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World Music CD Reviews Africa

Emmanuel Jal

By Tom Jackson
Published July 18, 2008

Sonic 360

With a life story as dramatic as Emmanuel Jal’s, it’s often difficult to separate the music from the musician, especially when his chosen form of expression is hip-hop, where the true-to-life narrative is regarded as a measure of your authenticity. At the age of seven, Jal served as a soldier in the Sudanese civil war, and while Western rap typically delights in exaggerated tales of toughness, Jal’s subject matter quietly trumps his peers: starvation, desperation and murder were a way of life in his ’hood. And despite his star status today, he’s still a warrior. Over gospel-tinged choruses, Jal questions his own behavior and struggles with the temptations of everyday life—a conflict that’s captured brilliantly in “No Bling,” where he berates hip-hop culture with the glorious refrain, “No hoes no bitches no bling/I don’t need none of those thing/To sell a lot of records like Sting.” By contrast, “Emma” is an instant stadium anthem that salutes the British aid worker who smuggled Jal to safety in Kenya: “What would I be/If Emma never rescued me?” he asks. It’s a redemption song sung by someone who knows the meaning of the word.