Souljah, Sister 1964—
Sister Souljah 1964—
Rapper, activist, author
“I’m inclined to remind people of the things they’d most like to forget,” writes Sister Souljah in her 1995 memoir No Disrespect.The uncompromising views of this young “raptivist” began to make mainstream news when she was publicly criticized by then-candidate Bill Clinton during his 1992 presidential bid. Though she complained that the remarks Clinton attacked were taken out of context, Souljah has also underscored repeatedly that she has little concern for the views of white politicians or the mainstream media. And while she has been portrayed as a loose cannon and a demagogue, her considerable education and articulate manner have won her more sympathetic listeners than her critics might have imagined possible.
Sister Souljah was born Lisa Williamson in 1964 and raised along with her siblings in the Bronx, New York, by her mother. Her father’s epilepsy had brought about the end of his job as a truck driver. “My mother and father were divorced real early,” she explained in an extensive Playboy interview with Robert Scheer. “So I ended up in the projects with my mother. I’ve lived in a lot of places. The only thing that stays the same thematically in all the places I’ve lived is that I was always either a welfare recipient or lived in [federally subsidized! housing. I was always connected to government programs.” As she points out in her book, this connection was fraught with indignity; she claims that such “services were designed to make us feel inferior.”
No Disrespect describes the projects as “an endless maze in which a wrong turn could result in a little bleeding, a ’casual rape,’ a critical beatdown, or even death.” Living in this “war zone,” surrounded by “tall brown buildings, unofficial garbage dumps, no parks, roaches, rats, and mice,” she and other members of her community were forced to learn survival skills. A detour to Englewood, New Jersey, with a beau of her mother’s exposed her to a cleaner environment that was nonetheless still poisoned by segregation and black self-hatred. Even so, young Lisa remained religious and focused, learning to cook, looking after her siblings, and doing her schoolwork. “I was articulate and prepared in math, science, reading, sport, and play,” she writes. “After all, this is what I had promised God I would do.”
Despite her studiousness, she notes that “what we were taught was ridiculous” insofar as it ignored the history and achievements of black people since antiquity. “No
Born Lisa Williamson in 1964 in the Bronx, NY; daughter of a truck driver and a homemaker; married, 1994; children: a son. Education: Attended Rutgers University.
Anti-apartheid activist, early 1980s; co-founded and administered African Youth Survival Camp, Enfield, NC; performed and recorded with rap group Public Enemy, c 1990-91; signed with Epic Records and released album 360 Degrees of Power, 1992; published book No Disrespect, 1995.
teacher gave black children any reason to take pride in their color, in their origins, in their past,” she points out. Redressing this wrong has been a major preoccupation of Lisa Williamson, both before and after she became Sister Souljah.
“I try to tell young people not to look for leaders but to try to identify the qualities in themselves—to develop the talents and skills that they have—so they don’t become dependent on somebody else’s talents and skills,” she declared to Playboy’s Scheer. At the same time, she praised the work of numerous black leaders, particularly activist Malcolm X, politician Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and especially nineteenth-century anti-slavery firebrand Harriet Tubman, whom she deemed “the strongest person in the history of African people in this country.” Souljah also said of Tubman, “She was an activist. She took action. She was a soldier. She was a warrior.” Tubman’s unyielding efforts to free her people have clearly influenced Souljah’s own self-conception.
During high school Williamson attended Cornell University’s summer advanced placement program; she later traveled to Spain for a stint at the University of Salamanca. She pursued history and African studies at Rutgers University, forging her fierce rhetorical style in editorial pieces for the school’s student newspaper and in speeches at political rallies. In particular, she lent her voice to the struggle against the racist apartheid system in South Africa. The acts of civil disobedience in which she participated led to periodic arrests. Yet such activism only brought home the necessity of addressing the obstacles faced by blacks in America.
During an anti-apartheid march through Newark, New Jersey, Souljah told Rolling Stone she had an epiphany: “I’m marching through with hundreds of other kids, “she recalled, “and we’re going: Tree South Africa! Free South Africa!’ And it felt like about 5000 bricks dropped on my head. I said:&Oh, shit. These people can’t free South Africa—they haven’t even freed themselves!’” She left Rutgers before graduating, partly due to her increasing involvement in the administration of a North Carolina camp for homeless kids she’d helped establish with funds earned from rap benefit shows.
It was as a lecturer that she captured the attention of rapper Chuck D., of the groundbreaking rap group Public Enemy. In 1991 Williamson appeared on a Public Enemy album, at which time she adopted her stage name, a combination of “soul” and the word for God in both Hebrew and Rastafarianism. Sounded out, it suggests “soldier.” Souljah’s own album, 360 Degrees_of Power, was released in 1992. “Rap music is powerful because it puts people in leadership who would not ordinarily be allowed to speak, rap, rhyme, sing or say anything,” she insisted to Scheer mPlayboy.”It puts an array of stories and experiences on the market—some funny and some painful.” She added that the music had enraptured her since childhood: “It was going on at house parties and on street corners when I was a kid. Back then you had [hip-hop pioneers] the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, the Furious Five—and we controlled it.”
Most of the commentary in mainstream periodicals about 360 Degrees addressed it not as music but as a showcase of Souljah’s viewpoint. “The album—a call for black unity and empowerment, stressing education and economic self-sufficiency—has its fair share of positive messages,” opined Rolling Stone’s Kim Neely. “But [Souljah’s] seeming inability to see whites as individuals and her tendency toward sweeping generalizations—the most patently ridiculous of these, found on a track called “Brainteasers and Doubtbusters,” being that white feminists are lesbians—is a major chink in her generally on-the-mark commentary.” Scheer, who expressed admiration for his subject’s straightforwardness, admitted that he “found her album loud, intimidating and not completely comprehensible.” Newsweek, meanwhile, attacked Souljah’s “messianic rhetoric.”
Target of Bill Clinton, but Not an Easy One
Of course, the reason such publications noticed Sister Souljah at all had less to do with curiosity about rap or black politics than with the fact that her words had been criticized by Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. It was largely believed that Clinton— perhaps opportunistically—took issue with a remark made by Souljah at a meeting of the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in order to appeal to white voters. Clinton complained that Souljah, a guest of the Coalition’s Leadership Summit, had advocated violence against whites.
“She told the Washington Post ….If black people kill black people every day, why not take a week and kill white people?’” Clinton proclaimed in a speech excerpted inNeiüSLuee/c. “If you took the words ’white’ and “black’ and reversed them, you might think [former Ku Klux Klan member and ultraconservative Louisiana political hopeful] David Duke made that speech.” If Clinton thought Souljah would be an easy target, however, he would soon find otherwise. “I do not advocate the murdering of anybody,” Souljah told the Los Angeles Times.”Not white people. Not black people. That charge is absolutely ridiculous. Mr. Clinton took my comments completely out of context. In the quote he referred to I was speaking in the mindset of a gang member.”
When pressed about his attack on her, Clinton insisted, as Newsweek reported, that he was simply calling “for an end to division.” Ultimately, however, the mixed signals of an electoral season ensured that this bitter exchange would never be transformed into any kind of fruitful dialogue. Souljah went on to label Clinton—in keeping with the innuendo put forth by his Republican opposition—”a hypocritical, draft-dodging, pot-smoking womanizer,” as the Los Angeles Times reported. She furthermore charged him with “using me as a political football, the Democratic version of Willie Hor-ton,” referring to Republican ads during the 1988 campaign that used a furloughed black felon as a symbol for liberal leniency.
During this blitz of publicity, Souljah was asked variations on the same question: did she hate whites? It was her refusal to let whites off the hook and espouse the “common ground” themes beloved by Jackson that allowed the mainstream press to paint her as a racist demagogue. Yet it was only in a few interviews—notably the one with Scheer—that she was allowed to express her opinions in any detail. “I don’t think any white person who is not constructively fighting against injustice should sleep easy on any given night,” sheinsisted. “You should have fear and guilt and remorse about creating a world that’s so destructive to people of color. And if you don’t it means you don’t value the lives of people who have not emerged from your culture.” She also expressed pessimism about the possibility of peaceful co-existence and positive political change.
As her critics gleefully pointed out, Souljah’s album dropped off the charts despite the rush of publicity from the Clinton affair. Indeed, the album failed to ignite the imagination of the record-buying public, no doubt partly due to its unflinching political content. “I’m an attractive young woman,” Souljah mused to Scheer. “If I wanted to make money, I could just put on a miniskirt and a tube top, shake my ass, put out a video, and I’m straight. It’s so easy to make money in America off sex, drugs, and violence.” Noting that she “had these options,” she declared, “My goal was to distribute a message that I thought was essential for African people—a message that would tell them what was going on, why it was going on and how they could, as individuals, form a powerful collective. That was my objective. Clearly, I’m satisfied.” She further suggested that her record company was only lukewarm in its support.
Sister Souljah ultimately faded from the national spotlight; Clinton was elected president, and the march of hardcore “gansta” rap continued apace, despite heavy criticism from politicians. Yet Souljah was far from idle, continuing to travel and speak to youngsters. She married and had a child before writing her book; these experiences had a powerful effect on her worldview. “It has me more dedicated,” she told Jet. “I already had a value for life and now I have an even deeper value for life. I think once a woman carries life in her womb she starts to really understand how precious the life of each person is.” At the same time, she became even more critical of her own upbringing and of ghetto parenting in general. “Parents had a habit of trying to raise their children off of slogans, like ’do the right thing’ or ’be a good boy,’” she asserted, insisting that “young girls need womanhood training and young men need manhood training.”
No Disrespect met with decidedly mixed reviews. Many critics attacked what they saw as Souljah’s constant sermonizing, and indeed, the book contains numerous episodes in which what seem like political manifestos spring fully formed from Souljah’s lips. Considering that many of her quotes in interviews sound the same way, these may be accurate representations. Be that as it may, those reviewers who disliked the book found its protagonist strident and took exception to many of her views. Karu P. Daniels of the Source, however, may have spoken for much of the hip hop community when he lauded Souljah’s “candid and provocative new memoir” for its honesty and clarity. “She’s speaking the language of the ghetto, and with that, no one can walk away from this read feeling isolated and alienated.”
It was apparently to combat feelings of isolation, in fact, that Souljah undertook her work, and her productivity as both an author and a mother seem to have dovetailed: “Mothers, to me, are the narrators of your life,” she noted in Jet.”They either tell you a good story or a bad story or a balanced story.” Telling the story of her experiences—regardless of anyone else’s idea of balance—has certainly been a consistent theme in her life. “Remember,” she urges at the conclusion of her book, “No one will save us but ourselves. Neither God nor white people will do so. “The key, as she told Jet, is self-respect: “You just have to see yourself as a very powerful person, a very important human being.”
Souljah, Sister, No Disrespect, Times Books, 1995.
Jet, February 27, 1995, p. 27.
Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1992, pp. FI, F5.
Newsweek, June 29, 1992, pp. 47-48.
Playboy, October 1992, pp. 59-69.
Rolling Stone, Augusto, 1992, pp. 15, 17, 72.
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