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Lafayette will inaugurate a series of major conferences on the history and culture of civil rights and civil liberties with a three-day conference entitled “Paul Robeson: His History and Development as an Intellectual” on campus April 7-9.

Saul Williams, actor, poet, and musician, will stage a spoken-word performance at 1:30 p.m. Friday, April 8, in the Marlo Room, Farinon College Center (see conference schedule). Moderating the session will be Gladstone A. Hutchinson, dean of studies at Lafayette.

Spoken-word artist Saul Williams says, “I’ll do what I do” when he appears at Lafayette’s conference on Paul Robeson. He’s pretty sure that won’t include delivering an oration on Robeson, or writing a poem about him, but then again, there’s a slight chance it could – he just doesn’t know in advance.

“I usually don’t plan my performances,” says Williams, 32, an actor, poet, and hip-hop musician originally from Newburgh, N.Y. “I’m very excited, primarily about what I may learn. I have been studying Paul Robeson avidly since I was 10 or 11 years old!

“When I was in third grade, I told my parents I wanted to be an actor. My parents said they would support me as an actor as long as I got a law degree first. That day when I announced my future profession, my mother put me back on track. She said, ‘You need to study Paul Robeson.’”

Soon after, Williams did a report for school on Robeson, who received a law degree from Columbia University before achieving worldwide fame on stage.

Robeson was also the subject of a report Williams did at Morehouse College, where he majored in philosophy and drama, still planning to go to law school.

“He chose to follow the path that would connect him with people more readily,” says Williams of Robeson, whom he calls a “master of his craft.” “I decided to follow my heart. I didn’t go to law school, but by then my father was convinced that I was talented. I had been in every school play since third grade.”

After graduating from Morehouse, Williams moved to New York to pursue a master’s degree in acting at New York University (a program he nicknames “How to Avoid Waiting Tables 101”) and found himself at the center of the New York café poetry scene.

In 1995 he began landmark performances at the Brooklyn Moon Café’s fabled “Open Mic” sessions and in 1996 became the Nuyorican Poet Café’s Grand Slam Champion.

Williams co-wrote and starred in the 1998 urban drama “Slam” which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film festival and Camera d’Or at Cannes Film Festival. He received the Perry Ellis Award for Breakout Performance by New York’s Independent Film Project.

Now residing in Los Angeles, Williams has published books of poetry, performed with other renowned hip-hop artists and the legendary poets Allen Ginsberg and Sonia Sanchez, and recorded two CDs, “Amethyst Rock Star” and “Saul Williams.”

He says he will soon focus on another book and more acting projects.

Like Robeson, who celebrated spirituals and songs of everyday people from around the world, Williams loves words and revels in their power and beauty.

“We can aim at the truth through words, though not necessarily speak it,” he comments. “Words help us describe our highest emotions, and perhaps the description can be of help. Words are not a supreme power. They just help us in the process of understanding.”

He points to the “vibration” of words during prayer, how they focus energy, and how words hold power for Catholics saying the Hail Mary and school boards requiring pupils to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

More evidence of words’ power is reflected in people’s efforts to suppress them, Williams notes. That was the experience of Paul Robeson, whose career was shattered over his outspokenness for the cause of workers and world peace.

“What they did to Robeson parallels Mandela,” Williams says.

To Williams’ mind, the Patriot Act is a tool of suppression. “I’m so much reminded of Robeson,” he says. At the same time, it does not concern him to think that no one in the White House may be listening to his own words, ideas, and opinions.

“The ‘powers that be’ are not the same as the ‘powers of beings,’” he says. “The power is with the people. It’s like the tsunami thing. The American people are giving more than the government.”

Although he wouldn’t have been able to say so then, Williams’ love of words sprang from the hip-hop rhymes he conjured up with his friends in elementary school in Newburgh. They competed with rhymes at recess or in the cafeteria with someone beating out a rhythm on the lunch table.

“In my first style of emceeing, I took a dictionary and looked up words I didn’t know

and put them into rhymes,” says Williams. He stresses that he “wasn’t alone” and in fact didn’t have the courage to act or dress differently from his friends.

“Everyone was doing it. We were all writing rhymes, doing break dancing. We were creating something new.”

He’s still weaving words into artworks. As a poet, Williams once got so wrapped up in the lyrics that he stopped the music to demand that his friends listen to the ideas. “It was my first spoken-word performance.”

As Robeson said he did, Williams feels connected with other people while performing, which is, in any case, all about holding an audience’s attention, “a practical thing.”

“It’s like you hold it in your hand. You lose yourself in the moment. It’s a wonderful feeling,” he says, adding that there is a connection between entertainment and religious ritual – chanting, singing, sprinkling of incense. As with words, there is “power in a performance.”

At the same time, Williams believes this poetic theater has ties, too, to the more down-to-earth word craft of journalism.

“I do the same thing as I walk through life’s amazing moments. I pick what I want to report on. I jot it in my journal and later put it in a poem,” he comments.

How his love of words and music will unfold at the Lafayette conference is a surprise. In some way, in Williams’ own way, it will celebrate Robeson.

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