In the opinion of most people, a good actor has the ability to play roles that are completely unrelated to who they are in reality. In the case of Saul Williams, he did just that while injecting many of his personal attributes into the character.
To those unfamiliar with the 1998 film Slam, this may seem confusing. In it, Williams plays a convicted drug dealer whose poetry earns him respect from the other inmates. And though Williams is not a drug dealer, he is a highly acclaimed poet.
The 30-year-old native of Newburg, N.Y. broke on to the New York City poetry scene in March of 1995. His unique style created a buzz, earning him opening spots for hip-hop acts like The Roots, The Fugees and KRS-One. He also was a regular at the famed Lyricist Lounge, a proving ground for many popular emcees, such as The Notorious B.I.G. and Mos Def.
Already known for his poetry, Williams still wanted to pursue his childhood dream of acting. A graduate of Morehouse College, he received a degree from the New York University graduate acting program.
After a reading at the Nuyorican Poetry Café‚ in 1996, Williams was approached by director Marc Levin, who wanted him to star in and co-write Slam. As a small, independent film, Slam did not immediately receive a lot of press.
But in January of 1998, the movie won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. In May of the same year, Slam won both the audience and distributor’s awards for Best Picture at the Cannes Film Festival in France. In October, it was finally released in theaters.
Acting and poetry would be enough work for most people, but Williams wasn’t finished. Heavily influenced by hip-hop as a child, he had a distinct passion for music. He recorded a track for the first Lyricist Lounge compilation album, and also contributed to the Slam soundtrack. His debut album, Amethyst Rock Star, was released in October 2001 to favorable reviews.
Williams has the distinction of being the first spoken word artist on Def Jam Recordings, a pioneering hip-hop label. The hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, Def Jam’s president, recently created Def Poetry Jam, a live audience television show on HBO, hosted by underground favorite Mos Def. It would not be a stretch to say that Williams was the inspiration for the show.
While Slam was the event that put Williams in the public eye, he does not consider acting his primary objective.
“My main focus is writing,” said Williams. “I apply that to everything in my life.”
A father of two, Williams considers being a parent the most important part of his life.
“I learned patience from parenting,” said Williams. “I started writing around the time of the birth of my daughter. My life changed through that.”
For those who haven’t heard his music, Williams describes it as “evolved hip-hop, inclusive of all music beforehand.”
He is currently on the Sno-Core Icicle Ball tour with Nikka Costa, Spearhead, Ozomatli, Blackalicious and Karl Denson.
Aggrey Sam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org