Tag Archives: activist

Music Retrospects #1: Sister Souljah, ‘360 Degrees of Power’ and the unapologetic radicalism of Black women

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 cedmccoy@umich.edu.

Local Musician Shares Her Story Of Activism

This article was originally published by Jersey Shore Online and written by Bob Vosseller.

JACKSON, USA – Kaleigh Brendle, 19, has headed back to Villanova University and either wants to be a disability rights attorney or a musician and with her energy, she could probably do both.

The teenager hasn’t let her visual limitations stop her love of performing music but it did inspire her to fight for proper accommodations for those who are visually impaired.

Brendle, a resident of Brick, and a high school graduate from Howell Township, worked to secure appropriate accommodations for those like herself from the College Board.

She also performed at the White House with a choir and also created a choir at the age of 14 for visually impaired singers. Brendle recently performed some of her own music as well as several cover songs during a Saturday afternoon program that was sponsored by the Jackson Friends of the Library.

Prior to her library appearance she spoke to Jersey Shore Online.com about how she responded to an unfair issue and beat the odds. During her presentation she would integrate music with an appropriate song related to the chronology of her story.

Kaleigh Brendle, 19, sits at the piano, left, as her mother Heather Brendle looks on prior to a performance the teen made at the Jackson branch of the Ocean County Library. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

“The songs supplement the story,” she said. The two stories she shared included one from 2020 which was an issue with the College Board regarding AP (advanced placement) exams. “They refused to provide blind and deaf test takers braille and other critical accommodations during the COVID-19 pandemic and other test takers and I stood up against that and ultimately won that struggle and secured the braille that we needed.”

She said Jackson Librarian Christine Mecca asked her to talk about another advocacy project she undertook a year later as part of her senior thesis. “I went to a specialized program at a high school and so they required a capstone project where you can’t just write the presentation you actually have to start to institute change about whatever you are discussing.

“I want to be a disability rights attorney and what I ultimately chose was representation of disability in children’s media.” This included situation comedies, cartoons and some Disney programs.

“I was curious because growing up I’d never seen a disabled character on any of those outside of an episode. A blind character was on a Sesame Street episode, actually, a fraction of one. Is there something to that?” Brendle pondered.

Brendle made some sad discoveries. “The visual impairment representation that is awarded has a rate of one percent right now for children’s media for disability. It doesn’t give disabled kids someone to look up to when they are watching that. One in five Americans have some kind of disability now.”

“It is a pretty large group and to see it, they are either tokenizing or vilifying,” she added. She gave an example of tokenizing as the Sesame Street episode she referenced. “Where the character was only there for a fraction of an episode as if to check off a box.”

As for as vilifying, “a lot of villains in cartoons have some sort of defect or disability and that is a really bad angle to take and a consistency that is really troubling as it casts in a kid’s mind that being different are the bad ones and the ones to look out for,” she added.

Brendle released a video on social media that explained some of her research in a basic manner. “I started a campaign called ‘Out of Sight Out of Mind’ and it definitely got some attention. Unfortunately, I couldn’t advocate for it as much as I wanted to because I had to go to college right after that but any chance I get to talk about it and bring the issue to light, I definitely do that.”

She intends to contact Nickelodeon and Disney in the future “to see what is possible because that still is an existing issue.” She noted that Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon shows representation in having “autism or asperger’s and I believe there was a character on Modern Family who has something. There is more adult oriented programming that does have representation.”

She was joined by her mother Heather Brendle for the program who provided her some tips. Her mother said she was very proud of her daughter and her bright spirit even as she fought unsurmountable odds to make positive change.

The story selections she made to punctuate her saga included the songs “Rise Up,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “Smile,” the theme song from the animated film “Pocahontas” and “At Last.”

She was diagnosed with a condition commonly known as LCA. “It feels like I am extremely near sided when I have my very strong prescription glasses on. I don’t have any peripheral vision. I don’t have any depth perception. I can’t read print for long periods of time without getting substantial headaches.

“I have had it since birth and my brother who is totally blind has the same condition,” she added.

Her musical interest began at an early age as well. “My first memory of singing was my dad holding me up and me singing Sesame Street songs to passersby on the porch. I watched people stop and listen to me. It was one of those things that was always there. I don’t know quite how it began.

“When I watched my cartoons in the morning, I was addicted to PBS Kids which I think also fostered my love of reading too,” she said.

She noted how difficult the conditions of the COVID-19 shut down were during her senior year in high school. “I was completely remote for it and had very little contact with my peers and was exclusively in my house for 17 months and that can be really isolating for somebody. Music is how I really coped with it.”

“I am very much split on my two career interests of being an attorney and singer,” she said. She recently released an album, performed at the Algonquin Art Theater and won the Diane Turton Talent Show in 2018 where she performed a song off her album in front of 500 people.

Her first of several White House appearances with the Princeton Westminster Children’s Choir was quite memorable. “I had the honor of being the featured soloist and performing there is incredible. It is one of those things where you can’t believe it is actually happening. It is magical and we went during the Christmas holidays.

“We were performing for not only the diplomats but for their families and there were a lot of little kids and it was so, so cute,” the performer said.

Photo by Bob Vosseller

She formed the Sing for Serenity Choir “which is my pride and joy. It is an international online choir for the blind and visually impaired which I started five years ago. We have our own YouTube channel. We have members from over a dozen countries.”

“I’m creating a type of activism major at my college as there is an option to design your own major and what I am looking to create is using the legal system and using the media to advocate for positive change,” she added.

For further details about Brendle’s activism and musical journey visit her Choir for the Blind’s YouTube Channel.

Her link to the Twitter Video about her challenge with the College Board issue.

The link to the Twitter video about her Capstone Project (Disability Representation in Children’s Media).