When most of us talked about the Drake versus Meek Mill beef with our friends, we looked at it in generally the same way: Who won? What song was the best? Which memes were the funniest? What will it mean for each of their careers? Are Meek's claims about Drake even true, and if so -- do we care?
But Saul Williams, a veteran poet, actor and musician who's appeared everywhere from "Def Poetry Jam" to "Girlfriends" to Broadway in a 2Pac-inspired musical, approaches it through a different lens. He wonders, What does it mean that so many people rooted for the victor, i.e. Drake, and not "the underdog" (Meek)? And what does that have to do with the current state of art as activism and protest music?
It's this unique view that makes Williams -- whose new book, "US (a.)," will be released on Tuesday (Sept. 15) -- in a league all his own.
Beyond Drake and Meek, when MTV News chatted with the 43-year-old last week, he also offered ideas about tackling your writer's block, merging your art and activism and how to travel without a passport or plane ticket.
MTV: You were specifically commissioned to write this book, "US (a.)," and these poems about America. Were there challenges that you don't usually face when you're writing on your own?
Saul Williams: The challenge is that, on one hand, creatively, I usually produce on my own accord, in my own way. For me, I don't really believe in writer's block or anything like that. If I'm not feeling words, I may pick up an instrument and play with sounds or delve into different types of creativity and expression.
MTV: For someone that may feel like they do encounter writer's block, what's a suggestion that you have to overcome it?
Williams: What I mean by that, is that I think everything has its place. So if the ideas or the fluidity isn't coming in writing, maybe it's related to ingestions -- I think that good writing is based on good reading. Maybe it's not about writing today, maybe it's about reading today. Maybe it's about finding the sort of book you would never read.
I used to have weird practices in crowded used-book stores in New York where I'd go in and just stomp my foot and see what fell from the shelf. And of course, because it's an unexpected encounter, there's always some magic that comes from it.
Other times I'd be like, "OK, instead of beating myself up, I'm gonna watch this French film, or do something that's not mechanical." I'm pointing out that in terms of exploration, as opposed to resorting to comforts, like, "I can't write so I'm going to eat this bucket of ice cream." That's not the same thing as, "I can't write so I'm going to walk down the street and challenge myself to say 'hello' to the first person I see." And, "I'm going to go to a cafe by myself and start a conversation with a person I don't know."
Challenges you give yourself break the mechanical mode of the ways we're used to ourselves. Finding ways to trick the [internal] system.
MTV: What were your impressions of some of the political and cultural issues and movements that were going on here when you came back to live in the States, versus your perception of them while living abroad in Paris from 2009 to 2013?
Williams: Very little that's going on here is only going on here. But American culture is often so self-consumed that we often think that our problems are just our problems. When we talk about the militarization of police, or police targeting disenfranchised groups, that happens in so many countries, even related to racial identity.
What stuck me when I got back was on one hand the excitement of hearing some terms that I was used to from my own, let's say, underground reading choices -- seeing some political terminology take the main stage. It's great to hear people on the main stage talking about privilege.
And then on the other hand, I could encounter people talking about white supremacy and feel like, "Oh my god, it's great that Frantz Fanon's work is becoming popular 70 years after it was written," but on the other hand, I'm like, "F--k! Seventy years have f--kin' passed, and I was talking about this sh-t when I was 13, and I have a 13-year-old kid and I can't believe that this 13-year-old kid has to talk about this sh-t as if it's brand new."
It puts me, and all of us, in a weird position of being glad that the dialogue is being had, but at the same time feeling stupid because it's 2015 and we were supposed to be talking about living on Mars or some sh-t.
MTV: What do you think is the role that art does or can play in social change?
Williams: Art can play a major role. I look at art as an alternative source of energy, the same way we might look at wind or solar or lithium batteries. I think art can really serve to inspire a movement -- and, of course, it has in the past. The Civil Rights movement wouldn't have the same resonance without the songs from everyone from Pete Seeger to Odetta to James Brown. Music has always pushed ahead social movements and can do much more than just dumb down a populace.
I think it's misleading to think that art is only there for escapism, only there for our dreams of being rich and f--king whoever we wanna f--k.
Art itself is underserved when we don't realize the power of it. The role that theater has placed in enhancing consciousness and moving systems ahead. I think of what South African theater meant for the apartheid movement, for example. I think of what music has meant for so many social movements across time.
It's crazy when you see very little reflection between what's played on the radio and what people are talking about in the streets. It lets you know how far off we are from a real movement.
MTV: Some of the artists you were referencing from the Civil Rights movement -- do we have that equivalent now for, say, Black Lives Matter?
Williams: I think we're on the cusp of it. It's not just that. Where's the Occupy music? It's not just about Black Lives Matter. I look at, let's say Meek Mill and Drake, where, suddenly, it's so weird [to me] to see everybody rooting for the winning team. Remember when we used to root for the underdog? There's such a weird entitlement and narcissistic pride that takes shape when you find yourself rooting for the winning team. It says something about the culture itself, I think.
But, yeah, we have people and artists in place that are smart enough to broach on topics in interesting ways. Whether they do it or not is up to them. I've never believed it's really so important that you conform to the ways of the system in order to beat the system. I think that the system follows a great deal.
It's the way in which art has been used to popularize this dumb down that equates entertainment with escapism, that's not crucial to the cause of art or entertainment. Bob Marley's art is entertainment, but it is not dumbing down, and it is not an escape. Same is true for Fela Kuti, same is true for Nina Simone, same is true for Bob Dylan, same is true for Public Enemy. There are so many.
MTV: What do you think has created a shift in what we're getting artistically on a mass scale these days?
Williams: We have [created the shift]. Us. We did it ourselves. We authored the whole sh-t. We danced along. We sing along. We thought it was funny. We did it in pursuit of our own comfort and laughter. Half of the popcorn sh-t that's out there, we know it's popcorn. But we're like, "It's my guilty pleasure." I feel like we have more guilty pleasure than actual f--kin' pleasure.
MTV: So what advice would you have for young people who are trying to merge their art and their activism, or their art and the ways in which they view the world?
Williams: It's the same advice that I have for everyone, which is read. Read. Read. Read. Read. There's so much to be found in literature, especially if you don't have the money to travel or the means to get out of your neighborhood or get off work. You can travel through literature, and you can expand your mind through literature. It's so cheap to buy that kind of ticket.
There's an importance to breaking away from the mold and breaking out of the box. And what that means is not necessarily going to The New York Times bestseller list and reading what everybody else is reading. But sometimes it means reading what nobody else is reading. It means trying to find some sort of trail that leads you to you and encourages your voice beyond the statistical norm.
My main advice for anyone trying to fuse those things is, one, look at the wonderful lineage of the people who did it. Listen to what a Joni Mitchell album sounds like. And, of course, art is activism on many levels, even when it's not talking about the sh-t it needs to talk about. Because it's a form of peace. It's pretty difficult -- we've seen it done on YouTube -- to write a song with a gun in your hand. You're practicing some sort of peace and activism through just being an artist and identifying as an artist.
It's not so much that you need to address issues. If you're just addressing your own emotions and challenging yourself to find some sort of harmonious sense of being in life and questioning authority and questioning what's given and questioning what's expected of you, you're already on the cusp of finding something in yourself, and maybe waking something in somebody else.