The Oscar nominations were announced yesterday and I was pleased to see that both Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou received nods for Blood Diamond—the best film nobody has bothered to see. I actually only saw it myself last week, but I was so glad that I did. Not only did it deal with the issue of conflict diamonds, but it also shed light on the lives of kids that are recruited into wars.
When I was in South Africa at the African Hip-Hop Summit in 2005, I met a rapper named Emmanuel Jal (his track “Baii” is featured on the Blood Diamond soundtrack). Emmanuel told his story at the conference. I remember sitting in the packed auditorium—which was rendered completely silent—as he detailed the horrors he endured as a seven year-old boy in the Sudanese civil war. I looked around the audience and saw that everyone was crying. Emmanuel shared about the slow process of rejoining the land of the living, and of learning to love again. His story was, in the end, profoundly hopeful. His faith was a huge part of this journey, but so was music. “Music is just like love,” he recently told National Geographic. “You can’t stop it when it comes.” You can feel this sense of joy in all his tracks. Emmanuel is Christian, and a couple years ago he recorded a CD, “Ceasefire,” with a Muslim Sudanese musician Abdel Gadir Salim, bringing together both sides of the conflict. The music blends rap with African rhythms and instruments. My favorite song from the project is “Gua.” You really haven’t lived until you’ve heard Emmanuel perform it live in an open air arena in Johannesburg—the energy in the crowd was absolutely euphoric. Check it out on MySpace. And his new track “War Child” too.
Similarly, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story a week or two ago by former child soldier Ishmael Beah, whose book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier will be released mid February. In the article, Beah writes of being at a rehabilitation center and how Run-DMC tapes helped him open up to a nurse about his trauma and start the healing process.
It got me thinking about the role that hip-hop plays in war zones. It’s mind-boggling to think of all of the different contexts that hip-hop is playing out in—and how people all around the world find solace in it. The anti-rap crusaders should remember this when they start trying to censor hip-hop.