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A Voice for Change in a Material World

April 13, 1999|SOREN BAKER

When political activism within hip-hop music was at its height nearly a decade ago, Sister Souljah emerged as a strong female voice in this predominantly male arena.

Then 27, the Rutgers University graduate regularly joined Public Enemy, one of the genre's most politically charged and commercially successful groups, in denouncing an American society that she said suffocated minorities and their opportunities for advancement.

Her rap album "360 Degrees of Power" (Epic, 1992) and her autobiography, "No Disrespect" (Random House 1994), revolved around similar themes--respect in the community and acknowledging African American history.

Today marks the release of her first work of fiction, "The Coldest Winter Ever" (Pocket Books). In it, she details the struggle between Winter Santiaga, the daughter of a powerful New York drug dealer, and those who try to direct her from a destructive lifestyle, bringing out the dichotomy between activists and materialistic youth, who, in Souljah's opinion, are all about clothes, sex and themselves.

Question: The protagonist in your book, Winter Santiaga, is extremely materialistic. In many ways, that character seems to reflect values that are also expressed in hip-hop lyrics.

Answer: I see Winter's mind-set in a lot of young girls. I see it in a lot of women, period. That state of mind is being pushed through music, film, commercials, the entertainment industry. I work with teens in urban areas, and I experience a collage of different attitudes. Many of today's teens have a very individualistic mentality that can be summed up in, "It's all about me, me, me." You can see it in Winter. I wanted to put a mirror to that state of mind so people could decide whether it is beneficial or not.

Q: You are a character in your book. Why integrate yourself into a work of fiction?

A: As a young adult female trying to push positivity, you always get a lot of hatred. Many people, young and old, are unwilling to change, and display hostility toward anybody who points out the problems or mistakes of our families, communities, societies. I wanted to show through my writing the tension between a sister who wants to change the world for the better and another sister who feels she should mind only her own business.

Q: Throughout the book, you talk about the cyclical nature of drugs and oppression. What are the steps people can take so that they won't succumb to these things?

A: People who have been through it need to tell their stories and be featured. [Frequently] political activism focuses around celebrity in the same way that music and films do. Sometimes we need to highlight the lives of people who have actually gone through these ups and downs to show kids what it involves.

Q: What are the challenges someone like you faces in reaching the youth who may have a background similar to Winter's?

A: The main thing you can show an individual who has been involved in drugs is that there are businesses that are legal, less dangerous and less destructive to other people in which you can use your talent and creativity to build up, make strong and profitable to you. It's beyond just needing a job. The younger generation needs to understand how to convert their creativity and talent into business that helps them survive in a capitalistic structure. Anybody who's not talking about that is irrelevant as an activist.

Q: Rappers such as Master P and Ice Cube give back to the community. You work for Puff Daddy's nonprofit organization, Daddy's House in New York. Why aren't more hip-hop artists more outspoken about giving back to their communities?

A: I don't think the majority of hip-hop artists are willing to be perceived as political personalities. They just want to focus on the entertainment aspect because it's very safe. If you're just making people feel good, making them dance and laugh, no one can really knock you for that. Once you take a political stand, you're shrinking your audience, and that's a sacrifice people in hip-hop and entertainment aren't willing to take.

Also, a lot of young artists are intimidated by politics and activism because they lack education in those fields. Politically, historically, culturally, they don't feel secure. What you have is a lot of artists who take the essence out of great historical figures in the black community but leave the politics on the side. A lot of people want to be Malcolm X without the politics.

Festival of Books

*For Sister Souljah will participate in the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

April 24-25

at UCLA.

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