Anger. Hatred. Bloodshed. Violence. Perversion. Corruption. The true nature of evil. Innocence defiled, tossed to the ground and trampled by those who should know better. A broken childhood, no time to appreciate the sun streaming through the trees, no spirit to laugh and sing. Only death and attempted escape from its clawed grasp. This is the life of a warchild, a child whose youth is callously snatched from him by militants conscripting expendable lives to fight in a violent conflict. This was the childhood of rap artist Emmanuel Jal, who was a child soldier in the Sudanese civil war. He was only able to escape the war through the help of a British aid worker who adopted him and raised him as her own. After his escape, he turned to music to speak out against the violence in Africa and the terrors of the life of a child warrior.
Emmanuel Jal is a rap artist who came to Christ in spite of all the hatred and blind rage of the war he lived through. His mission now is to touch hearts and minds, and to show people the truth of the world around them. Jal speaks with hope and sincerity, which lie in stark and tangible contrast to those in the rap industry who profi t from songs full of shallow lyrics and recycled rhymes about promiscuous sex, glorified guns, drugs and murder. Jal stands above and beyond these artists. He has a meaningful message because his heart is fully engaged in eradicating the superfi cial image carried by rap artists and popular culture, and reawakening people to the truth that violence is happening all around us, that there is more to life than the tawdry and hyperbolic untruths sold to an eager and easily deceived audience. We sell ourselves short by believing such lies, and instead should open our eyes to the humanity around us, in the full depths of our emotions, both the beautiful and the ugly.
His newest album, Warchild, is an uncertain mix of rap, reggae, and spoken word. The CD took a couple of listens before I warmed to it. His flow is often choppy, and some of the words fall awkwardly on the beats. His beats are good but not spectacular, and the musical catalogue of instruments is the standard, rather uninventive and unimaginative arrangement-drums, guitars, bass, and keyboard. This did surprise me, since I had expected him to retain the musical styling of his previous CD. Fortunately, Jal overcomes these weaknesses through the strength of his story and intentions. His raw, unrefi ned, and pure message courses throughout this album, knocking aside any question of rhythm and fl ow. His lyrics are unedited for palatability, or for the listening comfort of the audience-his message is meant to jar the audience out of complacency, and he relies upon truth to touch the heart.
There simply is not enough space to discuss in depth the message of each song, so I encourage you to go online or look in the liner notes to read an explanation of each song. I would, however, like to discuss a few of his songs that made a particularly strong impression.
“50 Cent” was written in the memory of Jal’s cousin in London who had stabbed a white boy because he wanted to be a member of the gang G-Unit. Through the song, Jal speaks out against a cultural disrespect for life and pop-culture’s fl ippant portrayals of violence. Despite the many voices condemning the glamorization of violence in the media, violence remains a very popular and pervasive component of pop culture, reaching extremes that border on a caricature and parody of itself. Rappers boast about the men they stab or shoot, the women they slap, the anger and abuse they have meted out to the world for trivial reasons. But perhaps they should take a turn in the Sudanese civil war. There they would have the truth of murder, of taking the life of another human being who had a home, a family, brothers, sisters, likes and dislikes, good days and bad days-someone who was complete, who was alive. Murder and violence are not glamorous. They are symptoms of the corrosive power of sin and destroy both the murdered and the murderer. One wonders if the rappers who talk about violence so gleefully would sound the same if they had fought in a war. The people whom we mindlessly kill are also loved by God and have souls and purposes in this world. To glorify violence in song and dance is to trivialize it, to make it permissible, and to yield to its influence.
The most moving song is “Forced to Sin”. It depicts Jal’s life as a child soldier from the age of seven to thirteen. During one point in the war, his best friend Luai died of starvation right next to him. Jal’s hunger was so great and his emptiness so deep that he was tempted to eat his friend’s long dead flesh. Circumstance and desperation can force us to sin, to violate the natural rules so intrinsic in our hearts. But most importantly, this song conveys the message that even though the twin specters of failure and death may wait at the door, we must remember our humanity, hold firm to it and never capitulate to forces that threaten to destroy us.
If this message had come from a man who had risen through the industry by bluster and false bravado, this song would be chalked up to meaningless, supersaccharine platitudes, lipservice, ridiculous clichés used to elicit a fleeting feel-good moment. But Jal has gone through hell and back. He has seen men and children die around him, their bodies reduced to rotten husks to be devoured by carrion birds. He has seen innocence destroyed as his African brothers killed one another for a long-forgotten cause in the service of power and greed. Taken from his family at the age of seven, he fought with an AK-47 that was taller than him and killed many. There was no glory in it; for a child soldier, war is a fi ght to survive. If there is anyone more justified in claiming that there is no God, that life has no meaning, that it is better to give up, to give in, to curse the heavens and seek oblivion, it is a man who has seen death and destruction every day of his childhood, and who has participated in the continued desecration of life, the annihilation of his very humanity.
The wonder of it all is that Jal does not curse the heavens. In fact, he praises God for his life, for the opportunity Jesus Christ has given him to live again and spread the good news of hope and grace to those who would listen. This is the power of Christ in us! To heal a child murderer who never knew childhood, who knew only the burn of violence and the fear that death might tap you on the shoulder and take you away at any moment. Nothing but Jesus Christ could have saved someone who was in the depths of darkness Jal experienced.
Final word: Emmanuel Jal is well on his way to becoming a very popular recording artist. His rhymes need some cleaning up, and I would have liked if he had retained the musical style of his first album, Gua; his music lost some of its distinctive character and beauty when he cut out the Sudanese language and musical textures for his sophomore effort. However, his message is profound and stands apart from the manufactured, commercialized rappers and hip-hop artists whose subject matter is the overused, the cliché, and the self-aggrandizing. Jal’s music speaks of a hope that people desperately need and carries an unforgettable argument for the love and grace of God, the changes He wrought in one man’s life, and His power to heal all.
Lilamarie Moko ’10 is a neurobiology concentrator living in Winthrop House.