With 'MartyrLoserKing,' Saul Williams Aimed To Make A Modern-Day Parable The writer, poet, activist and musician joins Rachel Martin to discuss his latest album, the story of a hacker living in resource-rich Central Africa.

With 'MartyrLoserKing,' Saul Williams Aimed To Make A Modern-Day Parable

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Saul Williams is a man with a message. And he will use any medium available to share that message. As a writer and poet, he's published five books, including "The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings Of Hip-Hop." As an actor, he's appeared in film, TV, and recently starred in "Holler If Ya Hear Me," a Broadway musical featuring the music of Tupac Shakur. He's recently released his fifth album. It is called "MartyrLoserKing."


SAUL WILLIAMS: (Singing) How can I describe it? It's a feeling that no one will talk about, but...

MARTIN: Through all his work is a common thread of social activism. In this most recent release, Williams' lyrics speak of social injustice and inequality on a global scale. Saul Williams joins me now from our studios at NPR West. Welcome to the show.

WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Let me just start off by asking you the semi-obvious question. But "MartyrLoserKing," there's some kind of M. L. K. reference in there. Can you unpack that title for me?

WILLIAMS: Sure. In my project, MartyrLoserKing is the screen name of a hacker living in Burundi who becomes sort of a virtual phenomenon - kind of like a virtual Banksy until he is labeled as a terrorist and lives up to his name. Of course, the idea for the title came about when I was living in Paris and hearing Francophone people mispronounce Martin Luther King. And so one time in conversation, someone said, (with accent) oh, I was thinking about (with accent) Martyr loser King.


WILLIAMS: Wait a second (laughter). What did you - you know, I went home and reflected on that. That's brilliant.


WILLIAMS: The ideas that come from mispronunciation, you know.

MARTIN: Yeah. So let's dig into this character a little bit. A hacker...


MARTIN: Living in, you know, a complicated digital age.


MARTIN: Before we dig into his story, let's listen to a little bit of "Burundi," which is the soundtrack of this story.


WILLIAMS AND KOKAL: (Singing) Stolen property. Hacker, I'm a hacker. I'm a hacker in your hard drive, hundred thousand dollar Tesla ripping through your hard drive. Oh, Jesus, pull the cord, seat belt, what you standing for. Buckle up, let's knuckle up and tell Mohammed bring his sword. Whoosh, I'm a candle. I'm a candle.

MARTIN: There's some darkness in there. That's an ominous sound.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: What's going on? Tell me about this guy.

WILLIAMS: Well, what's interesting, that area in Central Africa, a Great Lakes region, the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, is an area where 80 percent of the world's coltan comes from. And coltan is a precious mineral that's in all of our smartphones and laptops. And 80 percent of it comes from the Central African region, which through resources is probably one of the richest areas on the planet. But through exploitation, through imperialism, through capitalism dating back to colonialism, it's, you know, one of the places of greatest injustice and what have you. I chose Burundi primarily because it's - until recently now, in the news - it would be the one place in that region where people haven't necessarily heard of.

MARTIN: So that in and of itself could be, like, this - a huge story. But this is just the leaping-off point for this character. So what is he running from?

WILLIAMS: Well, the first - he's running from exploitation. And what - really, it's about what he's running to. You know, he's running to a world that is run by technology and where the whistleblowers are being martyred.

MARTIN: Let's play another song off the album. This is called "Think Like They Book Say." And we'll talk about it on the other side.



WILLIAMS: (Singing) Met this girl on Friday night. (Unintelligible). Karaoke. Purple, sat in front in tights. That's what I was wearing. She was wearing red and purple like white smoke...

MARTIN: In a parable, there is some kind of - usually - redemption or forgiveness, some kind of conclusion. So without giving too many spoilers for someone who wants to kind of absorb the entire experience of the parable - but what is the closure here? Is there closure?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, one thing we haven't talked about is the fact that I'm working with First Second Books on the graphic novel of "MartyrLoserKing." And I started that at the same time I started the album. And whereas the music kind of just speaks around what's happening in the story, if you want to know what happens in the parable, you'll have to get the graphic novel when it comes out a year from now.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Oh, aren't you the good marketing guy?

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Poet and businessman.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter) Well...

MARTIN: That's what it takes these days, I suppose.

WILLIAMS: It's always taken that. I mean, let's not forget that Rimbaud quit writing poetry and ran - you know, ran to the same region and started selling guns... Poet and businessman (laughter).

MARTIN: (Laughter) So we can talk again because there's much more to talk about.

WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. We'll be talking about "MartyrLoserKing" for quite some time.

MARTIN: Saul Williams spoke to us from our studios at NPR West. His new album is called "MartyrLoserKing." Thanks so much for talking with us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) Red stain on the concrete, disdain for the bare feet. Work, work my kitango. No perk for the bongo.

MARTIN: That's music by Saul Williams. Our theme music was composed by BJ Leiderman. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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