Soundtrack to war: Soldiers in Iraq rap about the battles, the danger, and their emotions on new CD


Only the soldiers fighting at the front really know what it s like to be in the heat of battle a million miles from home.

The rest of us are dependent on a historian s perspective, daily dispatches from the media, and films made years after the wars they portray have taken place.

Until now.

Voices From the Frontline, a one-of-a-kind compact disc recorded by soldiers on active duty in Iraq to be released Tuesday, provides a gritty account of their daily, dangerous grind with all the immediate force of a freestyle rap delivered right up in your face.

The rappers on this disc talk about roadside bombs and snipers, their babies over here and their dead comrades going home in coffins. They rap about their wives and husbands waiting for them and they offer prayers to the mothers of the people they kill.

It s angry, poignant, pointed, apolitical, and, most of all, real.

Marine Cpl. Mike Watts, aka Pyro, wrote Don t Understand after returning from a fierce fight in Najaf. While he grappled with grief fresh from losing one of his fellow soldiers, nearby a couple of television reporters who weren t on the mission reported back on the battle.

The Brenham, Texas, native was trying to convey the intensity of a firefight and how it s nothing like anyone ever expects and nothing that could be captured accurately by reporters who didn t see it first-hand. "It's scary; a lot of things are going through your head and you're seeing your friends get killed or get shot. A lot of emotions go through you and a lot of different things are going fast," he said in a phone interview from Camp Pendleton in California, where he is currently stationed.

"None of it is like slow motion in the movies, it's like double-time and you don't have any time to think."

For Marine Sgt. Kisha Pollard, aka "Miss Flame," the CD is a one-time opportunity for soldiers to send a message home.

"Everything that was on that CD is real," she said from Camp Pendleton, just a few days before she was scheduled to rotate back to Iraq. "Everything [on the disc] we saw or did. It's not like we thought about a story. This is what really happened, and it's a way to vent through rap or music, period."

"Voices From the Frontline" is the brainchild of Joel Spielman, a talent scout for the small California record label Crosscheck Records. On Veteran's Day 2004 he watched the documentary Last Letters Home about American troops killed in Iraq and felt compelled to do something to honor the troops.

The concept began to gel when he hit upon using spoken word snippets and sound bites recorded in Iraq to help knit the songs together. The original idea was to have a mix of musical genres, but the prevalence of rapping among the soldiers made the genre a natural for "Voices."

"It's almost as if someone is talking directly to you and almost like you're listening to a documentary," Spielman said.

In the middle of a logistical nightmare of tracking down recordings made over there and finding soldier rappers talented enough to pull off a professional recording, he discovered Frankie Mayo, leader of Operation AC, and the mother of Military Police Sgt. Chris Tomlinson.

Running the charitable organization that provides noncombat amenities to active-duty soldiers, Mayo introduced Spielman to a number of soldiers, including her son, who raps under the name Prophet.

(A portion of the proceeds from "Voices From the Frontline," in addition to paying the soldiers, will go to Operation AC.)

Once he met Tomlinson, who is on two of the 12 "Voices" tracks and provides many of the spoken-word intros, the project took off and Spielman's path was clear. From there he spent a year rounding up soldiers, interviewing them, and getting them into studios to record their songs, many of which were done in only a couple of takes.

For Spielman, the urgency provided his inspiration.

"I said to myself, 'I may not have an opportunity in my lifetime to ever do anything like this again.' It's certainly a lot more than just putting out a new band."

Music has always been a part of the soldier's life, whether it's for marching cadences, entertainment during down-time, or a stress reliever before or after a battle.

The roots of American country music can be traced back to soldiers sitting around camp fires playing tunes on rough-hewn instruments. No World War II movie is complete without a scene of a GI sitting around a fire blowing out a melancholy song on a harmonica. And the Vietnam War practically had a soundtrack, thanks to the Armed Forces Radio network and the disc jockeys who pumped music to the troops.

J. Fred MacDonald, a retired professor of history at Northeastern Illinois University, said soldiers in World War I created their own canon of songs, most of which were never heard outside the trenches, that reflected the grind of their daily lives.

"They weren't singing songs like 'Over There' that were popular over here," he said. "They were singing about bed bugs and cooties and things they were dealing with over there."

For most troops overseas in the modern era, music generally served as entertainment brought to them through traveling variety shows led by entertainers such as Bob Hope.

But that's different than soldiers making the music themselves, something that's more immediate and direct because it allows them a creative release and a way to express what they see and feel.

"We are intensely closer to the action and they are [closer] to what they left behind," MacDonald said. "Music is, of course, the most popular medium with young people at war or not at war. We want children to fight our wars and music is part of their culture. It's a rhythm and language for them."

With rap music's broad mainstream popularity and its emphasis on the spoken word and spare instrumentation, the genre is a natural for soldiers, said Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert from Syracuse University.

"Now you've got this form that is highly amenable to this kind of activity, the hip-form, the rap form. It's a vessel you can really pour these things into," he said.

Thompson compared efforts like "Voices" to diaries that historians have pored over for centuries to learn what soldiers were going through at the front. In that context, Miss Flame expounding on what it's like to be a woman fighting a war is no different than a Confederate soldier writing a letter home to his brother describing Gettysburg.

"Let's face it: a group of soldiers in a circle doing a rap can give you more insight than a journalist or a historian can give you," Thompson said. "The data and insight that comes from this is different from the insight and data from a journalist or a historian."

The song "Condolence" by the rapper "Amp" (Army Cpl. Anthony Alvin Hodge) from "Voices From the Frontline" offers a stark bit of poetry that goes a long way toward expressing one soldier's attitude about his job:

"If I killed a million people I wouldn't tell nothing to nobody because when you out there it's nothing to glorify."

He addresses directly the family members of the people he has killed, asks forgiveness, and prays for peace with them. The depth of the sentiment is unfathomable in its honesty, and it's a moving evocation of the moral quandary many soldiers face. "He's actually apologizing to the wives of the insurgents he's killing over there," Spielman said.

It's also out of sync with stereotypical rap or hip-hop in which the protagonist generally boasts about how many people have fallen in his wake, an irony that is not lost on Watts.

"Every time I listen to rap, and, 'I'm gonna kill this other man' or this other stuff, it just eats me up inside," he said.

"Because thinking about it, I didn't risk my life so you can shoot people up in the states. What's the point of my worrying about you when I'm over here? When I hear these rappers, if you want to shoot somebody, why don't you join the military?"

That's not to say "Voices" is sanitized in any way. There's a parental advisory on the label because of the salty language - about what you'd expect from soldiers - but there's no gratuitous violence or blatant sexual references. If any criticism could be offered of the disc, which is melodically strong and well-produced, it's that it's relentlessly serious.

Most of the raps came out of what are called "cyphers" in which soldiers would stand in a circle and "freestyle," which essentially means making it up as you go. Watts and Pollard said it's common to gather before or after a mission and rap about what they expect or what they've just been through.

The result is often a vivid recounting of experiences that are difficult to convey in words.

"It's more like a movie without seeing it, without the graphics put together," said Pollard, who is from Nashville. "It's telling a story and allowing you to see what's taking place."

Spielman said he was brought to tears when he heard a few of the songs because of their immediacy and the degree to which they directly address the listener. They also forever changed his attitude about the talking heads on both sides of the issue who pontificate on TV talk shows about the war.

"Why don't you just shut up for a second and listen to what this young lady has to say who has spent two tours in Fallujah and is going back right now," he said.

Pollard agreed. "A lot of people have their opinion on Iraq. Some hate Bush, some love Bush, some hate the military, some don't. We're doing our job; that's all we can do, you know.

"And our job is a lot harder than what everyone thinks."

Contact Rod Lockwood at: or 419-724-6159.