Sister Souljah: Capitalist Tool

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Is Bill Clinton on the secret payroll of Sony Music Entertainment Inc.? The question arises because of the publicity bonanza Clinton bestowed on one of the company's artists, rap singer Sister Souljah, by publicly attacking her at Jesse Jackson's National Rainbow Coalition convention in Washington. As a surprised and obviously angry Jackson seethed on the stage, Clinton repeated a Washington Post story that quoted Souljah saying after the Los Angeles riots, "If black people kill black people everyday, why not have a week and kill white people? . . . So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?" Those remarks, intoned Clinton, were "filled with the kind of hatred that you do not honor today."

Clinton's assault made the previously obscure rap artist, whose preachy 360 Degrees of Power never managed to climb higher than No. 78 on Billboard's list of best-selling R. & B. albums, into an instant political cause celebre. Puffed up with outrage at Clinton's affront, Jackson demanded that the Arkansas Governor apologize to the performer, who "represents the feelings and hopes of a whole generation of people." Clinton declined. Souljah added to the din on the Today show, where she denounced the "racist" and "hypocritical" Clinton. "I think ((he)) is like a lot of white politicians -- they eat soul food, they party with black women, they play the saxophone, but when it comes to domestic and foreign policy, they make the same decisions that are destruction, destructive to African people in this country and throughout the world," she said.

All this amounted to a blast of national exposure that money couldn't buy for Souljah, Clinton and Jackson. What really fueled the curious coming together of politicians, a "revolutionary" rapper and a multibillion-dollar entertainment conglomerate was their shared concern for the bottom line. Clinton achieved a key political objective: refocusing the media spotlight on his message to moderate voters that he is unafraid to deliver unpopular messages to important Democratic constituencies, including blacks. Jackson, who has been groping for a way to elbow into the campaign, obtained a grievance that he can use to browbeat Clinton for concessions. Lenin is supposed to have written, "Capitalists are so hungry for profits that they will sell us the rope to hang them with." Souljah has reformulated that maxim in light of the go-for-it '90s. A few days before her appearance at the Rainbow convention, she admonished the audience of a black radio talk show in New York City to purchase her CD at the record store rather than from lower- priced bootleggers. By doing so, she said, they would help prove to big companies like Sony that "revolutionary music" is "profitable."

What kind of talk is that for a self-styled "raptivist" who claims she wants to tear down the white system? Well, not all that unusual. The not-so- little secret of the recording industry is that hip-hop music is a source of enormous profits. For all the claims that revolutionary rap speaks for oppressed inner-city youth, its main consumers are affluent white suburban teenagers seeking to cloak their adolescent rebellion in a veneer of ghetto toughness. Some formerly impecunious ghetto youths have turned into millionaires by becoming rap artists. Not for nothing does Ice-T boast on his recent release Original Gangster that "William Morris is my agency. I'll never go broke, got property."

Souljah has not hit it that big: her videos are not played on MTV. She charges that both the Post and Clinton had deliberately misinterpreted her remarks. Rather than advocating the revenge killing of whites, she insists, she was trying to explain the mind-set of black youths who have experienced so much violence at the hands of whites that murder means nothing to them. That touched off a round of heated commentary on op-ed pages, as 50-something pundits, black and white, wrestled with the thorny issue of Souljah's artistic intent. The matter could have been settled by listening to Souljah's CD, on which she raps in a ditty titled The Hate That Hate Produced:

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 for 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

As Souljah makes clear in a liner note thanking Sony for "acknowledging my artistic freedom," she not only wrote that lyric but set it in a context that she chose for herself. The eye-for-an-eye message is unmistakable.

Such sentiments are a long way from the conciliatory goals of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, where Souljah, then known as Lisa Williamson, worked for a time before making her detour into rap. Born poor in the Bronx, she has made a determined effort to educate herself, reading black-history books and studying at Cornell and Rutgers. In her previous incarnation, she performed good works like founding a summer camp for inner-city children. Those are accomplishments for which Souljah, by most accounts a young woman with the interests of the black community at heart, | should have been acclaimed. Instead she has gained what will probably be a short-lived notoriety for three dubious achievements: helping a record company make a buck, furthering the agendas of two opportunistic politicians, and distracting voters from what really matters in the campaign.