Jal has a few more rivers to cross when it comes to music.
Jon Lusk 2008-05-16
Emmanuel Jal's life story is so extraordinary that it would make a great movie. Forced to be a child soldier in the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army during his country's civil war, he only survived by luck, and the fact that aid worker Emma McCune adopted him. During his subsequent life in Nairobi, he became a rap star, first in Kenya and then internationally, after which he relocated to the UK. In fact, McCune's story is the subject of a forthcoming film called Emma's War and Jal's autobiography is due for publication later this year. Let's just hope there isn't any scandal accusing the writer of making things up…
Warchild is his third album, and was co-written with UK writer/producer Roachie. Naturally, Jal's strange war-torn life forms the basis of his lyrics, which these days are mostly in English – as opposed to the Kiswahili, Dinka and Nuer that he used to rap more in. But the fact that the subject matter is incredible doesn't necessarily make for great music, and Warchild is actually only intermittently engaging, let down by the occasional hammy rhyme (''I knew it was rude/But we needed the food'') and fairly generic R&B/hip-hop backing that mixes programmed beats and live instruments. Aside from all this, the harrowing stories make listening to the whole album pretty hard going. That and his tendency to moralise, which recurs on Vagina, No Bling, Skirt Too Short and 50 Cent, the last of which takes the infamous US rapper to task for being a rubbish role model.
This song and Baaki Wara suggest the influence of that other rapper/survivor, the Somali-born K'Naan. Like him, Jal isn't without a sense of humour, especially when describing his more recent life adjusting to the lifestyle that touring thrust him into. But he has a more monotonous and less inventive vocal presence, even if he isn’t such a bad rapper, as he claims on No Bling. It's songs like this and the clumsy gospel-style reworking of Jimmy Cliff's Many Rivers To Cross which show that Jal has a few more rivers to cross when it comes to music.