It was 8 a.m. on a weekday morning, and the phone rang three times before someone picked up on the other end. In the faintest whisper, a voice struggled to say hello.
"Yes," she replied, the word coming out in a breathy squeak, as if blown from a dog whistle. Her tone seemed uncharacteristic of the boisterous rapper and social activist who made headlines in the early '90s. But her insistence on continuing the conversation, despite the obvious interruption of her sleep, seemed true to form.
After bursting onto the political scene in the early '90s as hip-hop's smart, radical and controversial commentator, and then re-emerging as a sharp and game-changing novelist in the late '90s, Sister Souljah has settled into an active life away from the media spotlight. But her presence is still felt. The author, novelist, MC, lecturer, and political and community activist is back with her fourth book, Midnight and the Meaning of Love.
Midnight is a character from Sister Souljah's first and second novels, New York Times best-seller The Coldest Winter Ever and Midnight: A Gangster's Love Story. The Coldest Winter Ever, which garnered Sister Souljah a cultlike following and national recognition as a best-selling novelist, was credited with reinvigorating the street-literature genre. The Urban Book Source named Sister Souljah to its Top 10 Street Lit Authors list, noting that she was "responsible for single-handedly rejuvenating the genre during its dry spell." But Sister Souljah rejects that description of her work.
"I'm not in sync with this street-lit genre," she told The Root. "I think that when European authors or Euro-American authors write about urban, suburban or rural areas, it's just called literature. So I call my work literature, and anyone who reads my books knows that it's literature."
Her latest novel is a love story about a teenage, Sudanese-born, Muslim-immigrant ninja warrior and his Japanese wife who live together in — wait for it — Brooklyn, N.Y. But the novel's complicated plot and international scope are evidence that her wide-ranging interests and influences extend far beyond black America's borders. She's traveled to Europe, Latin America and Africa throughout her career and weaves those experiences into her work.
"I've always been a writer and a thinker interested in philosophy, history and culture," she said.
Her writing and diverse interests might come as a surprise to those who remember Sister Souljah only from her high-profile tiff with a sitting president. In 1992, though, one would have been hard-pressed to miss Sister Souljah on the radio circuit, since she was an active political commentator before she began penning novels.
Her often bold — and controversial — statements made the perfect quotes and sound bites for the very racially charged Rodney King era. In one such statement, immortalized in a now-infamous interview with the Washington Post, Sister Souljah gave this tongue-in-cheek defense of the people responsible for Los Angeles' deadly riots in 1992: "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?"
Her remarks fueled a growing anti-hip-hop movement in politics and came to a head when President Bill Clinton publicly denounced her statements, culminating in what is now is referred to in politics as the "Sister Souljah moment." Since then she's all but disappeared from the mainstream-media circuit. Her biography on her website vaguely suggests that her media absence is intentional, stating that she was more active "before the political shutdown and attack on American 1st amendment rights." But Sister Souljah insists that her active college-lecture tour schedule generates media attention.
"The information is there," she said of her elusive media presence. "I travel, lecturing at colleges across the country, and the press is there."
Her talks, ranging in topic from relationships to entrepreneurship to career advice, are geared toward a generation of students who she says may excel academically but are not equipped to deal with life's challenges. In 2006 she famously and bluntly asked an audience of college students at Claflin University, "How can you be a physics major and be shocked when you get pregnant from having sex?"
While Sister Souljah insists she never left the scene, fans of her music might beg to differ. She became a member of Public Enemy in 1992 after Chuck D invited her to join the group because of her reputation as a hands-on community activist. "I got involved in PE because Chuck D said to me one day, 'It's like you're living my rhymes,' " she said. "He was basically saying that he was rhyming about the issues, but that I was out there working with the youth, the homeless, living in the hood and organizing curriculums."
With a bustling college-lecture tour, book tours and plans for her fifth novel, it is unclear whether or not we will witness the return of Sister Souljah, the MC. She says she has recorded more music since her debut solo album, 360 Degrees of Power, but insists that although she loves hip-hop, she is a writer first.
"My foray into music was more about me recognizing that hip-hop was intimately intertwined with the youth community, and that in order to access their ear, you almost had to be a part of that hip-hop vehicle," she said.
Die-hard Sister Souljah fans are probably less interested in her return to the mic and most anxious for the big-screen adaptation of The Coldest Winter Ever. In 2008 Vibe magazine reported that Jada Pinkett Smith was slated to executive-produce a film based on the book, but no formal plans have been announced.
"I always intended for all of my books to be films," she said. "When I get the right creative situation, people will see them on the screen."
In addition to working toward the film adaptations of her books, she will continue to base future novels on characters from The Coldest Winter Ever. Up next to star in her own novel is Winter's younger sister, Porsche Santiaga.
Sister Souljah's novels, her college lectures, her social activism — they're all fueled by what she refers to as a "pursuit of purpose." When asked if there's any one book or moment of which she's particularly proud, she demurred.
"I don't sit around and think about how proud I am of myself or how I can become proud of myself," she said. "I've done so many things, and everything I do, I try to make it very meaningful. Some things touch me, and some things touch others, you know?"
Akoto Ofori-Atta is The Root's editorial office manager.