When Marine Cpl. Mischelle Rae Johnston was deployed to Iraq, she was not prepared for how different her life would be from the way it was in slow paced eastern Montana where she was raised. She now says the seven months she spent in Iraq forever changed her perceptions of life, love and family.
Her detailed perceptions, along with those of a dozen of her military comrades are part of a new hip-hop CD called "Voices from the Frontline" due out Tuesday.
"Music was an outlet, a way to keep sane among the insanity," said 23-year-old Johnston whose song "Desert Vacation" describes the emotional strain on a soldier in combat.
"I think the hardest part is not the physical aspect, but the emotional strain you go through," said Johnston, who wrote the lyrics while on active duty in Al Asad, Iraq. "You come so close to snapping, but you had to keep your cool and calm and you never know what is going to happen. Then, all of a sudden a bomb drops."
The CD is the vision of Joel Spielman, a Los Angeles music producer who spent almost two years seeking out soldiers to tell their stories through music after he saw a documentary that featured the parents of soldiers reading letters from their deployed sons and daughters.
"I just wanted it to be as real as possible," said Spielman. "[Music] is an amazing form of expression, and 'freestyling' was the only way these soldiers could get through the emotional heartbreak of the situation. There is a whole other battle that happens on the Army base before a battle, during a battle and after a battle.
Spielman says he wanted to document that hidden battle and decided that a hip-hop and "spoken word" compilation was the best way for these soldiers to express their raw emotions, including fear of death, longing for home and anger at the war and pride in their duty to serve.
The 12 tracks on the CD tell the tales of life in Iraq from the soldiers' perspective. Most of the "spoken word" audio vignettes between the CD's tracks were recorded by the soldiers while in the field. Some of the tracks have a backdrop of gunfire and soldiers yelling on the battlefield.
In an introductory vignette, Army Sgt. Chris Tomlinson of Newark, Del., says, "This ain't for a paycheck. This ain't for us to be known. This is for somebody to understand a soldier's life."
"Your eyes are never going to see what we saw. This is the closest we can get to telling you about the experience without you having to be there," said Johnston, who was the only female in her division at the time of her deployment in 2004.
Music as Therapy
The idea of music as therapy is a theme that rings throughout the CD.
Johnston regularly wrote lyrics and sang into a tape recorder her mother gave her before she left home.
"[Music] was my outlet, my escape from the repetitive tasks, the stress, from Iraq itself. My body stayed grounded, but my soul, mind and spirit were free to wonder," she said.
In her track "Desert Vacation," she sings that there is "no rest for the weary, no peace for the bold" and that "Uncle Sam seems to have a different plan for my life than my own."
Frankie Mayo, the mother of rapper Tomlinson, who goes by "Prophet" on the CD, said it was important to her that her son got his feelings out and didn't keep them bottled up.
"I think it was really cathartic for him," said Mayo. "Chris is very guarded, and the only way you get things out of Chris is through his music. [The CD] has been a really important thing for him to get his feelings out."
Mayo remembers when her son called her from Iraq after he killed a man for the first time.
"He is telling me about this experience, because he wants me to make it OK. It really upset me, and I had to be really cool and collected. I said this is something you are going to have to make OK with you and God. He was upset because it was a younger man," she recalled.
Many of the songs on "Voices From the Frontlines" depict actual experiences and detail real-life scenarios. Most of the songs were written by the soldiers while they were deployed in Iraq.
"There was another phone call about going out on missions and worrying about not coming back," said Mayo, whose son is currently away on training. "That is a song on the CD. He wrote this while he was there."
The song Tomlinson wrote is called "One Hour Before Daylight." In the song, he dies in battle and raps about the effect it has on his family:
"Three minutes later I'm in a shoot out
Shells' impacting back is blown out, I'm on my own now
I can see my wife on the phone now, it's getting thrown now
Flowers filling my home now
I sit above and I watch my son from heaven
His mommy can't contain her tears when he brings up his daddy"
Tackling Uncomfortable Topics
More than therapy, the lyrics of several songs deal with issues that Americans seem unable or unwilling to talk about openly.
"How real do you get? We have women in combat but people don't like to talk about it, but it's true," said Mayo.
In a fast-paced song called "Girl at War," Marine Cpl. Kisha Pollard, or "Miss Flame," as she is called on the record, raps about being treated differently for being a girl.
"Make them respect you; earn their respect," she sings. "Show them you can do anything a male can do. I know that's what I had to do. Check it."
In another track titled "Condolence," Marine Corps man Anthony Alvin Hodge, who is currently serving in Iraq, asks God to comfort the wife of a man he killed:
"If you could clear her heart, her discontent and hate.
If she gets lost in this world could you show her the way?
While you at it could you wipe all the tears from her face.
If I die before she does I'll be waiting at the gate.
My heart feeling weak and my vision is blurry.
If there's a spot for me in heaven could you give it to her?"
In a spoken-word interlude before the track, Hodge recounts conversations he has had since he returned from Iraq:
"A lot of people ask me … You kill somebody? How many you killed, man? And I tell them man, if I killed a million people, I wouldn't tell nothing to nobody because when you out there there is nothing to glorify … Sometimes you don't have time to feel …You just have to react, that's all part of being a Marine. Any sins I committed, I got to answer to God…"
Spielman said the song was "something [Hodge] said he had to do to come to peace with himself and to come to peace with the loss he has caused."
A song called "Don't Understand" opens the CD:
"Now if I broke it down Barney style, y'all still wouldn't know what we do,
Even if you asked the chain of command all the way to the president, too
Now you got to think about it cause we don't get our proper respect
'Cause if we got our proper respect, we would be cashing a bigger check"
Recording Label Crosscheck Records plans to donate 5 percent of the sales of the CD to Operation AC, a nonprofit run by Mayo, that sends U.S. troops useful non-combat items such as boots, socks, gloves, and morale-raising items like Christmas trees.
"People think about rap music today and think it is all about thugs, but the young people who are doing this have been through war," said Mayo. They are so far beyond the 'chicks and rims' things. It is real."