The War in Iraq, to the Rhythm of Rap

Monica Davey – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times – Tuesday, February 22, 2005
On one more steaming day in Baghdad, word filtered out to the artillery regiment that some of the younger guys were not going to get to fly home for their promised rest-and-relaxation break. Soldiers fumed. They’d spent months of long hours in this crazy place, knowing that at any moment a homemade bomb might explode, a rocket-propelled grenade might land or an Iraqi child might spit at them.
But though they were armed to the teeth, they chose to respond with a different kind of weapon. They stepped outside and, of all things, began to rap.
“I started doing some of the most outlandish freestyle you can imagine,” Javorn Drummond, an army specialist from Wade, North Carolina, recalled. “We were just going off about how we do all the work, but we can’t go home. We didn’t care who could hear. We didn’t have to care. I’ll tell you, it felt good. At that time, they were killing us. We were working so hard we weren’t getting sleep.”
Moments like those, when service members turn to rap to express, and perhaps relieve, fear, aggression, resentment and exhaustion, have become a common part of life during nearly two years of war in Iraq.
“Rap is the one place,” Drummond said, “where you can get out your aggravation – your anger at the people who outrank you, your frustration at the Iraqi people who just didn’t understand what we were doing. You could get out everything.”
If rock ‘n’ roll – the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and Creedence Clearwater Revival- was the music of American service members in Vietnam, rap may become the defining pulse for the war in Iraq. It has emerged as a rare realm where soldiers and marines, hardly known for talking about their feelings, are voicing the full range of their emotions and reactions to war. They rap about their resentment of the military hierarchy. But they also rap about their pride, their invincibility, fallen fellow soldiers, their disdain for the enemy and their determination to succeed.
Plenty of soldiers still listen to the twang of country music or the scream of heavy metal. Many, in fact, said that metal – and albums like Slayer’s “Reign in Blood” – helped psyche them up for combat as they roared across the desert in the very first days of conflict. But a great many say it was 50 Cent, Pastor Troy or Mystikal (himself a gulf war veteran) who kept them chugging along in trucks and Humvees – in one case, manning the Humvee machine gun – small headphone lines tucked away under Kevlar vests. They listened to get stirred up on the way to house raids, before guard duty assignments or simply when they awoke to another tedious day under that enormous sun.
The more than 1,450 American service members killed in Iraq have also left behind traces of hip-hop scattered in the memories. Sergeant Jack Bryant Jr., of Dale City, Virginia, who died Nov. 20 when a makeshift bomb blew up near his convoy in Iraq, had written rap, his father said recently. And Private First Class Curtis Wooten of Spanaway, Washington, who was killed Jan. 4 when a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle in Balad, had planned to go to school when he got home, his brother said, to become a producer in the hip-hop world.
As for the many soldiers who are writing and performing their own raps, their lyrics sample the lexicon of the war – the Sandbox, IEDs (improvised explosive devices), ICDC (the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps) and Haji (the word many soldiers use derogatorily for the enemy) – and the wide scope of their feelings about it.
“There is a great potential for ambivalence in their words,” said Jeff Chang, author of a new book, “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation.”
“That’s part of the ambivalence hip-hop has often carried. You hear two ideas in what they are saying here: an implicit critique of ‘what am I doing here?’ but at the same time, the idea of loyalty to your street soldiers, loyalty to your troops, loyalty to the guys you ride with.”
The music of Drummond and his colleagues in the 1st Armored Division’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery makes up much of the background sound in a documentary, “Gunner Palace,” about the experience of one group of ordinary soldiers in Iraq. The movie, directed by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, records the lives of 400 soldiers living in the palace of Saddam Hussein’s son Odai after the fall of Baghdad.
Rap might seem at odds with the conformity of military life, but Tucker, who served in the reserve in the 1980s, sees it as an extension of the cadence, or the calling-out songs to which troops run. And from the lyrics they write, it’s clear that some of these soldiers identify their role – urban guerrilla warriors fighting an unseen enemy – with that of the heroes of the genre. Even an organization for soldiers, USO, has responded: They sent Nappy Roots, Bubba Sparks, 50 Cent and G-Unit to perform for soldiers in Iraq, and Ludacris appeared at a giant welcome home for soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas.
“Rap has become another part of barracks culture,” Tucker said in a phone interview. “As far as soldiers go, rap is almost the perfect medium: They are able to say so much, to let off steam and also to have so many hidden meanings in what they say.”
One day in April 2004, Sergeant Nick Moncrief, who said he had felt close to death many times during his 14 months in Iraq, felt at least four bullets whiz past his face while he was guarding the perimeter of an area in Baghdad. “Those bullets were close to me the way you’re close when you’re getting ready to kiss a girl.”
‘Not long after that, he scribbled down a rap: “I noticed that my face is aging so quickly/Cuz I’ve seen more than your average man in his fifties/I’m 24 now/Got two kids and a wife/Having visions of them picturing me up out of they life.”…
Some soldiers described jotting down lyrics on scraps of paper at night, between power failures. They rapped to whatever beat they could find – a homemade CD on a boom box or just drumming on a Humvee. The soldiers joked that they could have even rapped to the beat of gunfire…
…Usually, violence was the inspiration. After a June 2003 shootout that left one man dead, Taylor wrote: “I can’t believe Iraqis are after me/It’s got to be a tragedy/The way these people bust and blast at me/Dear God, is this the way it has to be?”
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