“Most people won’t accept my activism and this album until after I’m dead! And the blood’s all over the ground. Maybe in a year, or two, or five. Then all the money-making bloodsuckers will come out with hats, coats, buttons, and posters, and maybe even movies. And people will lie and say, ‘YEAH! I was down with her! She was bad, yeah she was fine, yeah she gave those white people hell y’know.” Well the truth is, this album is from my heart to my people based on my experiences with America. Furthermore, this album is from one lonely, but powerful, black Souljah.”
When Sister Souljah first yelled “We are at WAR!” on “Buck Whylin'” from Terminator X’s album “Valley of the Jeep Beats,” she set the tone for her future solo album. That album seemed necessary based on charisma alone. While “Buck Whylin'” is a Public Enemy song in all but name, with Chuck D verses and Terminator X cutting and scratching, Souljah nearly stole the show with epithets like “If the truth hurts, you’ll be in pain/If the truth drives you crazy you’ll be insane!” In the span of just four minutes and change, she established herself as a powerful voice in hip-hop, one whose words we all needed to heed. For Public Enemy listeners “360 Degrees of Power” was highly anticipated, but its intro seemed to anticipate her being a martyr to AmeriKKKa before we heard her words. Songs like “The Hate That Hate Produced” contextualized her rhetoric from “Buck Whylin'” while turning the heat up MORE than 360 degrees.
“The time for scared, lip-trembling, word-changing,
Self-denying, compromising, knee-shakin’ black people is over!
If you have something to say, speak up with
authority and conviction
If not, sit down and shut up!”
Souljah had no time or patience for slowly changing minds and hearts. She was strident, militant and assertive in a way few rappers outside of P.E. or X Clan were. In fact I think one could assert that she was the most outspoken female rapper in 1992, and there was no one filled with more righteous fury and anger than this Sister. It was palpable even in the prelude to songs with provocative titles like “The Final Solution: Slavery’s Back In Effect.” If you thought you could be the token white person who offered Souljah a helping hand with her cause, she was going to slap it back into your face HARD.
“If your white great-great grandfather
KILLED my great-great grandfather
And your white great grandfather
SOLD my great grandfather
And your white grandfather
RAPED my grandmother
And your father stole, cheated, lied and ROBBED my father
What kind of fool would I have to be to say
‘Come, my friend!’ to the white daughter and son?”
Politicians and pundits alike were quick to jump on the bandwagon of demonizing her for her words. Sister Souljah did not shy away from the controversy or back down in any way — she doubled down at every chance possible. When the Washington Post asked her for her opinion of the L.A. Riots in 1992 her response was succinct: “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” If you didn’t know what to expect from “360 Degrees of Power” after that then you just weren’t paying attention. As she said on “Killing Me Softly: Deadly Code of Silence” featuring Ice Cube, “I don’t care how you feel or what/cause Sister Souljah don’t give a fuck!” True.
Thankfully she did not become a martyr in the literal sense that she predicted at the start of her album, but the album itself did. Lisa Williamson went on to a very successful career as an author and public speaker, but “360 Degrees of Power” only sold 27,000 copies and now fetches the outlandish prices you’d expect for a print run that low. Her videos were banned from MTV, and her opinions were rebuked by then Presidential candidate Bill Clinton in such a public way it actually became a term unto itself — a “Sister Souljah moment.” In practice it’s when a politician running for or holding office seeks to distance themselves from the allegedly extremist views of someone in their own base. It’s like Democrats decrying Bernie Sanders for being “too liberal” or “left wing” in the hope that moderate voters will sway their way. In other words it’s scapegoating mixed with grandstanding. “Trust me! I’m not like those dangerous radicals over there.”
It shouldn’t escape anyone’s attention that Clinton propelled himself into the White House by repudiating Sister Souljah. It should also be said though that Souljah was going to say exactly what was on her mind no matter WHO demonized her. Republicans, Democrats, liberals and conservatives would all find her a convenient target just because she made white people quake in their shoes. The only thing that’s changed in the last 30 years is that nothing’s changed at all. Politicians may say they want to unite and work for the common good, but they know nothing drives voters to the polls more than creating a boogeyman to scare them. It doesn’t matter if it’s real or fictitious so long as it sticks, and because it plays to our worst nature as human beings, it almost always works.
What all of this misses though is that Sister Souljah was mad at everybody on “360 Degrees of Power.” She was mad at the white people who benefited from slavery without ever having owned slaves, and she was equally mad at the black people with a “slave mentality” who wouldn’t do right by their brothers and sisters. Her anger at injustice and wickedness, her self-described “war between good and evil” breathes through every track, but it doesn’t generally result in good music. The Bomb Squad’s own Eric “Vietnam” Sadler has his thumbprints all over the music, and the beats and melodies hit as hard as you’d expect from vintage Public Enemy music from this era. Souljah doesn’t really rap though. She yells a lot. Even if you agree with the points she’s making, it gets tiresome after a while. The tracks where she manages to buckle down and flow to the beat (like the title song) show she’s perfectly capable of doing so but really doesn’t want to.
In summary “360 Degrees of Power” is an important album historically even if it’s not the greatest way to spend 45 minutes of your life. Sister Souljah is a Queen and should be respected as such, but politicians tried to make her nothing more than a pawn in their own game. Thankfully her voice wasn’t silenced by them demonizing her and she’d continue to make people uncomfortable with her activism and her unapologetic views. Souljah’s legacy is far greater than this one album and that’s exactly as it should be.