For Black History Month in 2023, I’ll be publishing a mini-series of short music reviews called Protest Music Retrospectives. The purpose of this series is to both revisit some of the most pivotal moments in the history of black protest music and shine a light on overlooked black personalities and music, especially black women, who have contributed to today’s socially conscious population. The reviews will consist of both musical criticism and historical and historiographical analysis of the works and responses to them in the media. For the first entry, I’ll start with Sister Souljah and her 1992 album, 360 degrees of power.
Lisa Williamson, known professionally as Sister Soulja, is an activist, writer, film producer and musician. She first gained attention as a campus activist while studying at Cornell University before becoming an artist in the music industry. She was also a member of A public enemy for a short period of time in the 1990s, serving as their Minister of Information.
360 degrees of power rude, aggressive and confrontational. Sister Souljah’s delivery is somewhat arrhythmic and doesn’t quite fit in with the popular rhythmic and rhyming rap styles of the era; her lyrics are best understood as a continuation of the musical poetry of the 60s and 70s popularized by The last poets and Gil Scott-Gueron.
Sister Soulja tackles many complex and nuanced themes, making direct comments about white power structures as well as the complacency of some black people in their own systems of oppression. Two singles were released from the album –– Hate begat hate and Final Solution: Slavery is back –– a satirical skit that represents the restoration of slavery in the 20th century. Both works embody Sister Soulja’s militancy and nationalist philosophy. The first single delivers this powerful verse that frames the album’s main messages:
Souljah wasn’t born to make white people feel comfortable
I am African first, I am black first
I want first and foremost what is good for me and my people
And if my survival means your total destruction
Then so be it!
You built this evil system
They say two wrongs don’t make a right
But damn it evens it out!
Throughout the album’s tracks, Sister Souljah tackles issues of domestic violence, alcoholism and sexism in the black community. For example, in the fifth track, “Nigga’s Gotta”, she includes another short scene in which a black man abuses his young daughter. The interlude is hard to listen to even today, but it often helps make it real and audible common experience black women. Sister Souljah further uses the track to problematize black masculinity and its simultaneous attraction to materiality and rejection of political education. It reflects the form and cadence of The Last Poets Niger is afraid of revolutionspeaking to black men through accusatory and ironic third-person references.
Sister Soulja also addresses American militarism and imperialism globally and domestically in her lyrical presentation, holding absolutely nothing back. In the song Kill Me Softly: The Deadly Code of Silenceshe begins with this scathing critique that continues to reflect Republican leadership in the 21st century:
George W. Bush is a terrorist / He creates terror in the minds, hearts and neighborhoods of black people.
Later in the album, in the song titled Puzzlers and doubtersit includes the still relevant reasoning:
They give you scholarships to their schools / So you can learn to think and act like them / So they can use you against your own people / Like those weak pathetic black mayors and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
All of these examples demonstrate Sister Soulge’s unique position within the black experience: she combines her personal views with her politically informed commentary to create a narrative that both draws on the intellectual tradition and opens up a new space for black women to engage in cultural critique. I find her lyrics powerful even today as we navigate conservative “anti-awakening” movements. rejection of black votes (especially black feminist voices) in teaching black history.
Despite having only one studio album, Sister Souljah has had a prolific creative career. Shortly after the liberation of 360 degrees of power, she began her career as a writer and novelist. Her memoir, No Disrespect, was published in 1994, and her first work of fiction, The Coldest Winter on Record, was published in 1999. Soulja’s sister remains an activist and writer, writing five more novels and contributing to various magazines. and newspapers.
Under normal conditions, such a project as 360 degrees of power would have been lost to obscurity: Not only was it the debut of a largely unknown artist, but it also came at a time when black rappers were often overlooked for their political commentary and criticism. However, in 1992 an interview from The Washington Post, Soulja’s sister criticized the US police response to the riots in Los Angeles:
“If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and not kill white people?”
The comment was widely and harshly received by the media (and mostly white America). Bill Clinton—then a presidential candidate—criticized her language and sentiments, comparing her approach to David Duke (“so that the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ are interchanged”), which gives rise to “Soulja’s sister moment“phenomenon. Sister Souljah’s “Sister Souljah Moment” put her at the forefront of contemporary rap rejection and marked a new beginning in the respectability politics of the neoliberal ’90s: an era in which racial political thought was reduced to “extremism” and the hegemonic conservative culture rejected.
Despite their short tenure in the music industry, Sister Souljah marks the end of an era of protest music. The dominant cultural establishment had already begun to resist the profane and deeply assertive messages of political rap with Public Enemy, NWA and others in its early years. The early ’90s didn’t put an end to political rap; however, the following years were filled with more avant-garde, music-oriented approaches to the medium that would ultimately remain at the forefront of the genre. Still, her contribution to the movement was unique and worthy of remembrance and reflection: so often the voices of radical black women are ignored in favor of the hero worship of their male contemporaries. Although unseen, 360 degrees of power has earned its place in the canon of 20th-century black protest music.
MiC Associate Editor Cedric Preston McCoy can be reached at email@example.com.