Emmanuel Jal's new hip-hop album Warchild is an amazingly powerful work of art. Recruited into the Sudan People's Liberation Army as a child, Jal was forced to witness and perform unbearable acts. He eventually escaped the army with other child soldiers, making his way to Nairobi where he attended school.
Warchild mixes many musical styles. Hip-hop and reggae were hugely influential styles in the creation of the album, while African music is woven in beautifully. The first track "Warchild" is powerful, angry, and cathartic. It reminds me of Kanye West's "Jesus Walks", a pounding gospel chorus layered over a military beat. The difference is in the sentiment. Jal's sadness, anger, and overwhelming need to forgive and be forgiven are the emotions that propel "Warchild" from party song status to work of art. It's often very painful to listen to this album, but it's also very important. "Forced to Sin" is a beautiful song that puts me in mind of the Fugees and some of M.I.A.'s more intense work. The song's musical element is light and almost sunshiny, but the vocal work feels beaten down and forced into submission matching perfectly the story in the lyrics. "Many Rivers to Cross" highlights the malleability of Jal's voice, which stretches and soars on this song of escape. He has "many rivers to cross" but he is both lonely and weary, mentally and physically exhausted and haunted by his past and what could be his future. The piano is strongly tied to the calypso beat, and it turns this song into a lullaby of sorts, or maybe more of a mantra. "Baaki Wara" has both beauty and hysteria in its presentation. The repetition of sounds and phrases makes it hypnotizing, but there's an underlying feeling of fear and chaos. Then we get to "Shadow of Death" with peels of thunder, and the imagery of demons and darkness swirling throughout Jal's lyrics. "Vagina" first takes the point of view of an Africa woman, but quickly transitions to lyrics about Africa as a woman who is regularly raped by other countries. It's an interesting and poignant metaphor; Africa is the birthplace of humanity and yet the continent always seems to be in turmoil, abused from within and without. "Hai" is the last song for a little while that has strong ties to African music, and it seems to be the song where Jal recounts his difficulty in escaping Sudan. We then have the trio "No Bling", "Skirt Too Short", and "50 Cent" that deal with very Western issues. "50 Cent" is my favorite. It's a letter of warning to the rapper 50 Cent, and the main point is that he's being "played by the man". He's being used to support stereotypes, while his work is just another form of brainwashing with its own repeated mantra: consuming and being consumed are the only actions worthy of your time. "Ninth Ward" speaks eloquently of Katrina, thoughtfully comparing the American catastrophe with those that happen all too frequently in Africa. "Stronger" carries the message of the whole album: what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, and hopefully instills you with enough strength to fight against it in the future. "Emma" is a dedication the the woman who saved Jal and smuggled him into Nairobi, her name was Emma McCune and she was unfortunately killed in a road accident shortly after bringing Jal to Nairobi. The song is a celebration of rebirth, and of the opportunities that life-changing experiences can give you, and this is really what the album is as well. It's a story of some of the most awful pain and suffering a person could ever experience, but how such experiences can be transcended and applied to actions that could change the world forever. This is a powerful message that should be spread far and wide, and that deserve much more attention than anything I've heard from 50 Cent.