Sister Souljah's Call to Arms: The rapper says the riots were payback. Are you paying attention?

By David Mills
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 1992

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.

Sister Souljah, from the song "The Hate That Hate Produced," 1992

After the Rodney King verdict and its fiery aftermath, Sister Souljah, a rapper and orator, appeared on NBC's "Sunday Today" with Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). And she sat alongside black professors from Yale and Columbia on Bill Moyers's PBS series "Listening to America."

She calmly explained that African Americans are "at war," and that the explosion in Los Angeles was "revenge" against a system of white oppression.

But during an interview in Washington last week, Souljah's empathy for the rioters reached a chilling extreme. Forget the statistics emerging on the racial variety of looters and people who died. Forget the economic motives of those who plundered stores. To Souljah, this was a black-on-white "rebellion," plain and simple and righteous.

"I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I'm saying? In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that somebody thinks that white people are better, or above dying, when they would kill their own kind?"

As she said on "Sunday Today": "Unfortunately for white people, they think it's all right for our children to die, for our men to be in prison, and not theirs."

Sister Souljah will be back on "Today" this morning, live from Burbank. Consider it a wake-up call.

Whose analysis of the violence in Los Angeles, in the months and years to come, will matter more? The conservative pundit's, placing blame squarely on young criminals who "terrorized" a city? The liberal politician's, bemoaning poverty and the neglect of our cities? Or the radical rapper's, asserting that white people and Korean merchants had it coming?

Ask the kids who watch MTV.

The King verdict and its backlash have shown America the power of hip-hop music as a political medium. Television coverage of the crisis confirmed, as never before, the status of hard-edged rappers as spokesmen for the black lower class, delegates of America's angry youth. Opinion-makers. Leaders.

"Whoever wants to speak to young people will have to come through the corridor of hip-hop," says Sister Souljah, whose debut album, "360 Degrees of Power," came out last month. Born Lisa Williamson twentysomething years ago, she was a New York community activist and established public speaker before launching her rap career under the auspices of Public Enemy, standard-bearers of hip-hop's militant wing. As rap has grown in popularity among black and white listeners, offering everything from cute kids (Kris Kross) to professing Christians (Hammer) to raunchy comedians (2 Live Crew), political rappers have come to be considered its conscience.

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© 1992 The Washington Post Company