No one has projected the ideal of the spoken-word poet into the public imagination like Saul Williams has. A Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam Champion, he made the form a worldwide household name as the cowriter and star of Slam in 1998. Sixteen years later, he starred in the short-lived but groundbreaking show Holler If Ya Hear Me, which Rolling Stone noted as “the first hip-hop jukebox musical in Broadway history.” Throughout it all, he built a recording career blending cipher rhymes, rock fury, and social-justice themes into an unshakable style that crosses freely between the worlds of KRS-One, Nine Inch Nails, and Swiss composer Thomas Kessler, who recast a Williams album for The Arditti String Quartet.
Lately, Williams has been spinning a multimedia opus called MartyrLoserKing around a character named Neptune Frost, who last appeared in an eponymous film—a sci-fi musical about an intersex runaway and a coltan miner in Rwanda, and “the virtual marvel born as a result of their union”—which screened at Cannes in 2021. The second in a trilogy of albums related to the project, Encrypted & Vulnerable, was released the year before. It’s at once a vibrant yarn and a sharp critique of Western exploitation of Africa, whether digital or mineral. Williams draws incisive parallels with stories like that of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who died of cancer at Johns Hopkins in 1951. Her cells were immortalized by researchers for study after her death, without her knowledge.
The Chicago Reader has called Williams “a one-man multimedia juggernaut.” But on Encrypted & Vulnerable, which features a terrific mix of contributors—Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Dave Sitek, and My Brightest Diamond among them—he didn’t have to do it alone. He’ll also have an ensemble in tow to perform music from the record at Big Ears.