Kevin Winter, Getty Images T.I. and Lil Wayne are teaming up once again, only this…
- Posted on May 13th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
"Yeah, everything you see," he says. "That's why it's commercial music. Everything is not real."
So what about the portrayal of strife, bloodshed and horrors in his own hip-hop? It's all-too-real. Much of his new album, 'Warchild,' draws on his own experiences not on an urban battlefront but in actual combat in his home nation of Sudan. Taken from his small village and pressed into service with a rebel army in the late '80s when he was just six or seven (he thinks he was born in 1980 but isn't certain), he spent several years as a child soldier -- one of a generation of Sudanese "Lost Boys" -- in two bloody civil wars, witnessing unspeakable horrors, atrocities and inhumanities before being rescued by a British aid worker. In the songs here he raps of the awful deeds, tortured existence and still-fresh psychic scars of his war experiences ('Forced to Sin'), the economic rape of his homeland ('Vagina'), the ongoing battle with his own understandably accumulated demons ('Bakki Wara'), his struggle to overcome them with his Christian faith ('Shadow of Death') and delivers an emotional tribute to Emma McCune, the woman who rescued him and moved him to Nairobi but died in a car accident not long after ('Emma').
His story ultimately captured the attention of the British public, with him taking the role as spokesman for the Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and an outspoken campaigner for action to address the dire Darfur situation, getting a featured slot on the Live 8 concert in 2006 and becoming the subject of a documentary, 'War Child,' that was just screened to great acclaim at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. He's also set to publish a book about his experiences.
But even he admits that he's not telling the whole truth. Some of his life is indeed unspeakable. "There are some other tracks that are too deep," he says in gentle tones and a strong English he learned in his time in Kenya and in his current life in London. "I think they would be too strong for people to absorb. I haven't brought them out. They are too personal."
For a close example, he points to a line in 'Forced to Sin': "I've seen my people die like flies/But I've never seen a dead enemy/Or at least one that I've killed."
"I performed that to a Sudanese audience and people went wild," he says. "They wanted to go fight and riot. I don't want to make music that will make people fight. I want to inspire them to make peace, not fight. I'm in a different war. The war I'm fighting is for peace for myself. If I have peace, then I will make peace with my neighbor."
That he used hip-hop as the vehicle for this may seem odd to some, given the genre's reputation for confrontational tones and given the long legacy of Sudanese music and other styles from his native region. The fact is, he did have a more Sudanese musical context on his first album, 'Cease Fire,' a 2005 release on which he was paired with oud player and singer Abdel Gadir Salim. On that album, Jal's raps alternated with the more traditional songs from Salim, all mixing languages as well as Christian and Muslim references. (The album helped earn Jal a 2006 BBC World Music Awards nomination and won him comparisons to Anglo/Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A.) He also says that there is a presence of the music of his village in tracks such as 'Bakki Wara,' but that it's more of a tribute, a distant memory, than a reflection of his life today.
"The music from my village, there was hardly people recording it," he says. "No equipment, no instruments. People use drums as the basic thing, as in all African cultures. So there is none of that music for me to hear on tape. But I do remember the sounds, how they were in my village."
Hip-hop, though, is a natural path for him to take. Inspired by the personal approaches of Tupac Shakur and the Fugees in particular, Jal found the style a perfect fit. "Hip-hop is poetry, and man speaks in poetry," he says. "In Africa, poetry is used to teach children, to talk to a woman you love, and for a chief or a king. Hip-hop is poetry, and the only reason you put beats to it is to make it more fun."
But he does have some issues with the music that he says has become an international language. "It has made young people so hard," he says of the macho posturing associated with the field.
To that end, there's the 'Warchild' song that has gotten the most early attention: '50 Cent,' a plea to the rap star to use his fame for good ends.
"I'm a 50 Cent fan!" he insists. "Even in Africa I liked him. When he first came out I thought another Tupac was born. But I didn't know the influence he was having on young kids until I came here. They made little gangs in schools. They are taking what 50 Cent does and think it's real and want to do it. So in the studio I said, 'How can we talk to 50 Cent? Can we talk to him?' We got to correct something, otherwise our communities, not just black kids, but everyone wants to be a gangsta, wants to be tough, think going to jail is tough. 50 Cent is the biggest and if he tells kids something they will listen. So I thought best way to talk to him is through song. I didn't dis him. I respect him for what he has done. But I want to tell him what is happening."
As far as he knows, 50 Cent hasn't heard the song yet. But Jal is starting to get enough attention that it seem inevitable. The question is whether it's the kind of attention he wants. '50 Cent' will get some headlines, certainly. And in a larger sense, Jal's renown to this point is more as a symbol for the plight of children plagued with war, disease, famine and other inhumane situations. It's the kind of thing that could overshadow his music. He's not too worried.
"Symbol would be temporary," he says. "The music I have now, I'm so confident and strong. The story is bigger than me, but the music I do for fun. It makes me happy. That's me. When people come to realize I have this story -- and it's the main reason people know about me -- but the music is amazing. People will want to listen to it."