Saul Williams: Tupac ‘Had an Innate Understanding of the Blues’

The poet talked to The Root about how performing the rapper’s lyrics in Broadway’s Holler if You Hear Me has shaped his relationship with the artist’s music.

Saul Williams  Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

When Saul Williams first heard about Holler if Ya Hear Me, the Broadway musical inspired by the lyrics of rapper Tupac Shakur, he wanted no part of it. He says he was as skeptical as many fans were.

Even though director Kenny Leon had garnered critical acclaim for reviving the works of great playwrights like Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) and August Wilson (Fences), Shakur was something altogether different. The most obvious difference was that his music was made for the streets, none of them resembling Broadway. Then there was the question of whether or not a Tupac musical would be about the artist himself. Williams had no reason to believe that New York City’s version of Hollywood wouldn’t tarnish the rapper’s work.

But as Williams discovered after receiving the material, Leon had other plans.

It cannot be said enough times—Holler if Ya Hear Me is not about Tupac Shakur. Williams plays John, a young man just released from prison who returns to his old neighborhood only to discover how little things have changed. Shakur’s voice is present throughout, however, as his music propels the play’s story. Williams, who’s known largely as a slam poet, was a perfect choice for the role; few people possess the verbal dexterity to perform Shakur’s verbose rhyme structure.

Williams explained to The Root why he decided to take the role and how it has shaped his relationship with Shakur’s music.

The Root: In the 1998 movie Slam, you played a slam poet named Ray Joshua. In this musical, you’re playing John, a man who writes poetry while performing the work of a man many people consider a poet. You’ve also appeared on Def Poetry Jam. Is this pattern intentional on your part or are you being typecast?

Saul Williams: It’s funny because after I did Slam, I had every intention to be an actor. I went to school [Williams has a Master of Fine Arts in acting from New York University] with plans to be the next Denzel Washington. That was the plan. But even before Slam, I discovered poetry and it allowed me to develop my own characters, which made me not care as much for the acting world.

TR: Why is that?

SW: Well, it’s pretty specific reasons. Most of the offers I was getting was to play a cop or a detective, drug dealer, a lawyer or a doctor. It really never strayed from that. I would get to be the funny black guy besides the white guy who gets the girl. I was spoiled by growing up in the theater and the heyday of hip-hop, because all the stuff was meaningful, and I couldn’t find meaning in the opportunities that came after Slam. With music and poetry, I could find meaning, so I just kept saying yes to those things.

TR: Is that why you said yes to Holler if Ya Hear Me?