War and poetry have long been comrades, and for the war in Iraq, much of the verse is rap.
For Marine Cpl. Michael Watts Jr., whose rapper name is Pyro, the creative muse struck while he was riding an assault vehicle back to a base camp after an exhausting 72-hour combat operation in Najaf.
For the 21-year-old from Benham, Texas, it was an experience unlike any other -- one that cried out to be captured in a rap.
"There's a big difference between staying up for three days making music and being in Iraq for three days straight getting shot at," said Watts.
From those kinds of experiences in Iraq, Watts and eight other Marines and soldiers have created "Voices From the Frontline," a rap CD released this week in which troops use the lyrical word to explain the death, boredom, joy, fear and brotherhood of the war in Iraq.
The compilation is the brainchild of Joel Spielman, 33, president of the punk label Crosscheck Records. He put out a call on Internet chat rooms frequented by military rappers and picked the best submissions for re-recording in a Hollywood studio. The performers -- some of whom have already returned to Iraq -- will share in the royalties, and 5% will go to Operation AC, a nonprofit group supporting troops in Iraq with CARE-style packages.
Spielman calls the CD "an audio documentary" containing real, uncensored voices. "It was important for them to share their experiences and important for the public to hear what it's really like there," he said.
The language is direct but, by rap standards, not particularly shocking. The f-word, the patois of both rap and military life, is present but not in overabundance. The media take a beating for misunderstanding the war, but the songs are not anti-military.
Sometimes poignant, sometimes laced with bravado, the lyrics capture the apprehension and tension of the ongoing violence directed at American troops and Iraqis alike.
In "First Time," Watts and Navy corpsman Quentin Givens (called Q as a rapper) explain the stomach-tightening uncertainty of deployment to Iraq.
Well we going to Iraq for the first time
I can't explain exactly what's on my mind
So many thoughts runnin' all through my head
Will I come back alive
Or will I come back dead.
The apprehension begins with the convoy from Kuwait:
I see a lot of muzzles of these M16s
While we're in a convoy with a 100-plus Marines
Iraqis lookin' at us with that fear in their eyes
Cause they know in the palm of my hands
Is their lives
So please realize I don't really want to die
And you need to hear the voices
Coming from the front lines.
For Cpl. Kisha Pollard (Miss Flame), rapping about her experiences in Fallouja was only natural. Iraq is the perfect place to rap, said the 21-year-old Nashville resident.
"The reason people freestyle in Iraq or a war zone is to take their mind off a lot of things," she said. "Any chance I got, on patrol, or with other Marines, or by myself, I'm freestyling, I'm hooking and jabbing."
In "Girl at War," she raps about the daily dread of convoys through streets infested with improvised explosive devices, called IEDs, and insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades, called RPGs:
Step one, set up for the convoy
Get the brief
Float up in the Humvee now
We're rolling on the streets
And now hopefully it won't end in a beef
Cause if we do, it could possible be a IED
Things are getting hasty, my body feeling nervous
Iraq is shooting at us
RPGs is what they serve us
Stay cool and confident, air support is right above us.
And now we're shooting back
that what you get for ... with us.
If there is anger and fear in many of the songs, there is also sorrow, at the injuries inflicted on innocent Iraqis in fighting between insurgents and U.S. forces.
Witness Cpl. Anthony Alvin Hodge (Amp) in "Condolence":
I see the light in this war
I've committed many sins
And I'm far from perfect.
I can't word it any better
But to tell you this
If it was up to me
It never would have came to this
But it ain't so I gotta keep my
Feet in the paint. If I had
A wish I wish I had never seen
And they say a bullet don't got a name on it.
When the bullets hit the kids, who
They gonna blame for it?
There is a kind of desperation among the rappers that unless they tell their story the truth will never be known.
"I just want the message out, not the way TV has it, the real way," said Watts.
"People need to know what it's like when you live with mortars going off and your friends dying," said Pollard.
Music is a way out of the drudgery and danger of a war seemingly without end.
"In "Don't Understand," Pyro, Amp and Q tell of the divide between the civilian and military communities. Like several other songs, it explains that troops fight to protect their buddies, not necessarily out of support for U.S. foreign policy.
Don't try to play us down
Cause you don't know what we're about
So alpha company open your eyes, never despise
It's not only the training
But it's the brotherhood
That keeps us alive,
So we need to stay together and
Combined as one
And you need to keep trying till your enlistment is done.
The song titles speak of the intensity of the Iraqi experience: "Do the Damn Thing," "Some Make It, Some Don't," "Ain't the Same." Army Staff Sgt. Devon Perrymon, a.k.a. Deacon, who's been writing poetry since his teen years, wants the public to know the reality of Iraq from the perspective of the individual soldiers, not the generals in Washington or the reporters. In Iraq, he turned to rap, in the company of other rappers in uniform.
"We're putting it out there for everyone in a way they can relate to," said Perrymon, 25, who grew up in the Crenshaw district and will soon return to Reseda as a recruiter. "When it's in rhyme, they remember it."
In "Five Days in the Wakeup!" Perrymon sings of the anxiety of the short-timer, ready to go home, changed forever.
I see the storm over the horizon in Iraq
Mad people dying
Family getting a folded flag and they're crying
I'm not denying the fact I've changed
I just don't think people are ready for the change
I'm seeing faces in the rain ...
I'm tired of seeing comrades getting slain.