know where i stand on that issue, but i also know that race camouflages the major class, cultural, and identify contradictions. this is a hard issue to deal with because of the emotional buttons that integration continues to push, less so with the youth, more so with the adults.

saul grunts and relates experiences in brazil where folk were asking him what did it feel like to be fire-hosed, and he had to explain that it was his parents’ generation who were fire-hosed, not him. but the brazilians with their history-lives tradition, found it hard to understand saul saying he and his parents were fundamentally different.

likewise, we, the parents of the saul williams-es of the world, wanted our children to be free of the burden of racism, but at the same time we tacitly expected them to wave the flag of racial solidarity—an action our children rightly perceive as equally burdensome. but there was more.

i got around to one of the harder aspects of our relationships while driving saul back to the hotel, which once had been a major department store and was now remolded as a luxury french quarter location. tourism is how new orleans’ makes its money. saul had wondered aloud about the young kids tap dancing on the sidewalk, hustling chump change, their bare torsos shinning, their air jordan sneakers with bottle caps embedded in the soles as surrogate taps. what could one say: don’t dance for your supper? in one way or another, don’t we all dance to the system’s piper in order to receive money?

“i believe we males are divided by the absent father syndrome.” saul quietly listened. it’s the dominant social reality of black family life. we older men are not there. and i wasn’t saying it as some lofty abstraction—i am in my second marriage. although i have a good relationship with my offspring, there was a time when i was not there.

far too many of our young men wouldn’t recognize their fathers if they were confronted at gunpoint. this male alienation, youth from elder, also too often unavoidably leads to a psychosis of self-hatred as young men father children but are estranged from the mothers of those children, except that the manifestation of the self-hatred is actualized in a visceral hatred by the single-father young black man for the absent-father older black man.

as we pulled up to the hotel, saul tentatively asked if i had time to attend his show, he would put my name at the door, although he knew i was really busy and probably didn’t have . . . i told him i would try to make it. we both knew a 10:30pm, punk-hop show wasn’t my particular cup of herbal peppermint tea.

i had forgotten that saul was coming to town, so i was pleasantly surprised when he had called me before noon the morning of the show. it was a touching act of filial respect. he didn’t have to reach out. i immediately suggested we go out for coffee, tea, or whatever. he agreed. now he was inviting me to go out. would i agree?

finding agreement is the question confronting our respective generations: can we agree to support each other, agree to participate in each other’s lives, even as we recognize that although we are both black, we are actually born of two different worlds, actually see each other and our respective futures in two different and sometimes contentious ways?

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embracing black stacey

new orleans, 22 nov. 2004. when he came off the stage, even though i was standing near the steps, he didn’t see me. they had done a high energy set for over an hour, i knew the spaced-out look that was in his eyes.

at such moments you don’t really be seeing what is physically before you. you are seeing everything you remember from those past moments of using the power of performance to hurl yourself into the way-out-a-sphere, you are still immersed in that floating feeling, remembering your imagination boosted by the adrenalin of art creation. as he turned to head to the green room, i caught up to him quickly and shouted out a greeting. he turned. recognized. and embraced me like a lover, full body press. we were lovers and my presence made clear, in a way that no words or nothing else could: i care. i love. you. brother. son. man.

i’m glad you came.

i’m glad i came.

and we smiled at each other saying nothing for a couple of seconds. just smiling.

i was glad i got a chance to see the set. the punk element was really strong, as was the spoken word. saul is really figuring a way to mix it up. there were a number of moments i really, really liked although approximately 25% of the time the music, the beats, were so loud the words were indecipherable. but when you could hear, saul gave you an earful.

one headbanger had the hook: where my niggaz at? and the answer was incarcerated, in the military (“some benefits and a gun”). then there was a song called african student movement, during which saul cajoled us: instead of fighting for them, why not fight for health care, education . . .  you get the point. but it was not all protest and hard beats, there was a tender moment—which is oxymoronic to talk about tenderness and punk-hop in the same breath, but tender is what it was.

saul started off making a point of what he saw as a difference between emcees and poets, the image of being hard and the reality of being human. he spoke out against “motherfuckers” whom he defined as anyone/everyone that denigrated and disrespected the feminine. saul challenged us to have the heart to acknowledge our human hearts. beautiful.

i watched the audience of approximately 120 people on a monday night in the “parish,” which is the new orleans house of blues’ small upstairs venue. the three-fifths filled room was approximately 75% white and 99.9 percent young. yours truly was the .1 percent that was old. at one point when saul was talking between numbers, someone asked for more beats and less talk. saul talked on. another time someone was on a cell phone, no, they were taking a picture…

another interesting note is that there was a hard core of saul-heads down front. on more than a few occasions, as saul recited a number they knew, the followers would loudly declaim the hook lines in unison with saul. it was undeniable: saul had found a way to penetrate into the consciousness of a core of folk in new orleans without the aid of radio and television, which was in fact one of saul’s objectives. earlier when he told me that going commercial was a way to reach folk, i nodded but retained reservations—how many times had i heard musicians say when i get famous i’m going to really come out with some stuff. my experience and analysis suggests that if you ain’t doing it when you’re unknown, you would not be likely to do it when you had fame and fortune at stake. but saul is not weighted down with my perspective.

for me, punk-hop is far, far removed from anything commercial, but saul has a recording deal, has a video about to be aired on mtv, has a book publishing deal, is making movies. so, the reality is: he’s commercial. and the reality also is he’s saying something and reaching people. more power to him. still, this is not my kind of scene, not the kind of venue i desire nor the type of music i enjoy.

but, even so, i realize, not only should i tolerate it, i should also embrace it and learn from what saul is doing. why? simply because when i was him, i too was striking out in startling new directions, directions that my parents would not have explored. he was black like i had been, i was then and am now no blacker than he.

for my money (i had a complimentary admission, but if i had paid to get in, for my money . . . ) the best number was black stacey, an autobiographical number about growing up the son of haitian parents, his father a minister, and he dark-skinned and skinny. he talked about some of his more self-depreciating moments, and then hollered out the chorus: blaccckkkk stacey (which is his middle name).

he left nothing on the stage. was holding back nothing. gave it his all. the veins on the side of his neck buldging. his eyes bugging. throwing himself spastically into some of the more hyper-energetic numbers.

once again i was proud of what he was doing, even though it was clear he couldn’t play guitar (thankfully he only stabbed out chords on one number, wisely relying mostly on his mouth chops rather than his non-existant guitar chops—yet, wait a minute, this is punk, and it doesn’t matter that you are still learning some of the basics of your craft.

even though we had been standing at the foot of the stage steps less than five seconds, a bunch of stuff ran through my head in the brief interval. the crowd was hollering wildly, they wanted more.

saul leaned into me. “you know that piano poem?”

he was talking about my cecil taylor homage, “let me ‘splain it to ya.” i had to tell him no, i didn’t know it by heart. he asked me, you sure you don’t know it. i knew where this was going. he wanted to call me up to do a number with him for the encore. i declined. i told him, no, i didn’t remember it.

earlier while he was performing, there had been a couple of mili-moments when i thought about what i would do if i was on the stage, but no, this was saul’s night, this was his time, not mine. i didn’t need to be out there, especially since performing in this kind of venue was not something i wanted to do.

saul jumped back on the stage with his band. acknowledged me on mic and then they did two numbers. since i was now standing backstage, behind the bank of speakers, it was even more difficult to hear the words, but i watched the drummer. he was pounding full force, but while knocking out the hard rock rhythm, he was also mouthing the lyrics, clearly enjoying playing as much as the raucous crowd enjoyed receiving the music. it was a moment of oneness.

afterwards, saul asked, you want to come back, i said, no. i was headed home to get some sleep. i didn’t need to hang out with the band and the other young people who would invariably be there surrounding saul, one of the major voices of their generation. this was their time to step forward, and, in that specific context, my time to offer background support.

i didn’t need to hang out. it was sufficient that i had come and seen him perform, and had been there to embrace him when he came off the stage.

Source: WordUp

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Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

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Guarding the Flame of Life

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Men We Love, Men We HateSAC writings from Douglass, McDonogh 35, and McMain high schools in New Orleans.

An anthology on the topic of men and relationships with men

Ways of LaughingAn Anthology of Young Black VoicesPhotographed & Edited by Kalamu ya Salaam

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New Orleans Jazz Funeral for tuba player Kerwin James / They danced atop his casket Jaran ‘Julio’ Green

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02_My_Story,_My_Song.mp3 (24503 KB)

(Kalamu reading “My Story, My Song”

Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

Track List 1.  Congo Square (9:01) 2.  My Story, My Song (20:50) 3.  Danny Banjo (4:32) 4.  Miles Davis (10:26) 5.  Hard News For Hip Harry (5:03) 6.  Unfinished Blues (4:13) 7.  Rainbows Come After The Rain (2:21)/Negroidal Noise (15:53) 8.  Intro (3:59) 9.  The Whole History (3:14) 10.  Negroidal Noise (5:39) 11.  Waving At Ra (1:40) 12.  Landing (1:21) 13.  Good Luck (:04)

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  /  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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posted 24 October 2010 




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