Considering today’s images, it’s difficult to remember that there was a time when rap carried weight as an eye-opening glimpse into a marginalized existence. Rising Sudanese rapper Emmanuel Jal is ushering in a return of this edge in a more global and urgent way than ever.
When it comes to a hard-knock life, no major rapper has a more dire story than Jal’s. Forced to be a child soldier in Sudan, he was a veteran of two civil wars by the time he was a teenager. Thugs rhyme about being hard; Jal was packing an AK-47 by the age of 7. But that’s not a source of glamour or status for him; rather, he’s had to see and do unspeakable things (detailed in “Forced to Sin”) just to survive.
Enduring a reality more grim than life in even the worst American ghetto has pushed Jal toward conscious rap, a thing he in turn is pushing onto the international stage. Through direct, plainspoken raps, he now fights for peace by sharing his life. As Africa continues to be the global village’s most blighted neighborhood, his message has never been more topical.
His native continent is naturally a central theme in Warchild. On the album’s most pointed example, the scathing “Vagina,” Jal takes on the pillagers of his homeland. “To Mr. Oil, Diamond and Gold miner,” the chorus chants, “stop treating Africa like a vagina/She’s not your whore/Not anymore.”
Though Jal’s technique isn’t top-shelf (something even he concedes in “No Bling”), his story, message and viewpoint is essential. If anything, he offers a refreshingly contrary perspective to the hollow hip-hop mainstream. Rather than the usual bombast and self-aggrandizement, this album is marked by modesty (“Skirt Too Short”), humanity (“Ninth Ward”) and soul-plumbing testimony (“Hai”). By handling world subjects with the clarity of the outsider and discussing the personal toll as an insider, Jal breaks down the powerful but often artificial barriers to reveal how ill the world really is.
Even when he calls out the mighty 50 Cent, it’s not your typical rap beef. It’s a denunciation of 50’s violent message that’s done with reason and humble respect. Jal’s personal point of view removes the notion of violence from the insular, privileged reality of a Grand Theft Auto–obsessed America and shows its true impact out on the tougher fringes.
Despite the gritty, true-life tales of strife, the tone of Jal’s message is ultimately a hopeful one. Even if Warchild is sometimes heavy on the sermonizing, its content is grounded in activism and empowerment. Its strength and spirit rise phoenix-like from the fire of adversity. Sit down. Listen to his story. Then take a good, long look in the mirror.