Dallas Rapper 7KNUCKLES Escaped the Life of a Kid Soldier in Liberia

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7KNUCKLES
courtesy of 7KNUCKLES

Hip-hop artists come from all walks of life. The notion that any generalizations can be made about their backgrounds is nothing less than absurd. 7KNUCKLES had a tragic upbringing in Liberia, which was gripped by a gruesome civil war. He narrowly escaped death and the life of a kid soldier. Decades later, he is proclaiming joy with the sound of his music.

Despite horrific beginnings, he always knew his music would be positive. “There’s so much chaos going on in the world,” 7KNUCKLES says. “You have to use your music to empower people. Whatever energy you’re projecting, that’s what the crowd is feeling.” His music is a blend of R&B, South African harmonies and hip-hop.

His mother came from an indigenous tribe. Other members of his family were involved with the government. When the civil war started, rivalry between opposing political parties turned deadly. Soldiers showed up at his home intending to kill everyone, but it didn't happen for two reasons. 7KNUCKLES’ grandfather had a political background, but had recently died. The soldiers weren’t satisfied until they saw his death certificate. His grandmother was also so well known for going out of her way to help others that one of the soldiers recognized her.

The soldiers also recruited children. “There were children at school that I knew who were already fighting,” says 7KNUCKLES. The need for more soldiers was so desperate that children were being abducted. It happened to one of his cousins and the boy lost his life. “Most of them fighters back home were so doped up that they called themselves freedom fighters,” 7KNUCKLES says. “But they didn’t know what they were fighting for. When they get the kids, they dope them up on whatever chemicals they have.”

7KNUCKLES lived in a nice house, but the family cars were stolen. There were times when he could look out his window and see people begging for their lives or being decapitated. The surrounding area would be riddled with gunfire for hours at a time. Eventually his family left on foot, typically walking for 16 hours at a time, from checkpoint to checkpoint. Some of the stops had places to cook and rest. Rebels at checkpoints made sure no one was involved with the enemy, and frequently enjoyed torturing others. If you were asked if you wanted short sleeves or long sleeves, that meant you were about to have your arms chopped off.

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It was chaos. At one checkpoint, 7KNUCKLES was nearly abducted. “One of them tied my hands behind my back,” he remembers. “He was a general. He was like, ‘Come here. You’re going to fight for me.’” His grandmother pleaded with the soldiers as he was being loaded into a truck. “Anyone who knew my grandmother knew about her character,” 7KNUCKLES says. “She was very loving and caring.” Once again, a soldier recognized his grandmother as a community leader and he was released.

He was traveling with a large group of family members and some quickly made it out of the country to America. But 7KNUCKLES and other family members had to stay behind and remain in Liberia for another year before they could migrate. Surviving and avoiding abduction were his primary concerns. But the only boys he had to relate to were mostly soldiers and they also urged him to join the fight. There were soldiers of all ages. "If you were too young to shoot a gun you would be in charge of carrying bullets," 7KNUCKLES says. 

7KNUCKLES made it to America in the early 1990s at age 7. He spoke Patwa, an English-based creole language with West African influences. Leaving an African warzone to start grade school in America was a completely different challenge. “It was a whole different reality,” 7KNUCKLES says. Indeed, back home in Liberia it wasn’t unusual to see 6-year-old girls being forced into looking after other children, essentially assuming the role of a mother.

“I got teased a lot,” he remembers. After finishing the equivalent of kindergarten in Liberia, the war had effectively put his education on hiatus by making survival the focus of his young life. Recovering from trauma in a completely different world, he resumed studies in third grade. Many students couldn’t understand what he was saying and made fun of him.

But now in his late 20s, 7KNUCKLES has refused to allow himself to be defined by his early adolescence. “That’s not my perspective of life,” he says. Adapting to a completely different world as a child after suffering extreme trauma is an incredible feat. But 7KNUCKLES still had to figure out who he was. He came from an extremely religious family; Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross were about as far as he was allowed to stray from Christian music.

Those sounds are still dear to him and influence his music to this day. Michael Jackson songs like “Heal the World” were profoundly inspiring to a boy coming out of a warzone. But hearing Snoop Dogg changed his world by introducing him to a sound, attitude and lifestyle he had never imagined. By the time he was in his early 20s, he was intent on making hip-hop. He first started recording straight into a jukebox and spent years figuring out how to make music. Gaining acceptance from his family wasn’t easy either.

A few years ago, he recorded an a capella rendition of the Liberian national anthem, an extremely cathartic experience. “It was a memory from where it all started,” he says. But his music is mostly a response to what is happening in the world today, the sounds that inspire him and a celebration of better times. “I don’t want people coming to my shows and worrying about anything,” 7KNUCKLES says. He enjoys creating a positive environment and interacting with the crowd.


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