Midnight: A Gangster Love Story
By Sister Souljah
Reviewed by Sidik Fofana
It was arguably the late ’90s when hip-hop started to stretch into grey areas of definition. At some point, the genre bubbled out of its breeches, no longer fitting into the symmetric four elements of emceeing, DJ’ing, graffiti writing, and B-boying. Among the medley of subgenres palpitating with hip-hop influence, urban literature made a sneaky entrance into popular culture. This genre, spawned from the universality of hip-hop clout, in a way has compensated for many of rap’s shortcomings; it elaborates on underdeveloped issues raised in the prototypical rap song. A hip-hop song, due to its metrical limitations, merely mentions things like crack dealers, gangstas, and prostitutes. A street lit work spins them into a full-fledge narrative.
Sister Souljah’s first novel, The Coldest Winter, is an example of the street-lit void filler. As a Public Enemy affiliate, her rap career was relatively lost in the shuffle. Her political bark was too aggressive for hip-hop wax, and it resulted in poor record sales and relentless censorship. Her debut novel, at the time, although it may have been considered a weaker branch of the hip-hop network, was actually a more form-fitting medium to address urban societal ills. That’s why Souljah’s narrative about Winter Santiaga, a gold-digging teen from Brooklyn who navigates both her crime-ridden borough, solidified urban lit as a viable genre. In short, the hip-hop verse makes a social issue the subject; the hip-hop book makes it the plot.
The Coldest Winter Ever was stereotypical in its character portrayal, yet Souljah’s new novel Midnight is more global. The development is just as much due to the culturization of hip-hop itself as it is to Souljah’s literary vision. The focus switches from a Brooklyn girl’s fixation with a young drug dealer in The Coldest Winter Ever to that drug dealer’s journey from Sudan to America, and the story of his relationship with a Japanese girl, Akemi. In the former, Midnight is likable because of his dark skin, material possessions, and status in the drug game. In the latter, Midnight draws intrigue from his East African roots, martial arts prowess, and Islamic grounding. Of his own upbringing, Midnight comments, “We spoke Arabic at home, but he made sure I could speak at least the greetings of several African tongues; and I also studied English in school and practiced speaking it along with my schoolmates.”
Though the first few chapters of Midnight present the classic immigrant story of arriving in America and seeking upward mobility, the novel is chiefly a love story between Midnight and Akemi, the subject of his constant affection. Both plots offer more depth than the often violent and exaggerated plots of standard works of urban literature, yet Souljah—in her attempts to produce a more complex oeuvre—over stylizes her characters at times. Midnight’s mother, Umma, is the all-but-stereotypical orthodox Muslim woman—humble, subservient, and heavily veiled in Islamic garb that only heightens imagination about her concealed beauty. Akemi is predictably quiet and coquettish with the chastity of a Japanese maiden.
Yet, Midnight, as dreamy as he seems, poses some unresolved contradictions. While Souljah makes it clear that Midnight will take drastic measures to protect his mother and little sister, Naja, some of his behavior still seems extreme and almost unrealistic. Early in the novel, he murders Gold Star Tafari, a sketchy patron of Umma’s Sudanese fabric business, defying the aura of peace and discipline that previously surrounded him in the novel. Also, readers are not given much depth to the relationship between Midnight and Umma. The two never fight or argue even when Umma finds out that the love of his life is not a Muslim girl. As a matter of fact, when Akemi meets Umma for the first time at a wedding, she “held on to Umma as if they had known each other for years.”
Midnight is still a landmark novel. It shows that urban literature authors don’t remain in the same formulaic capsule of excessive sex and violence. Souljah’s second novel represents an earnest effort to produce more meaningful art. It is evidence that street lit, like many art forms (including the novel), is a still-evolving entity. Midnight would be very differently received if it were a work of stagnancy and not ascendancy.