Saul Williams’ Experimental Afro-Punk Musical Is Committed To The Spirit Of Freedom

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July 9th 2018

Saul Williams is a tireless multimedia artist, committed to challenging those who come in contact with his music and poetry to develop a critical consciousness around race relations and politics. His most recent endeavor, Neptune Frost, is a graphic novel and musical inspired by conversations with his Rwandan-born wife and creative partner, Anisia Uzeyman (director of Dreamstates.) The project is an ambitious attempt to fuse all of Williams’ artistic interests, reflecting the contemporary way we engage with social and political discussions though technology and parallel timelines. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, has recently joined the campaign to bring the film iteration of Neptune Frost to fruition, offering his support as an executive producer. In tandem with the Kickstarter campaign for the project, Shadow & Act interviewed Williams via email about Neptune Frost and more.

S&A: What is the genesis of this project?

Saul Williams: “MartyrLoserKing” is the screen-name of a hacker living in Burundi, in a story told through the eyes of a coltan miner. That was the basis of the story when I began working on the graphic novel and musical, simultaneously.

S&A: When did you know that you had to shift from trying to acquire studio support to trying to make it come to life on your own?

SW: This time, I wanted to focus on a project that fused and fueled all of my creative interests under one fictional story--which was important to me because of the multitude of political movements, discussions and realities amplified through technological timeline we browse each day--I wanted to find a way to talk about everything at once, without necessarily preaching.

S&A: How does it feel to be in a position to be crowdsourcing this project?

SW: I never considered conventional studio support for this film. The majority of films and filmmakers that I admire make/made independent films. To be clear, I have no problem with being supported as an artist, and when those from more conventional sides of the industry feel like taking a chance, breaking rules or making a statement through allowing and supporting an individual's creative independence, that’s great. I’ve worked with major labels as a recording artist and a major publishing house as an author and have found the wherewithal to remain “an independent artist” regardless of who’s distributing or paying for the mix or print.

I found a home in a first-rate publishing house for the graphic novel, but the delicate and nuanced work I am putting into this film will not come from being thrown early into a clean-engined machine that spits out movies with imposed or formulaic narrative structures. I need to feel free, and I want to make this film with the same sort of freedom as the film that introduced me to the public. Yes, I have access, but, to me, when someone says “Let me see the script,” it’s full of presumptions. The first being that, that’s even the way you work.

I have to honor my creative process which likes its independence to remain multi-tiered and productive. And I have an extraordinary team of artists working and collaborating with me as friends in the process. I’ve actually had no problem finding producers to jump on board. Stephen Hendel, producer of Fela! the musical offered his support which allowed us to shoot the teaser in Rwanda. I shot the teaser because I planned to crowdfund along with securing private money. It’s one of the unique things we are able to do with proficiency as a result of modern technology, and my film is about that connection.

S&A: What is your definition of Afro-punk and Afrofuturism respectively, and what's the relationship between the two, in your opinion? How does this project fit into that universe?

SW: Afropunk is the sound and attitude of black poetic provocation - which is a lewk. Afrofuturism is an Americanized expression of the ancestral alien pipeline. Neptune Frost may never escape these descriptions, but really those are simply terms that signify black dope and futuristic, sometimes, yet not always, informed by the African diaspora--but not simply of people, of ideas and music, too.

An illustration of a middle finger being held by a man's hand. A promo poster for the Saul Williams character "MartyrLoserKing." MartyrLoserKing Poster Art by Ronald Wimberly

S&A: What is the social commentary you’re looking to make with Neptune Frost?

SW: In terms of social commentary, I chose to tell the story of a coltan miner and an intersex Ugandan runaway meeting and forming a hacking collective for all the obvious reasons. The backgrounds of each character allowed me to contemplate real issues in real time.

S&A: “Hack into capitalism…” Could you expound upon this idea? Hacking implies making use of an old system in new ways. How much of that emphasizes the old—capitalism— vs. establishing something completely new?

SW: The poem “Coltan as Cotton” is one of the earliest insights I had into the story. It helped me encapsulate the worlds I wanted to connect in this story, worlds that are already connected. “Hack into capitalism” is about sourcing the connection between the market economy and the precious resources, wars, subjugation of people and territories, the accumulation and disparities in wealth, penal codes, etc. all in direct relation to the irony of coltan described as a precious stone that “distributes power” through small circuit boards (as I type these answers on my phone) “coltan” is already so much a part of the story. If you’ve never heard of it until now, ask yourself why? I circle these issues through the story and characters and the music.

S&A: What inspired you to place this story in Rwanda, and, what was it like working there? Are you working with trained actors or non-actors?

SW: A good deal of my inspiration was siphoned through conversations with my wife and creative partner, Anisia Uzeyman. Anisia is a Rwandan-born director and actress. Learning her story informed my understanding and furthered my pondering of the connection between recent history, ancient history and modern times, along with many other themes and ideas that make their way into the story.

Filming there became a possibility as political tensions rose in its neighboring country, Burundi, where the fiction takes place. We spent two and a half months scouting, casting and putting together our crew before shooting the teaser. On one of the first scouting trips, we stayed at a hotel owned by a woman who, after being widowed by the genocide, discovered coltan in her and her late husband’s backyard.

Encounters like this, particularly with the talent and creatives, gave us the sense of being in the right place. There are a high number of recent Burundian refugees in the country, so our cast and crew actually reflect that. The film is not yet cast in its entirety, but the cast, so far, are trained actors, musicians, performers and poets -- all actual artists, some well known in Kigali, Bujumbura and beyond, some of the brightest young talent coming out of Rwanda and Burundi today.

S&A: Why a musical to tell this story as opposed to a straight narrative? What about this story lends itself to the musical form?

SW: I always considered the graphic novel as the most straight-ahead narrative approach. I had songs before I had a story outline, so it was always a musical. Musical theater is really one of my first loves. I made attempts at writing hip-hop musicals as a teenager; I was inspired by the rock musicals of the seventies, along with the indie breakdance and punkish films of the eighties. I saw the apartheid-era South African musical Sarafina when it was on Broadway seven times. Its blend of politics, music and the real-time danger each actor faced as a result of being in that play only enhanced my appreciation of music, politics and theater combined in ways that actualize Fela Kuti’s notion of music as a weapon of the future. Yet, musicals are not required to have the conventional Broadway sound or the typical over-the-top approach. Neptune Frost is a musical unlike any other you’ve experienced. You only have to listen to the first MartyrLoserKing album to confirm that.

S&A: How do you know the difference between when something needs to happen because it’s bigger than you and wants to come through you, and when you are trying to force something through into creation?

SW: I’m not certain that we always know this difference or whether it is easily deciphered. I questioned whether I had any right or need to be making music AFTER being signed by Rick Rubin, while others might imagine that this question could only occur before that signing. Deciding to go public with the campaign is certainly a way of taking the people’s temperature, but is also a means of sharing the process, being transparent, storing memory in the public cloud.

Like the poor person's copyright, when you write a manuscript and want to document it as something coming from your hand, you’re supposed to put it in an envelope and snail-mail it to yourself. When it arrives, don’t open it. As long as it’s unopened, it’s been stamped as having been delivered a particular date and time. My campaign is about that stamp. I want everyone to touch the canvas before I paint it. I want the people I’m working with to feel your support from all over. I want you to feel yourself in the magic and to know you played a part in bringing this vision to life.

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