The Lyrical Activism of Sister Souljah

This post is part of our forum on “Hip Hop at 50.

Sister Souljah (born Lisa Williamson) is an emcee, activist, and successful author who is best known for her books, most notably her memoir, No Disrespect (1994) and The Coldest Winter Ever (1999). Prior to her success as an author, she was a member of the legendary Hip Hop group, Public Enemy. In 1992, she released 360 Degrees of Power, her first and only album to date. Sister Souljah’s music addresses various issues facing the Black community such as racism, sexism, and abuse, placing her within the tradition of Black artists and activists who sought to use their art to speak about pressing issues facing their communities.

While her discography is limited, her impact as an activist is undeniable, and this impact has not been without controversy. In fact, the same year that her album debuted, Souljah found herself at the center of a firestorm of criticism when then presidential candidate Bill Clinton criticized her at a Rainbow Coalition meeting regarding comments that she made following the uprisings in Los Angeles in 1992, in which she remarked:

“I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I’m saying? In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that somebody thinks that white people are better, or above dying, when they would kill their own kind?”

Clinton responded in part, by saying, “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.” Souljah denied that her words were advocating for violence against whites, and she argued that they were taken out of context. This gave rise to the phrase, “Sister Souljah moment”– a public denunciation by a politician of an individual that is connected to their respective party but deemed too extreme. Her comments and the ensuing backlash that she received is exemplified in “The Hate that Hate Produced,” from her album, 360 Degrees of Power:

Souljah was not born to make white people feel comfortable

I am African first, I am black first

I want what’s good for me and my people first

And if my survival means your total destruction

Then so be it!

You build this wicked system

They say two wrongs don’t make it right

But it damn sure makes it even!

In “The Hate that Hate Produced,” Souljah makes it clear that her aim is not to placate the sensibilities of white people, but to speak her truth regarding the issues facing Black people in the United States. In doing this, she erases any misunderstanding about her allegiance when she states, “I am African first, I am black first/I want what’s good for me and my people first.” For Souljah, the affairs of her people are more important than the personal and professional ramifications that often come about as result of offending whites. Furthermore, she places the blame on whites for establishing and continuing the oppressive racial system that is in place.

In “Umbilical Cord to the Future,” Sister Souljah discusses a young woman who was not taught properly about sexuality by her mother, and subsequently became pregnant. For Souljah, this cause and effect is part of a cycle within the Black community of mothers not instilling knowledge into their children and the choices that those children often make as a result:

Now a cycle repeats over and over again

Make it topsy turvy: the lives of women and men

Bringing life into the world should be considered a blessin’

But it isn’t

When you haven’t been taught the lessons

Of motherhood . . .

She continues by saying:

Met a friend the other day. She said her name was Souljah

She said, “I’m here to tell ya what your mama never told ya”

“Raise your child” she said. “Raise your head like a warrior

If you don’t, the world will destroy ya…

We need your baby: mind body and soul

To reestablish the laws of the old

Wise, life-giving ways our people.”

For Souljah, it is important to address the problems facing Black families around the issue of teen pregnancy by encouraging mothers to properly raise their children, as children represent the future of the Black community. Her lyrics often include messages aimed directly at the Black community, and those lyrics advocate for community uplift and improvement.

The discussion of the importance of passing wisdom down from older to younger generations in “Umbilical Cord to the Future” connects to traditional African family values, where the continuity of the family is held in high regard. This is often achieved through the dissemination of wisdom. In the previously mentioned verse, she encourages the young mother to keep her baby, drawing the connection to the importance of the youth to re-establishing the strength of the Black community.

Sister Souljah, as an artistic activist, uses her pen to address issues facing the Black community. As a Black woman, she is unabashed regarding her identity as a person of African descent, and this is made evident by her lyrics. Souljah’s work is an important contribution to the canon of activist Hip-Hop, and as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of its birth, it is important that we recognize her music and activism.

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Eva Bohler

Eva Bohler is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach. She holds a PhD in Africology and African American Studies from Temple University. Her research interests include the philosophical thought of Howard Thurman, the political activism of Africana women, and Harlem Renaissance literature.

Comments on “The Lyrical Activism of Sister Souljah

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    Great article. Thank you for highlighting Sista Souljah. Here interview on the Phil Donahue show really captures the firestorm her artist-activism caused. I need to revisit Sista Souljah’s work. Thank you Dr. Bohler.

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      Thanks Dr. Claybrook.

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