In October of 2000, they walked down Fifth Avenue in New York City. Leading the throng of protesters were five survivors of the mining wars in Sierra Leone-some had lost arms, a leg, an ear. Protestors behind them chanted "No blood diamonds!" and carried signs that called for a stop to "gemocide."
Four years later, America's appetite for diamonds continues to stoke a violent form of imperialism in Africa, where rebels often maim African villagers to motivate them to leave diamond-rich land.
The NYC protestors were speaking to diamond retailers, obviously. Less obviously, but just as important, it was a call to wealthy Americans, including professional athletes and rappers sporting "bling."
Saul Williams-poet, activist, hip-hop artist, actor and star of the award-winning film, SLAM-is continuing the protest.
"Over 6 million Africans have been forced to move-some have died, many have lost their limbs-because of the diamond trade," says Williams, whose voice is cautious, soft, almost feminine. "Unbeknownst to us, with the whole "bling' thing-and not only rappers, but basketball players, drug dealers and just people who have enough money to buy diamonds-we've become the new backbone of the diamond trade. We have been supporting the atrocities that have been occurring" in places like Sierra Leone, South Africa and the Congo.
Jay-Z's known for his love of "ice."
Suge Knight used to give his close associates diamond-crusted medallions that featured his Death Row Records logo-which was, ironically, an electric chair.
Williams, a New York ghetto kid who has become the hippest American poet since Ginsberg, has never been about the bling. A spiritually minded wordsmith in line with other positive-tip rappers like Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Common, he was inspired to raise awareness about the diamond trade after he visited South Africa.
"I was approached by a lot of South African students who asked me why didn't more rappers address this issue," he explains. "They were like, "We used to love all these American rappers, and now they're holding these diamonds in these videos. Don't they know that we're dying because of these diamonds? Why don't they know this?'"
With stars like Williams serving as foot soldiers for the cause, rappers may soon think of Africans before buying bling. Soon, Williams hopes, retailers and their wealthy patrons will buy only "conflict-free diamonds-diamonds that don't come from places that are connected to warfare."
Williams is currently on tour to support his second, self-titled album. The first was on American Records, with sage producer Rick Rubin on the boards. For Saul Williams-released on the Fader label-the ultimate slash-artist primarily produced himself, with bite-sized cameos from former Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha and System of a Down's Serj Tankian.
Until now, Williams' audience has been been the same as that of Common or Talib Kweli-primarily white, underground music fans. This doesn't bother Williams, who has confidence that his message will "reach the people that need to be reached."
"I'm always surprised by the number of [black] kids on the streets who walk up to me and say, "Yo, thank you, I really respect what you do.'
"Does that mean [black kids are] ready to bump it in their systems?" he says with a resigned chuckle. "I dunno."
That could change with the songs on the new album, which arose when Williams admitted to himself that "at the end of the day, sometimes, that's what it's all about-writing catchy songs. Sexy-sexy is important."
And nothing's sexy about bounty found on the broken backs of others.Saul Williams plays with Thavius Beck (a.k.a. Adlib) and Jimmy Jazz at the Casbah, 9 p.m. on Nov. 29. $12. 619-232-HELL.