Reviews > Music

Wartime rap

Music | Child soldier Emmanuel Jal has honed his life in Sudan into song

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

Shortly before Sonic 360 Records announced the May release of Emmanuel Jal's WARchild album, news wires carried stories outing the nonfiction, best-selling books Love and Consequences and Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years as fabrications. So it was natural to regard WARchild's almost unbelievably inspirational back story with skepticism.

Fortunately, thorough vetting has verified its veracity.

Emmanuel Jal is a world-music rapper who, after being recruited as a child by (and serving with) the Sudan People's Liberation Army, went AWOL at the age of 11, eventually making it to Nairobi, Kenya, where, as the adopted son of foreign aid worker Emma McCune (the subject of the book and upcoming movie Emma's War), he went to school.

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Born in South Sudan into a family that converted to Christianity from Islam, Jal explored his Christian roots (recording the single "All You Need Is Jesus") and hip-hop, both of which he blends to impressive, original effect on WARchild, easily one of the most verbally and musically imaginative rap albums ever recorded.

It's also one of the most scriptural. Not only does Jal quote abundantly from the Bible (Romans 7:15 in "Baakiwara," Romans 8:37 in "Hai," Philippians 2:11 in "No Bling," 1 John 4:4 in "Stronger," Psalm 23 in "Shadow of Death" and his cover of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross"), but he also names Jesus (in "Forced to Sin" and "Shadow of Death"), weaving such citations naturally into his "flow."

So far, reviews have emphasized WARchild's socio-political content, specifically the hip-hop-criticizing lyrics of "50 Cent," "Skirt Too Short," and "No Bling." But even in these songs Jal's faith is right around the corner. "No hoes, no bitches, no bling," he raps. "I don't need none of those things. / It's only the love that I bring, / representing the King of Kings."

Jal may lack the gentleness of a dove, but he has honed the wisdom-and his music the rhythms-of a serpent.

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