Saul Williams was born in Newburgh, New York, on February 29, 1972. He received a BA in acting and philosophy from Morehouse College in 1994, as well as an MFA in acting from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1997.
While at NYU, he often transcribed hip-hop lyrics into monologues for his theater classes. He later said, “When the commercial exploitation of hip hop started happening in the mid '90s, it left a lot of us hungry. That’s when I started writing again—as I had as a teenager.” He started actively reading poetry in 1995 and was named a Grand Slam Champion at the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1996. That same year, he led the Nuyorican Poets slam team to the National Poetry Slam finals; their story was the subject of the documentary film SlamNation. In 1997 Williams landed the lead role in the Lions Gate film Slam and received raves for his performance as an imprisoned street poet. Slam, which featured many of Williams’s own compositions, went on to win the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes and the Grand Jury prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.
He is the author of the poetry collections US (a.) (MTV Books, 2015), The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop (MTV Books, 2006), Said the Shotgun to the Head (MTV Books, 2003), S/he (MTV Books, 1999), and The Seventh Octave (Moore Black Press, 1998). In a review for Booklist, Mark Eleveld writes that Williams “is the prototype synthesizer between poetry and hip-hop, stage and page, rap and prose, funk and mythology, slam and verse.” Williams’s poetry collections do indeed blur the lines between genres, as S/he is accompanied by a spoken-word CD and The Dead Emcee Scrolls explores the legacy of hip-hop.
Williams is also known as a musician. His albums include Martyr Loser King (2016), Volcanic Sunlight (2011), The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust (2008), and Amethyst Rock Star (2001). Timmhotep Aku, a reviewer for National Public Radio, describes Martyr Loser King as “a sonic world that’s simultaneously futuristic and primitive…as tribal as it is digital.”
Williams has recorded projects with Nine Inch Nails and Allen Ginsberg, performed in over thirty countries, and played the lead role in Holler If Ya Hear Me, a 2014 Broadway musical featuring the rap music of Tupac Shakur. He lives in New York City.