Emmanuel Jal

Emmanuel Jal

Apr 01/2013
by Kris Samraj photography Ashley Champagne

“I was born in a difficult time,” says Emmanuel Jal. He was also born in a difficult place. Emmanuel Jal was born in South Sudan in 1980. A civil war broke out in 1983, with the fighting continuing until 2011. The decades-long conflict culminated in the division of the former country of Sudan into two new countries – North Sudan and South Sudan. During this span of time, 2,000,000 people died from the civil war and famine. Millions more were displaced from their homes.

Jal’s earliest memories are of war. “I experienced war as a child. The situation was violent, running from one place to another and then arriving in Ethiopia, where I became a child soldier,” says Jal, recounting his childhood. His father joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army to fight for the independence of Southern Sudan. When Jal was seven years old, his mother was killed in the fighting. Jal spent the next few years fighting in the war as a child soldier, a rebel against government forces. “We had a government that wanted to clear all [South Sudanese]. They promoted specific ethnic groups and specific faiths – so basically pro Islam – to try and make the country an Islamic state. The people in the South didn’t want that. They wanted to keep their culture, their identity. They wanted to be free and they had to fight for that.” Jal explains the history of the Sudanese civil war succinctly, but he says it took him “years to understand what the war was about.”

Tired of the fighting, Jal, at eleven years old, joined a group of child soldiers who deserted the war to return home to their tribe. Of the 400 children that began the journey home, only 16 survived. At a refugee camp in the South Sudanese village of Waat, Jal’s life took a turn for the better when he formed a connection with an aid worker named Emma McCune. McCune smuggled Jal to Kenya, enrolled him in school and tried to help him heal from the trauma of his childhood. But, tragically, only a few months later, McCune was killed in a car accident. Jal spent some time living on the streets before McCune’s friends banded together to support and continue Jal’s education.

It’s a story of struggle and [humans] learn from one another. When someone goes through pain and overcomes it, it doesn’t matter what colour that person is, it inspires all of us.

Any one of these events would be considered a tragedy. Surviving just one of these events would require enormous resilience and timely help from others. That Emmanuel Jal has grown up to be a renowned musician, author, and advocate for peace and social justice is a testament to his personal strength and those who have helped him along the way. There is something about his story that people respond to. Why people respond to his story is easy for Jal to understand. “It’s a story of struggle and [humans] learn from one another. When someone goes through pain and overcomes it, it doesn’t matter what colour that person is, it inspires all of us,” says Jal.

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Those who have grown up in the West have no way to comprehend what Jal and the South Sudanese people have been through. We understand the number “two million” as an abstract concept. Stories like Jal’s must be told, but how do you convey such an emotional experience? Music has provided Jal with a platform to communicate his story and reach a huge audience around the world. “First it was just for fun. I am an accidental musician. I never planned it,” laughs Jal. As accidents go, this one has turned out very well. Jal has performed with Will Smith, Alicia Keys and at Live 8, a concert series to benefit African causes.

His primarily English album, Gua, was released in many countries. His style mixes hip hop and African beats. Hip-hop is by now a familiar sound to us, but socially conscious hip hop less so. Jal frankly assesses the situation: “Hip-hop is business. So sex and violence sell. It’s like little movies in the form of songs. They’re entertaining.” Jal manages to combine songs that are worth listening to with powerful, though sometimes disturbing lyrics. In the song “Vagina”, Jal draws broader connections – from the pain of war to the ongoing economic exploitation of Africa. “When you’re talking about conscious music, you’re educating people. And when you educate the masses you’re going to be a threat to a lot of corporations,” says Jal.

For the Sudanese who have suffered, Jal’s songs represent their shared experience. The knowledge that they are not alone brings comfort. His lyrics are not comfort songs to me, but Jal’s songs add meaning to all too familiar stories of war and violence. Listening to music is an emotional experience. We can now better understand Jal’s lyrics even if we cannot relate to them.

Jal is driven by the urge to tell his story. “You’re trying to show the negative sides and bring the positive within the negative, but not forgetting where you come from,” explains Jal.

He has currently begun a tour of 100 schools worldwide as a powerful advocate for peace. Jal started a charity, Gua Africa (gua-africa.org), to help victims of war in Sudan and Kenya. “We challenge people to give up something to make the world better,” says Jal. He has started a movement, We Want Peace (wewantpeace.org), which he hopes will prevent future violence. “We have had so many successes – music videos, events with high profile speakers, getting the celebrities involved – putting the spotlight on South Sudan.” Jal has harnessed the digital tools of the 21st century to promote his music and social work.

Experiencing the costs of violence firsthand, Jal’s feelings of vengeance have given way to a deeper understanding and appreciation for peace than most of us will have. Non-violent movements create the most successful reconciliations of divided societies because they break the cycle of violence. Revenge cannot be the path forward. Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King are not only revered for the change they accomplished, but how they accomplished it. Jal’s story is another reminder of their lessons and what consequences violence brings.

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