The Enduring Legacy of Sister Souljah
8/15/2016 by Dylan James Harper
The political legacy of hip-hop artist Sister Souljah, who musically is best known for her work with Public Enemy, serves as a metaphor for political allegiance in the twenty-four hour news cycle era. From Bill Clinton’s usage of the rapper as a political prop to demonstrate to moderates that he was truly a man of the (white) people, to President Obama’s labeling of Kanye West as a “jackass,” the reductive tradition of measuring oneself against others to demonstrate neutrality has permeated well beyond electoral politics and it’s as relevant today as it was back in 1992. It’s also best understood by
first understanding Sister Souljah.
Who is she again?
Sister Souljah is a hip-hop artist born in the Bronx. She was politically engaged from a young age, and often brought that into her music. After being featured on many Public Enemy tracks, she was eventually made a member of the group, which was the height of her career, but not her fame. What she is most famous for is the so-called “Sister Souljah moment” that occurred in the 1992 presidential election. In an interview with the Washington Post, Sister Souljah said “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” The quote was taken out of context, which she
takes issue with to this day. Bill Clinton, eager to distance himself from prominent black individuals on the heels of the Los Angeles riots, compared Sister Souljah to KKK leader David Duke in one of the greatest false equivalences of all time.
This became known as a “Sister Souljah moment” and was a tactic used afterwards by Clinton’s predecessors in George W. Bush (who criticized conservative author Robert Bork for his outdated views on social issues), and Barack Obama (who called several of Jeremiah Wright’s statements “outrageous”). The grind of primary elections, which often result in presidential candidates moving further to their party’s edge of the political
spectrum, takes a toll on candidates’ standing with moderates and independents. Once the primaries are over and presidential candidates have to move on to battling a candidate from a party on the opposite side of the political spectrum, measuring oneself against radical members of one’s own party is a beneficial, if ultimately harmful, tactic. The real impact, however, is how the usage of that tactic has become a cultural mainstay for almost any individual who wants to discuss politics openly.
Why would anyone not running for office do this?
A lot of people argue about politics (see the comments section). An age old tactic in any type of argument is to try to paint oneself as objective; what better way to paint oneself as objective than to paint someone else as not objective. Usually the goal of criticizing someone who might agree with you but is more radical is to demonstrate a willingness to criticize people on the same side as the political spectrum as you, as well as make you look more independent by comparison. This far predates Sister Souljah of course,
but Bill Clinton brought this tactic into the modern era. Presidential candidates do it, TV shows do it (every politically themed South Park episode is based around demonstrating to the audience that they’re willing to criticize people on both sides of the political spectrum) and people arguing on Facebook do it.
Okay; who cares?
This phenomenon is relevant and worth examining because it’s actually not a useful thing to do. From a purely logical perspective, it is meaningless to whatever the content of an argument is. Let’s pretend two people are arguing about gun control (hard to imagine, I know), and one person says “look, I’m not some tree hugging vegetarian. I’ve shot guns before. I just think we need more reasonable gun control laws.” did they actually make a point? Does that have anything to do with gun regulations? Does it add additional facts to the argument? No. It’s a completely useless statement. Right or wrong, the existence of people with more extreme views is completely unrelated.
Alright, so it’s not logical, but I still don’t see the big deal?
The big deal is often that the individual or group that are used as the measuring stick, Sister Souljah, Jeremiah Wright, or, more recently, Black Lives Matter (noticing a pattern?) are often made to look even more extreme and more radical, and thus less approachable by moderate individuals, than they already are. Remember when I said Sister Souljah was misquoted? She was actually just talking about the mindset of individuals in gangs, and making a pretty reasonable statement about race and violence. Maybe, as a somewhat influential individual, her statements could have been useful in helping others understand the complexities of race in the United Staes, but
instead her out-of-context statement is forever doomed to serve only as evidence of Bill Clinton’s unwillingness to be associated with members of the black community that engage in even basic activism (something he still does).
Fine, it’s bad. How do we make this go away?
Primarily by not doing it. No one is ever going to fit snuggly into a political ideology; libertarians, socialists, conservatives, etc. will all disagree with one another on several various issues. This is okay, that’s how ideologies improve is disagreement and slight adjustment. President Obama and Hillary Clinton both stated that they believed same-sex marriage shouldn’t be legal, until they eventually changed their minds, likely in part as the result of people further down the political spectrum from them (people they might have used for Sister Souljah moments). If your goal is demonstrate to everyone that
you’re objective on a topic, the way to accomplish that is by being objective, not by trashing individuals or people that have nothing to do with the argument at hand. More importantly, put pressure on politicians who use this tactic to stop using it.
Dylan James Harper is the Chief Political Editor for CSuiteMusic