African Americans and America-at-Large Dismiss Hip Hop Activists

The current controversy with Ice Cube, the Clinton debacle with Sister Souljah 30 years earlier, and the dismissive tone that academia takes with Hip Hop scholarship are long acts of continual high-handed dismissal of socio-economic, political activism Hip Hop artists and those who actively participate in Hip Hop culture. Sadly, this is nothing new.

In 1992, during the height of the Los Angeles riots, RAP recording artist and activist Sister Souljah (Lisa Williamson) was giving an interview in which she was trying to explain the mindset of the average gang member. Lisa Williamson, who grew up in public housing on welfare in New York and New Jersey, worked hard and eventually graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in American history and African studies. After graduating, she took a job working with the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice where she organized concerts for homeless children and families to attend six weeks of camps in North Carolina. She worked tirelessly crusading against the infamous “welfare hotels” that exploited African Americans and Black immigrants in New York. Yes, she also worked with gang members.

Lisa Williamson became a member of the activist RAP group, Public Enemy, and was renamed, Sister Souljah by Chuck D. When the riots broke out in Los Angeles, she was trying to explain the mindset of gang members and asked a rhetorical question during a Washington Post interview: “I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” A transcript of the interview can be found at the following link.

That one question from a very long interview that included the Hammurabi code, was lifted from the pages, spliced, diced, and shown to then candidate President William Bill Clinton, who called Souljah a “racist.” It was obvious that Clinton did not understand RAP music, he did not understand Hip Hop activism, and knew nothing about Lisa Williamson and her commitment to grassroots activism. To this day, I wonder why none of his advisers told him to just remain silent on the matter.

I am equally outraged that many in the media and the political class, including African Americans, stood by Clinton and dubbed his words against Souljah as his “Sister Souljah moment.” He won kudos with many, including older African Americans for his strong words against her and her brand of activism. It was like Clinton and others in his age bracket, black and white, were saying, “Sit down and shut up while grown folk are talking.”

For her part, Souljah did not sit down and shut up while the grown folk were talking. She continued to defend herself.

She went on to become a best-selling author.

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Sadly, I see the same thing happening with Ice Cube. It’s like America, and African Americans, have a vested interest in treating Hip Hop activists like spoiled brats who have nothing to say.

And this is for several reasons. 1.) Hip Hop activists tend to be younger than Baby Boomers. They did not experience the sweltering summer of 1963. They were not around for Nixon and Barry Goldwater. They did not witness the assassinations of Malcolm, Medgar, and Martin. They never experienced segregation first-hand. Therefore, they (I should say “we”) are not seen as people who have anything to complain about. We haven’t gone through anything “real” as Black people. Right? I once had an elder to tell me that to my face. I tried to read a paper on Ida B. Wells-Barnett and this same lady was so rude to me, that I asked her to leave the presentation. According to her, I was too young to know anything about struggle at all, especially since my entire education was at white institutions. She later apologized to me, because she taught some of my students and she said that they were some of the brightest, most well-read, intellectual students she had ever encountered and in the end, she was ashamed of the way she’d behaved towards me. I told her that I understand the metanarrative that she’d so easily believed about those of my generation. It would seem that our material comfort compared to their lack of material comfort makes everything better. This is capitalist America and that’s what capitalism is all about, but scratch beneath the surface and the struggle continues. We actually outlined on the board everything that has happened to those post-Baby Boomer and the list was LOOOOOONG: the AIDS epidemic, Vietnam Veterans with their PTSD, the heroin epidemic followed by the crack epidemic that ravaged all of our neighborhoods, our failing school systems and the standardized testing measures, resegregation of our school systems, OJ Simpson, Rodney King, Ronald Reagan’s trickle down economic theories, and a couple of exploding rocket ships in our faces. Yes, we have gone through a lot. The sad part is, it was late in the evening, and we didn’t even make it to the terror attacks or the fact that everyone is being reduced to a credit score and the slew of serial killers that targeted women since the 1970s.

2.) Hip Hop activists don’t follow the South-to-North-Great-Migration-African-American metanarrative. Most Hip Hop activists hale from the North and West. Sister Souljah is from New York/New Jersey. Today, we are in a heated controversy with Ice Cube, who is from Los Angeles. The metanarrative that grips African American historiography is “South is bad. North is good.” Since 1832, activists have been telling us that that is simply not the case. Maria W. Stewart was the first political essayist to leave behind a unified body of political work. In one of her earlier and most famous speeches, she simply said that she DID NOT want to hear anything more about Southern slavery. As a resident of Boston, she could testify that Northerners were just as racist. Black residents of Bostons, though nominally free, were not much better off than Southern slaves. Read the speech in its entirety below.

People tend to forget that Phyllis Wheatley was a slave in New England. She launched the African American literary tradition and the Black woman literary tradition. She could not get anyone to publish her writings in American, so her poems were published in England. Sojourner Truth was a slave in New England. The Civil Rights Movement started in New York, and not in Alabama when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat (and even that was a P.R. re-do) but that is another posting.

The NAACP Silent Parade of 1917 in New York kicked off African Americans’ long tradition of public, peaceful protest in America in response gross, state-sponsored police brutality and violence. The picture below was downloaded from Blackpast.org.

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While Ice Cube is currently involved in a political controversy for a letter that he sent to President Trump AND TO DEMOCRATS, he has a long record of speaking out against the police brutality in L.A. His albums, Predator and AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, are viable records of how police brutality and Black-on-Black crime are two sides of the same coin in Los Angeles. But like we always do in Black America, we missed the message because of the (w)rapper. As a matter of fact, I have already posted a blog on that. When we discard ourselves of the cloak and ear muffs of the politics of respectability politics, we may be able to see and hear more clearly. But, I just do not know when that will be.

In addition to Ice Cube, another Los Angeles artist, Wanda Coleman, kept an astute record of the racial/political/social/economic injustices of that city. I would not have known about the killing of Latasha Harlins, which really sparked the L.A. riots, if I had not been reading one of her essays. Of course, killing a young, Black girl did not make the national news. I ran across her name in Coleman’s book.

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3.) Hip Hop culture is a product of the Black Arts Movement, which is relegated to the “ghetto” of academic discourse. Though the Black Arts Movement is largely responsible for the democratization of higher education curriculum across the country, it is relegated to the ghetto of academia. I am not sure why little to no attention is paid to the Black Arts Movement and its offspring. In literature, there is a rush to theorize Naturalism/Realism in African American letters, a brief mention of the Black arts movement for its homophobia and its misogyny, then off to the feminist backlash of the 1980s so that everyone can get to Alice Walker and Toni Morrison as fast as we possibly can. At first, I thought it was the lure of Toni Morrison, whose writing is a force of nature. Honestly. It is. Then, I began to look at the dismissive tone that many Black academics take towards the Black Arts Movement. There is more to that Movement than homophobia and misogyny. We’re talking Sonia Sanchez, Giovanni, Cortez, Mari Evans, and Kathleen Collins here. Cortez had a RAP group called the Fire Spitters. I’m like, “Stop. Wait a minute.” We’re skipping over one of the most powerful lines of poetry that has ever been written, “Black love is Black wealth.” That’s Giovanni. What is going on with this dismissal? What is this? Then I began to look at it and really see it for what it is: this is the language of poverty…most of it. It is the unbridled language of the Northern ghetto that doesn’t fit the South (bad)-gone-up-North-to-better-narrative that Black folk have told ourselves so much that we believe it.

People do not want to understand RAPtivists like Cube and Souljah. They do not fit our security blanket psychology. And that’s sad. You know, one of our nations in West Africa has a word for repeating a stupid history. I wish that I could offer it here. But I cannot. The spirit of that word is that we repeat a stupid history, because we do not know our history. What if we’re repeating a stupid history, because we do not want to know our history? What if we’re having a “Sister Souljah moment” with Ice Cube, because we do not ever want to listen to what Hip Hop activists have to say?

I teach a class called Hip Hop and Creative Expression. This is part of a lecture that I will give later this week. If you like it here, press the hands. If you really like it, enroll in the class!

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. She specializes in literature of the African Diaspora and cultural criticism.

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