These series were written by Cedric McCoy and republished here with the author’s and publisher’s consent. The 3-part series were originally published on The Michigan Daily webpage on Feb. 8, 21 and 23.
For Black History Month 2023, I will be publishing a mini-series of short music reviews under the title “Protest Music Retrospects.” The aim of this series is to both revisit some of the most pivotal moments in Black protest music history and to shed light on overlooked Black figures and musics, specifically those of Black women, that have contributed to the socially-conscious popular culture of today. The reviews will be a mix of musical critique as well as historical and historiographical analysis of the works and their responses in media. For the first entry, I will be starting off with Sister Souljah and her 1992 album, 360 Degrees of Power.
Lisa Williamson, known professionally as Sister Souljah, is an activist, writer, film producer and musician. She first garnered attention as a campus activist while at Cornell University, before becoming a performing artist in the music industry. She was also a member of Public Enemy for a short period of time in the 1990s, serving as their minister of information.
360 Degrees of Power is raw, aggressive and confrontational. Sister Souljah’s delivery is somewhat arhythmic and doesn’t quite fit into the popular rhythmic and rhyme-informed styles of rap of the era; her lyricism is best understood as a continuation of the musical poetry of the ‘60s and ‘70s, popularized by The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron.
Sister Souljah engages with a multitude of difficult and nuanced topics by making direct commentary on white power structures, as well as the complacency of some Black people in systems of their own oppressions. The album produced two singles –– The Hate that Hate Produced and The Final Solution: Slavery is Back in Effect –– a satirical skit that imagines the re-institution of slavery in the 20th century. Both works encapsulate Sister Souljah’s militancy and Black-nationalistic philosophies. The first single yields this powerful stanza, framing the overarching messages of the album:
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 built this wicked system
They say two wrongs don’t make it right
But it damn sure makes it even!
Throughout the album’s tracks, Sister Souljah tackles the issues of domestic abuse, alcoholism and sexism within Black communities. For example, in the fifth track, “Nigga’s Gotta,” she includes another short skit wherein a Black man sexually abuses his young daughter. The interlude is hard to listen to even today, but serves to make real and audible an often shared experience of Black women. Sister Souljah further uses the track to problematize Black masculinity and its simultaneous attraction to materiality and dismissal of political education. She mirrors the form and cadence of The Last Poets’ Niggers are Scared of the Revolution, speaking to Black men through indicting and ironic third-person references.
Sister Souljah also addresses American militarism and imperialism globally and domestically in her lyrical presentation, while holding absolutely nothing back. In the song Killing Me Softly: Deadly Code of Silence, she begins with this scathing critique that continues to reflect Republican leadership in the 21st century:
George Bush is a terrorist / He creates terror in the minds, hearts and neighborhoods of Black people.”
Later in the album, on the song titled Brainteasers and Doubtbusters, she includes the still-relevant reflection:
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 these weak pitiful Black mayors and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
All of these examples demonstrate Sister Souljah’s unique positionality within the Black experience: she combines her personal perspectives with her politically informed commentary to craft a narrative that both draws upon an intellectual tradition and pioneers a new space for Black women to participate in cultural critique. I find her lyrics potent even today, as we navigate conservative “anti-woke” movements and rejections of Black voices (especially Black feminist voices) in the teaching of Black histories.
Despite only publishing one studio album, Sister Souljah has had a prolific creative career. Shortly after the release of 360 Degrees of Power, she began a career as a writer and novelist. Her memoir, “No Disrespect,” was released in 1994, and her first work of fiction, “The Coldest Winter Ever,” was published in 1999. Sister Souljah remains an activist and author, having written five other novels and contributing to various journals and newspapers.
Under normal circumstances, a project such as 360 Degrees of Power would have been lost to obscurity: not only was it a debut from a widely unknown artist, but it also came at a time when Black women rappers were often disregarded for their political commentary and critique. However, in a 1992 interview with The Washington Post, Sister Souljah gave her now-infamous critique of American policing in response to the LA riots:
“If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”
The comment was widely and harshly received by the media (and largely white America). Bill Clinton — at the time a presidential candidate — criticized her language and sentiment, comparing her approach to that of David Duke (“had the words ‘white’ and ‘Black’ be reversed”) spawning the “Sister Souljah Moment” phenomenon. Sister Souljah’s “Sister Souljah Moment” forced her to the front of contemporary rejections of rap and signaled a new beginning in the respectability politics of the neoliberal ‘90s: an epoch where racially-charged political thought was reduced to “extremism” and dismissed by the conservative hegemonic culture.
Despite her short stint in the music industry, Sister Souljah represents the end of an era of protest music. The dominant cultural structure had already begun resisting the profane and deeply assertive messaging of political rap with Public Enemy, N.W.A. and others in the leading years. The early ‘90s did not bring an end to politically conscious rap; however, subsequent years were filled with more avant-garde, music-focused approaches to the medium that ultimately would remain at the forefront of the genre. Still, her contribution to the movement was unique and worth remembering and reflecting upon: so often are the voices of radical Black women ignored in favor of the hero-worship of their male contemporaries. Though overlooked, 360 Degrees of Power has earned its spot in the canon of 20th century Black protest music.
MiC Assistant Editor Cedric Preston McCoy can be reached at email@example.com.