“Musicians are prophets and music is the only thing that can speak to your soul without your permission."
He doesn’t know when he was born, he doesn’t know exactly how old he is. Happy memories of growing up ended when he was about six years old, and were replaced with a series of horrors unlike any we in the Western world have ever experienced.
The extraordinary story of Emmanuel Jal is told on his new album, “Warchild” (May 13, 2008)
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Emmanuel Jal is a soft-spoken young man with a lilt in his voice and a warmth in his manner; so friendly and so engaging it's difficult to imagine him toting a machine gun. Yet the reality is that, in the war-torn African country of Sudan, Emmanuel Jal learned to fire a machine gun before he could ride a bicycle.
It is not a difficult subject to broach for the young rapper, but it is a difficult story; one which reflects the horrors of subjugation of a people to a foreign ideology, and the blood spilled in the name of freedom. The guns in his life story were not expensive video props for cavalier (and perhaps dubious) rap stars and their boastfulness; they were real and they were a way of life as a means to survival. This story is real; set to music and told eloquently by Emmanuel Jal. This is his story, a coming-of-age amidst rebellion, famine and global apathy; a story of a child born into war who preaches the way of peace.
"The whole Sudan is my country... where I came from. When I was just a boy, the British left and religion was the main problem. It is called Sharia law; the law of Muslims. When the Arabs came into Sudan, they brought Sharia law and they did not let anyone practice other religions; the people in my village, in other villages... fought back."
During this time of intense conflict, famine raged across the nation as the war displaced thousands. People fled their homes to avoid being killed only to die of starvation. He had watched while strangers beat his mother, his grandmother was arrested and his aunt was raped by government forces. As one of the many young boys growing up in such abject turmoil, Emmanuel was embittered.
When he was about six years old, Emmanuel’s father, a commander with the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), gave his son up to the rebels to set an example for others. The SPLA sent him, along with hundreds of other young Sudanese children, to a school in Ethopia. The children were forced to walk from their villages to Ethopia; many died on the way, eaten by wild animals, falling into rivers and getting lost. Once at the school, the children were trained in discipline and in the basic skills of killing.
"There was anger in my heart. I became a soldier very young; like many other children. I think it was '92. I wanted to help the fight; I thought I could go away and learn how to fly a plane, a jet plane to bomb them. At that time, all I thought about was killing. I trained; learned how to fire a gun. We practiced on killing animals. We would kill the animal and then have to bury it; so the Arabs wouldn't find the body but also sometimes because we had killed a farmer's (animal). I just wanted to kill as many Arabs and Muslims as possible. They were killing us..."
Scared and exhausted from the killing, Emmanuel and some of the other children - the “lost boys,” as they came to be known - deserted the rebel lines. On foot, they trekked across Sudan’s cracked, barren badlands, its crocodile-infested rivers and snake-laced mud patches to flee the war and be with their own tribe, the Nuer. Four hundred began the trek, only 16 survived to find relative safety in a refugee camp in Waat, Southern Sudan.
It was around this time in his life that Emmanuel met Emma McCune, a British Foreign Aid/UNICEF worker who rescued him from the bloody conflict and spirited him to nearby Kenya, intent on giving him a new life and new opportunities.
"I went with Emma; I still wanted to help the fight, somehow. When I was first rescued, I still wanted to kill. I thought I might learn something that could help the fight and then go back as a soldier. But I'm alive because of Emma, and she deserves to be known. She tried to help other people like she helped me. She took me to school; she helped me with my English. For a while there weren't even clothes for me to wear, so I wore her clothes and her shoes to school in Kenya.
"Kenya was a model of peace for Africa. They had better schools and a thriving economy; but at first, education-wise... it was difficult for me to settle down in Kenya. I was always fighting; thinking of myself as a soldier and I was expelled all the time! I had to learn to humble myself in order to help my people. So during my time in Kenya, eventually I changed. I began reading the Koran, the Bible; I was in the church choir; singing... and this helped me heal. When I turned to God, it washed away bitterness, the anger in my heart... I changed.
"I would have liked to help my friends change in a different way; as hard as it was to live in Kenya with so much for me to learn, there was always music in my life. Always there was music: music for harvesting; music for family; music for war. In Kenya I began writing songs in the church to fit myself into the community and have a new beginning. I wrote songs with that in mind: music for peace."
"In Kenya I got into rap. I didn't understand the history, but I enjoyed listening to rap because it was shocking. The problems, the issues; I like the hip-hop that talked about the neighborhood going through issues; and I identified in a different way. Music is a form a communication..soul and heart and art. This is what spoke to me as a young man and what I am speaking of now. Musicians are prophets and music is the only thing that can speak to your soul without your permission."
"What I am doing with this album, the content, the message..." Jal pauses. "My country is at war. My people are dying. I want to create awareness... for my people, for the world. This is life, this album; and the issues - it's ready, it's powerful! I hope to inspire people and have fun as well. This album is serious about people's lives and this is why I have to talk about this. It's actually helpful because I feel better now."
Emmanuel began performing around Africa and eventually made his way to England where, following a number of notable live performances, he earned a record deal. His music can be heard alongside Coldplay, Gorillaz, and Radiohead on the fundraising ‘Warchild - Help a Day in the Life’ album, as well as in three ER episodes, the National Geographic documentary “God Grew Tired of Us,” and more recently in the feature film “Blood Diamond” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. As well as on John Lennons ‘Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur’ amongst the likes of U2, REM and Lenny Kravitz.
Jal recently performed at an exclusive gig for Oxfam with Fat Boy Slim as part of Oxjam 07; he also took part in his charity, Gua Africa’s, Mixed Jam event with Blak Twang amongst others in London [all footage can be found on www.youtube.com/emmanueljal ]. Jal has also performed with Razorlight, Supergrass, and Faithless in Europe. Last October he toured the United States as part of the “National Geographic All Roads Film Festival,” performing in New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and New Orleans. Jal also performed with Moby and Five for Fighting in the 2007 live concert film, The Concert To End Slavery [ www.concerttoendslavery.com/trailer ]. He is a spokesman for “Make Poverty History, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and the Control Arms campaign.
In addition to the release of his album “Warchild,” Emmanuel is the subject of a documentary on his life, also entitled “War Child.” The documentary had its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2008, receiving a rare standing ovation, and will appear at other prestigious film festivals this year. Emmanuel is also at work on his autobiography that St. Martin’s Press will release.
"Now I'm working on building a school, and we are trying to get people educated. This is what I've been able to achieve by leaving the anger behind and embracing music, and education. We're helping an orphanage in Nairobi; bringing aid to children in Africa. We are putting people in school and one person is in university..."
And while the future looks very promising for the young Jal, he remains steadfast in his soldier mentality. "Before I was focusing on making African sounds completely; but I stayed in England to improve my skills to get my message out. For me, home is where your love is. I still think like a soldier; I don't want to move to a place where something happens and I start missing people again. I'll get comfortable but I won't stick myself down. In my mind, I'm not yet settled. I just want to keep making my music, that's most important. But for right now... I'm cool!"