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Saul Williams Talks ‘Hacktivism’ And Social Change In The Digital Age

Cassandra Basler

Poet and performer Saul Williams spoke with WSHU's Cassandra Basler about his most recent work, MartyrLoserKing, and translating the activism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into the age of Black Lives Matter. The two sat down before Williams performed at Wesleyan University in February. Below is a transcript of their discussion.

WILLIAMS: Martin Luther King, Dr. King is one of many MartyrLoserKings. There are, you know, thousands of people who have given their life, their voice, their energy to the service and upliftment of humanity. MartyrLoserKing, my character, is not nearly as noble. [LAUGHTER] You know he’s basically made a tag name out of Martin Luther King. But he does end up symbolizing something that’s important.  

Williams says MartyrLoserKing echoes the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement started as a Twitter hashtag about the men and women who recently died during encounters with the police.

WILLIAMS: When you think of today’s symbolic deaths of note, like a Michael Brown or Tamir Rice or the Sandra Bland, it’s you know, not so much that they, during the course of their life, were giving in a way that a Dr. King was. But what was spawned from their deaths, you know, takes on greater and greater meaning for youth who realize: “Wait, what world are we living in? What world do we want to live in?”

He says the story of MartyrLoserKing echoes that spirit of social change in the digital age.

WILLIAMS: The character MartyrLoserKing speaks from a place that doesn’t take as much for granted. Just power, for example. You know. Everybody listening right now has something plugged in, or powered, by something, you know. And so when I say that it’s a question of power every aspect of the story is just a metaphor surrounding the idea of power and the distribution of power and how it plays out, generation upon generation and how it spins out of control when we connect.  

Williams describes how MartyrLoserKing connects with the world online as a kind of hacker activist. A hacktivist?

WILLIAMS: Of course, I’m identifying MartyrLoserKing as the screen name of this hacker who’s kind of like a virtual Banksy, alright, and in fact his project is kind of inspired by Banksy, you know thinking like how would Banksy work in the virtual realm? If we took a little Banksy, and a little bit of like, you know, WikiLeaks, you know, Chelsea Manning, Snowden, um, Aaron Swartz. How would a character like Banksy exist in that realm?

BASLER: It’s a whole world that you’ve developed...


BASLER: I mean, you’re talking about this disruption that I feel like, at least, we talk about all the time in the media, about like how is technology affecting what we do, and how is it affecting our human communication, so the idea for sort of a hacker artist to come make a political statement I think in this day and age is really interesting.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, it’s a fun idea to play with. But of course, hackers are making huge statements today and everyday. I mean look at right now with uh, Tim Cook from Apple, you know, deciding to stand up to the FBI. Like, that’s some noteworthy hacker sh*t. Oh, I can’t say sh*t.

BASLER: We can beep you. [LAUGHTER]


BASLER: Part of Williams' story is about transparency. And exposure. That’s why his character is from Burundi, a country in Africa most people don’t know about. A country that’s plagued by corruption. Williams says MartyrLoserKing gives people a way of looking at their own political system.

WILLIAMS: But that’s that. That’s the sort of talking that gets MartyrLoserKing killed.

BASLER: Oh man. Well on that note, is there anything else that you’d like to add before we let you out?


BASLER: Alright thank you so much.

Cassandra Basler, a former senior editor at WSHU, came to the station by way of Columbia Journalism School in New York City. When she's not reporting on wealth and poverty, she's writing about food and family.
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