Digital Modernity And Dissent On The Periphery: A World-Systems Analysis Of Saul Williams


Saul Williams’ catalog of albums and performances have consciously investigated the construction and history of race in the United States. Practicing as a spoken word artist alongside his status as an alternative hip-hop pioneer, his work makes visible the legacy of radical politics and thought in the development of the genre. Critical, political, and artistic praxis intermingle in both his recorded work and approach to performance.Williams’ two most recent albums — MartyrLoserKing (2016) and Encrypted & Vulnerable (2019) — continue this exploratory output in a manner, I will argue, engages core tenets of world-systems analysis. The former contains an underlying lyrical narrative featuring a protagonist in Burundi who auto-didactically constructs a potent hacker profile bearing the name MartyrLoserKing. This digital alias acts as a space of empowerment, representation, and critique of broad ideological institutions and hegemonies that compound and sustain the managed underdevelopment of the Global South. One track imagines ‘Coltan as Cotton’, while others expand on tropes of labour and resistance through digital piracy. As such the album contains implicit commentary on the political underpinnings of hip-hop and sampling culture as a mode of resistance through musicality as well as lyricism in a fashion that extends its reach to a global system of disenfranchisement. This paper will draw upon the lens of world-systems analysis in order to map its interdisciplinary potential via Williams’ recent creative output.


David is a senior lecturer at BIMM Institute London, where he teaches popular music studies with a focus on cultural theory. He completed his PhD at University College Dublin in 2018 with a thesis that explored the expression of atheism in contemporary North American literature in relation to neoliberal culture and the post 9/11 socio-political environment. He has published work in the European Journal of American studies, and has an article forthcoming in Metal Music Studies.

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