Sister Souljah doesn’t watch TV anymore—she says the VH1 reality series Basketball Wives, “the show with all of the women who are not wives at all,” sapped her appetite for the medium a few years ago. But she’s aware that her name comes up a lot. “I receive calls all the time saying, Sister Souljah, they mentioned you on CNN or Orange Is the New Black! This news anchor mentioned you!”
Sipping mineral water at a Whole Foods in New York City’s Upper West Side neighborhood, she pauses. “And none of the mentions have involved an interview, a meeting, nothing.”
Who needs an interview to know what a Sister Souljah moment is? In 1992, the then rapper entered the lexicon when Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, eager to differentiate himself from the rest of the Democratic field, attacked her for supposedly fomenting hate. After that year’s riots in Los Angeles, Souljah had said in an interview that “if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Clinton compared her to David Duke, the former politician, convicted felon and KKK Grand Wizard. Souljah stands by what she has said. “If you ask me my view, even if it’s not your view, you have to handle that,” she says. “Don’t tell me I hurt your feelings. I’m not your kindergarten teacher.”
But in the past 16 years, she’s moved beyond the role of national provocateur and into that of successful novelist. That reference on Orange Is the New Black isn’t to anything Clinton said; it’s that Souljah’s books are in the prison library. Her five novels, including her newest, A Moment of Silence: Midnight III, out this month, have sold nearly 2 million copies, according to her publisher. In the acknowledgments to A Moment of Silence, Souljah reserves special thanks for the prison population for having “purchased, passed around, shared and discussed” her work.
Souljah reads little fiction—her favorite recent books are Mike Tyson’s memoir, Undisputed Truth, and Jeremy Scahill’s national-security investigation, Dirty Wars. But she takes credit for creating “a renaissance, or what Chuck D of Public Enemy would call a revolution, of reading.” Her first novel, The Coldest Winter Ever (1999), is credited with helping popularize street lit, or urban literature—a genre that began during the Black Power movement, when a prisoner writing under the pen name Iceberg Slim published a memoir that circulated outside traditional bookstores. Today the genre thrives in American cities, placing an unapologetically melodramatic cast on all too real American experiences. Its impact can be felt in the manner that, on TV, Empire merges social consciousness with soap. Indeed, Empire co-creator Lee Daniels broke out in Hollywood with his adaptation of the street-lit novel Push; it became the Oscar-winning film Precious. As a genre, street lit rose to prominence being sold literally on the street, in self-published or independently published editions. Push author Sapphire and erotica author Zane are among Souljah’s most prominent contemporaries; both, like her, work with major publishers.
It’s little wonder then that Souljah is uncomfortable with the street label: “I’m a college graduate, and if I read something like Romeo and Juliet, I’m reading about a gang fight, I’m reading about young love, young sex, longing. I’m reading the same themes that I’m writing in my books. So if somebody comes along and says, ‘Yours is street literature’—what was Shakespeare’s?”
Souljah’s ambitions are certainly Shakespearean. A Moment of Silence is her fourth novel since 2008; at 535 pages, it follows her long-running character Midnight (who’d been on a sojourn in Japan in 2011’s Midnight and the Meaning of Love) into prison, where he discovers just how innocent he used to be. When Midnight, a Sudanese Muslim in Brooklyn, sees a leaflet forbidding sex between prisoners, he assumes it’s to protect female guards.
The book tackles expansive themes, including honor (“Honor is honesty in action, fairness in action, and integrity in action,” Midnight says) and the collision of faith and the modern world. “Women can do everything,” Midnight tells a love interest. “But women should do it among women, and men among men.” (Souljah denies that she’s espousing any particular views of her own in presenting her characters’ views. “When I’m writing, I’m totally comfortable and I’m not thinking about how people will feel about it,” she says. “I’m thinking about the craft of storytelling, things that are woven very beautifully like a fine carpet.”)
It’s a book robustly packed with both incident and thought. “I feel good that some people may be swept away by Fifty Shades of Grey,” Souljah says, “but there’s a whole crowd that loves these stories that go much deeper.”
In order to facilitate her revolution of reading, Souljah works within the mainstream publishing industry, which is largely though not exclusively staffed with white editors. Asked if the industry is too homogeneous, Souljah scoffs, “That’s a nice euphemism.” She’s willing to let her track record serve as her answer. “I sell books in a community where people share books,” she says. “I sell books to the youth who borrow them from the library. If there was a person in publishing who didn’t want to be in business with Sister Souljah, you would be looking at a fool.”
Midnight often tells the reader exactly what he’s thinking in plainspoken philosophical terms. In that way, he’s a lot like his creator, who chooses her words carefully but has no trouble lobbing cultural critiques. Though she has never watched the show, Souljah will speak out about her distaste for Scandal’s depiction of Kerry Washington’s character (“The way you conduct yourself as a woman—my idea is live my life respectfully so I can be respected”). Fittingly for a former M.C. who released an album in 1992, she follows the state of hip-hop; she finds its current practitioners wanting. Referring to Kanye West, she says, “He’s not Chuck D. There are people that love liquor, wine connoisseurs. You know the difference when you’re drinking well-aged wonderful wine or some cheap thing. I’m just a very high-quality person. Even when I was the poorest girl from the Bronx, living in the projects, eating welfare cheese, I’ve always been a high-quality female.”
Souljah will speak only in vague terms about the presidential campaign, in which the wife of her onetime detractor is a front runner. “The only time I vote is if my soul is moved to do so,” she says. “If people are caught in the grips of choosing between eight or 10 candidates they hate—what is that? It’s almost like you are a political hostage.”
But what does she think of Hillary Clinton? She pauses for a long moment, then pulls out an unsealed envelope. “I want to control what I say so that I can be quoted properly. I have this past history of being misquoted or misunderstood.” She slides an index card across the table. It reads, “She reminds me too much of the slave plantation white wife of the white ‘Master.’ She talks down to people, is condescending and pandering. She even talked down to the Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama, while she was under his command!”
Souljah has prepared two more index cards, one indicating that racism’s power is such that President Obama is “fearful and powerless to stop his military and police force from executing innocent people based on race.” This is the same rhetorical framing, more or less, as Souljah’s message in the 1990s, that black people in America are, despite their best attempts at transcending a violent system, powerless. And yet it feels far less controversial, possibly even obvious, today.
“One of the things that I tried to make clear,” Souljah says, “is that racism is a system of power. And that system did not go away. There have been changes in the nuances of it, but the system is still intact, and it’s still institutionalized.” Out of the spotlight, she’s able now to communicate her ideas through fiction that keeps her readership engrossed year after year. It’s a use of her fame that’s more comfortable, perhaps, than being a punching bag for politicians.
Not that Souljah minds. “People say, ‘What is a Sister Souljah moment?’ And I say, ‘That’s when you meet a beautiful, powerful woman—and you just can’t forget her.’”