[Thoughts on Saul Williams, Martyr Loser King, hacking & scavenger culture]
Saul Williams appears in a black bird’s mask and black jacket, crouching down on stage in a kind of bow, before stepping up to the mic. He’s alone on stage, without a backing band or DJ, musical support coming via the sound booth from collaborator Thavius Beck. His vulnerability becomes all the more real when, just a few minutes in, he trips over one of the monitors and falls head first into the crowd. The tumble only slows him down for a few seconds though. He keeps singing from the floor, rising victoriously a few moments later. A couple of tracks in and he’s back in the middle of the floor, mic raised towards the ceiling, surrounded by bouncing fans.
Visuals flashing across a screen are transmitting signals just as important as his lyrics: they convey some of the reference points for his new album Martyr Loser King. Figures from across the African-American artistic pantheon – Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Octavia Butler – appear and disappear like spectres or deities, bearing messages, cryptic clues.
The album was born out of the constantly fluctuating memes of social media, but also from field recordings he made during a trip to Central Africa – a region whose polyrhythms he sees as precursors to digital drum programming. In a podcast for NPR radio, Williams stated that part of his creative process was to “take all the stuff I’m thinking about, all the stuff that’s in the news, all the stuff that people share on social media, all the interesting finds and kinda dump it in my drum machine and create a thinly-veiled fiction where I can talk about all the stuff that is of interest to me”.
The album – which charts the adventures of a hacker living in Burundi, and the stunts he is able to pull before being targeted by the authorities – is also based on scenarios he encountered on his journeys in that region of the world. As he mentions in the NPR broadcast, Africa has one of the world’s youngest populations, one which is increasingly connected to the internet. While in the West, Africa’s role as a node in the information economy tends to be dismissed, it is actually central to it in many ways.
For a start, Central Africa, and Congo in particular, is where the majority of the world’s coltan – used in the production of capacitors in electronic devices, especially mobile phones – is mined. Secondly, much of the rest of the world’s E-waste (old phones, monitors, motherboards etc) is dumped in Africa. In fact the world’s largest e-waste site is in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. In his travels, Williams came across instances of ‘scavenger culture’ where people use these discarded objects, and rework them in ingenious ways (by building a 3-D printer, for instance). Africa then, can be seen as a central nexus of information and technology, and of a shape-shifting hacker culture.
So the album is in part an exploration, in sonic/science fiction form, of the material origins of online culture, a reimagining of what the world might look like according to those whose lives are built around the off-casts of the richer world’s decadence. It’s also an exploration of what the powers of those people might be. But he uses the idea of ‘hacking’ in a broader sense than rupturing information systems. For Williams, hacking becomes a tool for deconstructing and subverting words, symbols, images, media narratives and systems of thought, especially those surrounding race, gender, class or immigration status. As he puts it:
hack into comfort and compliance / hack into the rebellious gene / hack into doctrine, capitalism and the relation of free labour and slavery / hack into desperation and loneliness, the history of community and the marketplace
We can all become hackers then. Using our own codes, building our own worlds, manipulating the images and messages that are broadcast at us, and turning them to our own ends.