Rene Marie, Meet Sister Souljah

Anyone who was surprised that Barack Obama criticized Denver jazz vocalist Rene Marie for singing the tune popularly known as the Black National Anthem instead of the "Star-Spangled Banner" prior to Mayor John Hickenlooper's state-of-the-city speech doesn't have a very long memory. In doing so, he was simply having a "Sister Souljah Moment" -- a phenomenon named after the 1992 verbal whupping future president Bill Clinton put on Lisa Williamson, aka the aforementioned Sister, a hip-hop artist and provocateur, as a way of distancing himself from Jesse Jackson and others on what was perceived to be the ultra-liberal extreme of the Democratic Party.

Clinton and his handlers realized that to succeed in that November's election, they needed to reassure moderates he wouldn't immediately veer to the far left the second he took office -- a process currently taking place with Obama, too. Sister Souljah provided the perfect opportunity to do so, thanks to a quote she gave to the Washington Post; in a reference to riots in Los Angeles, she said, "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" By criticizing this comment and another from a music video at an event affiliated with the Rainbow Coalition the day after the good Sister addressed the same group, Clinton sparked howls of protest from Jackson and Williamson, neither of whom enjoyed being turned into political tackling dummies. But the strategy worked: Clinton established his independence with the white middle class even as he continued to enjoy overwhelming support from African-Americans and the entertainment community.

Earlier in the current campaign, plenty in the press likened former Obama pastor Jermiah Wright to Williamson; this National Review post is only one of many examples. But the link between Marie and Sister Souljah is even more direct given their musical backgrounds. While the Black National Anthem incident began as a local story, it quickly went national. Clearly, Obama needed to weigh in -- and since Marie is not terribly well known outside the jazz world, suggesting that she'd erred didn't carry a huge risk of backlash.

By any calculation, it was a win-win situation for Obama, and it's not terrible news for Marie, either. The mention raised her profile even further, just as Clinton's remark did for Williamson, who might not be remembered at all were it not for that high-profile attack on her words just over sixteen years ago. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts