From controversial rapper to best-selling writer

CATCHING UP WITH ... SISTER SOULJAH

Passion still burns in a woman whose words, once considered dangerous, now inspire.

February 24, 2002|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CATONSVILLE -- Dressed simply in a white shirt, black pants and flat shoes, her hair parted and held back with barrettes, Sister Souljah appears youthful and, somewhat surprisingly, most unassuming when taking the stage. With a shy smile, she slowly begins speaking, her demeanor somewhat tentative at first.

For a moment, one wonders if the one-time rapper, activist and author can sway this predominantly black crowd of 200 or so students, faculty and others assembled recently at the University of Maryland Baltimore County's University Center Ballroom.

But it's not how you start, it's how you finish. This is, after all, the same woman who, back in 1992, sparred publicly with then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, after he denounced her rap lyrics as violent and racist. Today, the 36-year-old wife, mother and businesswoman no longer makes rap albums, but her rhetoric remains fiery.

Soon, her crisp voice is punctuating the air like a verbal exclamation point as she tackles issues of race, class, gender, politics, American pop culture, materialism and more.

"Our community in particular needs excellent doctors, engineers and lawyers," she says. "Not just professionals who are going to do exactly what others in those areas do, but who are going to design new approaches that help African people in the African community. That help to move the ghetto and the projects -- where our people are disproportionately represented -- to a higher level."

Souljah is the longtime director of Daddy's House Social Programs in New York City. The nonprofit group, financed by rap mogul Sean Combs, gives academic and social support to urban youth ages 6-16. It is part of her mission to heal the many ills of urban America -- poverty, self-hatred, insufficient education -- things she says exist in communities of color all over the world.

"It's important for black children to know and understand this history, ... that it's systematic and how it happens year after year."

Souljah blames racism and capitalism. But she also says African-Americans have moved away from communal traditions that served them well in Africa, designed to keep families and the collective strong.

"American society teaches rugged individualism. ... African culture teaches that 'I means we,' " she says. "But what happens in the black community is that we don't handle our business, so it becomes somebody else's business.

"Materially, we have more. More cars, more clothes, more hairstyles. Now that we have everything, ... we have less love."

Pride in upbringing

During her UMBC appearance, sponsored by the school's office of Multicultural Affairs for Black History Month, Souljah -- nee Lisa Williamson -- also spoke candidly about growing up in the so-called ghetto. She lived with her mother and three siblings for many years in a Bronx public high-rise before moving to New Jersey.

"We were raised on welfare, free cheese, free peanut butter, food stamps, long lines, Section 8 housing," she said, chuckling, while noting that many people with similar backgrounds often downplay or deny their past. "Well, I claim my ghetto roots," she continued. "Even though there are negative things, there are a lot of positive things. For instance, the ghetto makes you strong. You learn street-level smarts. ... You [had to] learn to be a survivor."

The Rutgers University graduate says she managed to survive through book smarts and education.

Her mother encouraged her to read, and made sure she had a library card. By age 5, Souljah was discovering heroines like Harriet Tubman, a leader of the Underground Railroad that aided escaping slaves.

In high school, she landed a congressional internship in Washington and was also part of an advanced placement program at Cornell University.

From there, she studied abroad at the University of Salamanca in Spain and volunteered at a medical clinic in Africa. She has traveled the world as a speaker; along the way, she has garnered scholarships, oratorical awards and many other honors.

But there have also been troubles and travails. Like many young women, Souljah has come through the fire of bad relationships and other personal struggles. She examines some of them in her first book, a memoir titled No Disrespect, and still talks about them now.

"I see myself as an example of mistakes made and mistakes corrected," she says. "Whatever you were doing yesterday, you can do something radically different tomorrow."

Novel sparks interest

In some ways, that theme underscores her best-selling debut novel, The Coldest Winter Ever, a poignant and cautionary coming-of-age tale about Winter Santiaga, the teen-age daughter of a Brooklyn drug kingpin.

The book made the New York Times best-seller list and has sold more than a half-million copies. Its success has resulted in an HBO movie deal that Souljah will write and produce through her own company, Souljah Story Inc. Baltimore native Jada Pinkett Smith is slated to play the title role and serve as executive producer for the film.

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