Emmanuel Jal: WARchild
Emmanuel Jal: WARchild
Ah, Africa--a sprawling continent of raw natural beauty and vibrant cultural heritage undercut by cruel inhumanity, where apartheid has been vanquished but children are still recruited as soldiers, AIDS is epidemic, and democracy is tenuous. For many people in this media distraction-saturated age, Africa represents little more than a nightly news blurb or a bothersome Feed the Children infomercial--a distant, murmuring downer.
Could rapper Emmanuel Jal upset that imbalance? Sure, Kanye West brought the plight of Sierra Leone's conflict-diamond miners to the hip-hop nation's attention. Sure, MIA made Third World angst chic for privileged Western bloggerati. But Jal far outcreds them--and their gangsta/crack rapping opposite numbers who paint America's streets as comic-book battlegrounds--by several orders of magnitude.
Jal is a former Sudanese child soldier who never knew his mother and isn't even certain how old he is. WARchild's charnel-house realness is undisputable, lending a moral weight to Jal's in- and out-of-Africa impressions. When he respectfully chastises 50 Cent for Bulletproof ("You done enough damage selling crack-cocaine/ Now you gotta kill a black man in a video game?"), decries the world's wholesale exploitation of Africa in bold terms ("Vagina"), expresses an ironic kinship with Hurricane Katrina refugees ("Ninth Ward"), or recounts a near-brush with cannibalism ("Forced to Sin"), you feel he's earned his soapbox. Even a song like "Skirt Too Short"--about a girl Jal dated in America whom he felt was "revealing too much"--doesn't offend in a prudish sense but is consistent with the biblical subtext sown throughout the record.
Producers Roachie and Silvastone leaven these graphic and sometimes preachy observations with beats that recall Jamaican/Caribbean tourism advertisements, a clever gambit that helps Jal's bitter medicine go down--even if maybe it shouldn't go down quite so easily. Once Jal comes face-to-face with American chart hip-hop's ingrained culture--as an insider rather than as a fan--he'll likely either find himself cowed or strike back with a far harsher artistic statement.
Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti is largely credited with inventing Afrobeat, a high-energy, large-ensemble fusion of jazz, funk, and indigenous African genres. In taking Egypt 80--his late father's last band--out of mothballs, Seun Kuti wants to engage in the same artistic human-rights advocacy for which Fela was so celebrated. Trouble is, a nonspecific vagueness dilutes his ire: "Army gon' beat police, police gon' beat civilians," he chortles during the gallows-humor monologue that kicks off the lithe "Think Afrika," but that's about as progress-profound as he ever gets.
Also, from the flitting, furtive rhythms of "Mosquito Song" to the sub-calypso groove of "Many Things," Seun Kuti Fela's Egypt 80 is unduly hard-hitting and driven; because every syllable and note is so controlled, Fela Kuti's trademark free-form joy is absent. On Fela albums like Zombie, it was possible to get lost in the madcap instrumental surf, all the peaks and troughs inherent in 12-plus-minute semi-improvisational jams where repetition was as important a factor as digression--a dual sensibility his son has yet to master.