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  • Interview: Emmanuel Jal

    Fri, 16 May 2008 14:12:15

    Interview: Emmanuel Jal  - Former Sudanese child soldier escapes the horrors of war and uses his music to speak for those still trapped in the struggle

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    In a world of hip hop dominated by images of violence and mass consumption, a voice like Emmanuel Jal’s slices through the commercial static like a knife sharpened by the truth. While most rappers talk of hardships they’ve never actually seen, he speaks of suffering with the clarity of a firsthand witness. Born in Southern Sudan, his was a childhood marked by civil war and strife. Fleeing possible enslavement by attacking armies, he fled his village at the age of seven, bound for Ethiopia and what he thought would be the refuge of school. Upon arrival, however, he was faced with the choice of joining the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Seeing this as a way to avenge the pain he’d endured, Jal joined the group, becoming one of the countless child soldiers swept up in the conflict. However, life on the battlefield eventually became unbearable, and he fled the fighting along with a group of 400 boys in search of safety at a refugee camp. Only 16 members of the group survived, with the others falling prey to ambush, disease and hunger.

    Lucky to have made it that far, Jal was the blessed with another bit of good fortune. An extraordinary British aid worker named Emma McCune took him in. She shepherded him away from the fighting to Kenya, where he began attending school and learning to live life as a child. Tragedy struck again, as McCune was killed in a car accident, but the seeds she planted in his life helped Jal continue on the path to success. He eventually graduated from high school before going on to study at the University of Westminster in England.

    All through his time in Kenya, Jal felt a connection to hip hop music, due to its power as an outlet for the disenfranchised. With the encouragement of friends he began releasing music after returning to Kenya and slowly made a name for himself in the country’s thriving music scene, before grabbing international attention with a performance at the Live 8 concert in Cornwall. His story went on to capture the attention of a group of documentary film makers who turned his inspiring story into the film War Child, which has played at festivals around the world to critical acclaim.

    Just as his new album, WARchild, hit the streets this week, we were fortunate enough to catch the MC at his home in London to discuss the project and his powerful story. He gave us an even greater insight into his childhood struggle, why he takes issue with the current climate of rap and what really drives the conflicts about which he raps.

    As a survivor, do you feel a certain obligation to get your story out there and be heard?

    I'm responsible because I've been brought into this situation and been given a good life. The person who rescued me gave me a good life, and deep inside I feel guilty when I see people suffering on TV and I have nothing to say. So I feel a responsibility to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and the best way I found was through my music, which has helped me as a person. It encouraged my soul, and when I studied American hip hop, I realized it is cool to talk about your struggle.

    Is it ever hard to relive difficult memories, either in your music or in these interviews?

    In the music it's not hard. When I do poetry it's directing me to a different war, and I treat it like a battle, but it's different. What is hard is when interviewers ask me, "Have you ever killed somebody? How was it on the battlefield?" When you are so specific about events, that’s what's difficult and depressing. It depresses me when I talk about my story a lot. But when I see what it does, the impact, it encourages me.

    Which is why a lot of people use art to express themselves, whether it is with painting, music or poetry. It often makes it easier for people to understand and easier for the artist to tell their story.

    Art is powerful. If you want to see how kids are feeling, they’ll often express themselves through drawing. You go to a village and you’ll find young boys who start drawing guards with guns and villages with people burning. If you go to a refugee camp and see the kids drawing, it's actually therapy for them. Another cure, in some ways, is dancing.

    Children will often be the most honest about what is going on around them.

    Yeah, if you want to know how the kids communicate with a situation, go where they are being taught. When Emma brought me to Kenya, I used to draw bombs and airplanes. I used to draw people shooting, AK-47 bullets flying and pistols. She would come to my room, see me drawing this stuff and say, "What are you drawing? This is bad.” But I think I was actually doing therapy for myself. It was something natural that occurred, but once she started bringing me cartoons and animals, I started transforming and drawing those things. Now that I've become an adult, I'm expressing myself through the music. Still, for women—boys are easier—it's hard to talk about the horrors of war, because war means rape. They can't talk about it because their community will look down upon them, and no man will want to be with them.

    Do you remember life before the conflict started?

    Can I be honest with you? I was born in the time when there was war. All my life, all I have experienced is war—people dying, seeing my mom crying all the time. Yes, there are happy memories. I enjoyed life was when I went to the village. In the village, the fun was seeing the wild animals. You would see funny things, or kids playing, or the poetry and the dancing. The horrible part was the constant bombardments from airplanes and people coming to attack. We were constantly running, and we didn't always know what was really happing.

    Is that what you think drove your father to send you to be trained to fight?

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