ROSELAND — Sister Souljah once rapped with the trailblazing hip-hop group Public Enemy and was denounced by then presidential candidate Bill Clinton for what he called extremist comments on racial violence.
To the more than 200 fans that came to see her speak at a South Side library over the weekend, she is better known as a beloved best-selling author who has written eloquent coming-of-age novels such as 1999's "The Coldest Winter Ever," which sold more than 1 million copies.
Appearing Sunday at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library at 9525 S. Halsted St., Souljah — who was born in the Bronx as Lisa Williamson — openly spoke about her career as an activist, musician, public speaker and literary powerhouse. Her resume now includes another book, "A Deeper Love Inside: The Portia Santiago Story," a sequel to "The Coldest Winter Ever," which was released earlier this year.
Although she said she was willing to answer questions about "anything," she told the audience, “I am here to talk about literature.”
She ended up answering as many questions about the creative writing process and about characters in her five books as about her days rapping with Public Enemy more than 20 years ago. The standing room-only crowd featured many middle-aged fans clutching her books or wearing the well-known colors of Public Enemy.
Souljah, 49, who now lives in Jersey City, said she felt welcomed in Chicago, where she spent a better part of last week.
“I feel safe and loved and all that good stuff,” she said. But she noted the segregation in the city, which is much different than what's she's used to on the East Coast.
"In Brooklyn, you got every race on the block," she said.
She explained that “I write books because they are a great way to reach people in a moving and entertaining way. I grew up in New York City and spent a lot of time in the public libraries, looking for books that related to our challenges, our triumphs and our beauties."
She said "The Coldest Winter Ever" was written as a response to the negative images of young blacks, whom she said need to read realistic impressions of themselves.
She said she first put pen to paper as a means to move people in the same way other famous black leaders did.
"I wanted to write something as powerful as Malcolm X's autobiography," she said. "Fiction can convey reality. The thing about being an author is it gives you literary license.”
While she is no longer rapping, she said art, music and literature "should move the soul. If it doesn't move the soul, then it is something else."
Although she burst onto the scene rapping with Public Enemy in 1990, she said she actually got involved earlier as a student activist at Rutgers, where she created a summer camp for 200 children of homeless families.
“Music was not my first love. My first love was the community, as a community activist," she said. "Hip-hop was a vehicle to the heart and soul of my people. Hip-hop introduced ideas that schools didn't introduce; told the aspirations of the 'hood. It inspired young people to criticize the system. With [Public Enemy], it was so successful at politicizing the world.”
She became part of the political lexicon when, in 1992, Clinton, while running for the Democratic nomination for president, denounced her comments to the Washington Post about black-on-white violence during the riots in LA.
"If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" she was quoted as saying. " … White people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?"
Since then, a "Sister Souljah moment" has come to mean when a politician denounces extremists from their own party or ideology.
Now, she speaks publicly about strengthening African-American families, black leadership, race and other topics, and her books are being used to connect with gang members.
One teacher in the audience Sunday said she uses Souljah's books such as "Midnight: A Gangster Love Story," to teach literature to "gangsta males. They are well received."
Souljah, whose trip was sponsored by Johnson College Prep, a Chicago Public Schools charter at 6350 S. Stewart Ave., advocated for community-based literature classes in the inner city.
The mother of a son, she also answered questions about whether she lets him listen to risky rap lyrics.
"We listen to everything," she said, but said they discuss topics if necessary.
The Q&A was still going strong after an hour, when a library official told Souljah she had to wrap it up.
An audience member suggested taking the speech "to the street."
After the talk, fans filled the lobby waiting for her autograph.