Editor’s Note: Art often reflects the political pulse of society and the issues that people care about. Throughout the 2016 election cycle, CNN Politics will be profiling various influential and politically conscious artists in the “Get political” series.
From the massacre at a Charleston Church that led to a backlash against the Confederate flag to the monumental Supreme Court decision that gave same-sex couples the right to marry and the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, this summer brought identity politics to the forefront of the national conversation.
Few have tackled the intersection of identity and expression quite like New York rapper, actor and poet Saul Williams, who has been dubbed “the poet laureate of hip-hop.”
“To me, it would probably be more work to extract my politics from my art,” Williams told CNN.
Williams was confronted with identity in high school, when he went by his middle name, Stacey, and says that racism made him uncomfortable in his own skin.
“I had what was, for me, an awkward experience but I think is somewhat common for dark-skinned African Americans,” Wiliams said. “I would receive kind of back-handed compliments, like you’re kind of cute to be so dark from people of color.”
He addresses this experience in his track “Black Stacey.”
This is how it goes:
“I used to use bleachin’ creme … I dreamt of being white and complimented by you / But the only shiny black thing that you liked was my shoes … Back Stacey, they called me, “Black Stacey” / I never got to be myself ‘cause to myself / I always was, Black Stacey, in polka dots and Paisley … you thought it wouldn’t phase me but it did ‘cause I was just a kid … I never got to be myself ‘cause to myself I always was ‘Black Stacey’.”
Williams says that in writing “Black Stacey” he realized that music and poetry could him heal.
And he cites the politically-conscious music of hip-hop group Public Enemy, KRS-One and Queen Latifah, among his influences.
“To me, that’s what made them iconic— that they had touched on the pulse of something that, in turn, harmonized … the human sensibility and allowed us to empathize beyond our own personal experience,” Williams said.
As a multi-platform artist and actor, his lyrics have blurred the lines between rap and poetry. Williams starred in the Broadway musical Holler If Ya Hear Me, based on the lyrics of iconic rapper Tupac Shakur and is set to release his newest album “MartyrLoserKing early next year and his book, “US (a.),” about the state of America, the American psyche, and what it means for him to be American is set to be out next week.
“Politics, fused with art” is “the closest I ever felt to any sort of revolutionary zeal. Art that serves a function, versus art for arts’ sake,” Williams said.