Saul Williams is ready to bomb the system once again, and he’s brought someone new along with him: Martyr Loser King. (And if you're not totally familiar with who Saul Williams is, find out here.)
Mr. LoserKing isn’t real, though. He’s the conceptualized narrator of MartyrLoserKing, Williams’ latest album (scheduled for release later this year). The insanely prolific poet/actor/rapper’s new creation is, in Williams’ own words, a “virtual Banksy,” an enigmatic cyber hacker who’s based in the Eastern African country of Burundi and gradually evolves from an online prankster/rabblerouser to a lightning rod who’s deemed a terrorist by the government. The project’s origins stem from Williams’ newfound awareness of coltan, the metal pulled from Burundi’s mines that’s the base for every little device people grasp in their palms and essentially live through.
Williams has premiered the video for MartyrLoserKing’s first single, “Burundi,” which you can check out above. In conjunction with the provocative clip’s unveiling, TribecaFilm.com sat down with Williams to discuss the song’s inspirations, specifically pertaining to its titular country. True to singular form, Williams had plenty to say—in fact, the conversation splintered off into various unexpected directions, from Tidal to Kanye West and Nikola Tesla.
As you’re about to read here, it was deeply fascinating and, at times, quite alarming.
Burundi and New York City, One and the Same
"I wrote the song ‘Burundi’ to be something that gives spirit and courage to protesters. It was really inspired by the Arab Spring and global unrest I was seeing worldwide while I was living in Paris. I had no idea that the release of the song would be synchronized with actual democratic unrest in Burundi, where their president is trying to change a constitution to serve a third term, where the kids of this generation are out on the streets demanding to be heard and demanding that the constitution be followed, and where the president is trying to align these protesters with terrorists, and, because of that, the police are becoming more and more unruly."
"Sound familiar? It's the same thing we had when [former NYC mayor Michael] Bloomberg got his third term in New York. You think I’m talking specifically about Burundi, but I’m not talking about Burundi. What type of shit is it when the richest man in New York becomes the mayor of New York? How fucking stupid are all of us for letting that happen? And then we talk about gentrification and how so many things are changing, but you let the richest man in New York become the mayor of New York? You let him change the laws in order to have a third term because your fears of 9/11 made you say, ‘Oh, wait, keep him there!’ And then when he got out of office, he changed the law back so no mayor can serve three terms?"
"Did you even realize that happened? That just happened! That’s how fucking apathetic we are. We didn’t even fucking care—we weren’t even in the streets. In Burundi right now, they are. Connecting the dots between the bullshit and the youth who are out in the streets is crucial to waking up a nation and getting them to point their middle fingers in the right direction. Teenage angst is natural, but you need to point those middle fingers in the right direction. Your heroes are so interested in leading you in the wrong directions. People talk about Tidal, Jay Z’s music thing, right? We've become so delusional that we think the answer to capitalism is black capitalism. Really? No, the answer to capitalism isn’t black capitalism. If we’re gonna destroy the system, we have to creatively destroy the system, not just put ourselves in front of the system and say, ‘I have every right to be here, too.’"
"It’s like this line in the new A$AP Rocky song with Kanye West ['Jukebox Joints,' from A$AP Rocky’s new album, At. Long. Last. ASAP.], where Kanye says, ‘They wanna throw me under a white jail, ‘cause I’m a black man with the confidence of a white male.’ Now, what that says to every fucking black male who’s ever had confidence on that planet is, the idea of confidence has to be equated with a white male. What does that say about someone like me? There’s so much self-hate and confusion in that."
Never Heard of Burundi Until Now? You're Martyr Loser King's Prime Target
"I’ve never been to Burundi. My wife is Rwandan, and I guess I learned a lot from her talking about the realities of that Great Lakes region: the Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania. I wanted to tell a story of a hacker, and then we had made the connection that, in fact, the precious metal that distributes power in our smartphones come from Burundi. We all have a little bit of Burundi and the Congo in our hands, because coltan comes from there, and, of course, the stories that come from the coltan mines there and no different than the stories that come from the diamond mines. Those are the stories you don’t want to hear. Do they print those stories in America? Hardly, because it gets a little uncomfortable to know those realities. That’s not what you want to know about Apple or Samsung, right?"
"I decided to center the story in Burundi because the its capital, Bujumbura, is, in the imaginations of many people in Burundi, considered a destination in the same way that we might dream of going to Paris. Like, ‘Someday I’m gonna go to Bujumbura for the drinks, the girls—it’s wild there! They know how to party!’ I chose that place, one, because I know that my wife was conceived there—she was born in Rwanda, her mother’s Rwandan, but she was conceived when her mom was in Burundi. But, two, what I wanted to do was center this story about technology, which we term ‘western technology,’ in its root. We don’t have any of the things that we take for granted without going to these non-western places and claiming them."
"I started having fun with the idea, because I knew that most westerners don’t even know where Burundi is in the first place. I thought of a hacker, or you can say a ‘whistleblower,’ and I have him as a virtual Banksy. He does these kind of cool, interesting, funny political hacks that give him this virtual fame, until, out of his own interests in one thing or another, those hacks get him labeled as a terrorist. There’s such a fine line. You think of Aaron Schwartz—what a fucked-up story. America should be ashamed of what it did to Aaron Schwartz. This is someone who should have been on the cover of TIME and taking pictures with the president. He was a shining example of our bright future, of the geniuses we’ve created, but instead we’re trying to make examples in the most stupid situations."
The Importance of Burundi's Coltan is All on You
"I went to the Kara Walker exhibit in Williamsburg and it was really cool and really enlightening to learn the history of sugar in Haiti, in Puerto Rico and in corporate America. It’s fucking crazy. That’s the main reason why we kept Puerto Rico for ourselves: it was because of sugar. It’s all about sugar. Imagine America without sugar. [Laughs.] The coltan is the sugar of our times, and you also need bodies to get that coltan, so it helps to exploit a class of people or a race or a gender."
"These are all things that are connected to age-old practices that need to be disrupted, which we are on the cusp of. Just the other day, there were women protesting on the streets of Argentina. It sounds like nothing because everything sounds like nothing right now. I can type in ‘Oh my god, the line is so long at this espresso bar’ next to ’80 million people were killed in a bus crash’ and it’s the same font and it all looks the same on your social media. Headlines are no more. The important news is no larger on Twitter or Facebook—it’s all the same size. It’s fucked. But that news in Argentina is crucial. When else were women in the streets in front of the police, like, ‘No more.’"
"The coltan is as crucial as anyone wants to make it. You know about it now, so what are you going to do about it? I’ve known about it for a couple years, and I throw it in there into the music. It’s now in the pot of awareness stew, marinating. I know right now a lot of tech companies are trying to figure out man-made objects that can replace those precious metals and distribute power better and faster, just like we’ve figured out with batteries."
"Look at what's been going on with Elon Musk and Tesla in the last few months, and what that does to Con Edison. You think they’re gonna allow that? They didn’t allow it when Nikola Tesla was alive. He found a way to have light bulbs to last forever; the first light bulbs ever created lasted forever, and Thomas Edison and General Electric was like, ‘Wait, if they last forever then how will we be able to charge people for them? They need to die every couple of months.’ And we just play along and keep buying new light bulbs. We let the real geniuses get buried with nothing while the people we label as ‘geniuses’ are the ones who’ve figured out ways to exploit us. How fucked are we?"