Emmanuel Jal – Call to action

June 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, EG, May 23, 2008.

Emmanuel Jal

After surviving as a child soldier in Africa, rapper Emmanuel Jal tells Dan Rule why life is so precious.

EMMANUEL JAL has an easy way with words. They seem to fall from his mouth. He is becoming well versed, it seems, in sharing his life.

In conversation, as on wax, the rapper broaches the most blood-curdling of accounts with almost casual ease. He makes cheesy wisecracks, he raps and sings his favourite lyrics, he giggles at his own expense.

“What I’ve come to realise is that I’m responsible for my own happiness,” he says proudly, with a distinctive east African inflection. “On a daily basis, I wrestle with trying to keep myself happy, not to blame somebody for taking my happiness away from me.”

Quips aside, Jal’s memories are not the kind that are easily forgotten. Born in a village outside Tonj, southern Sudan, about 1980 (he has no official record or knowledge of his birth date), he grew up in the shadow of the second Sudanese civil war, which has now gripped the country for more than two decades.

Jal can barely remember his father but knows he was a police officer who left without warning to join the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, when fighting broke out in 1983. He remembers his village being razed and burnt, his mother killed. He remembers being seven years old or thereabouts, gripped by grief and determined to seek revenge. He remembers enlisting voluntarily in the SPLA and leaving for Ethiopia to train as a child soldier.

And for the first time in our conversation – which takes place over the phone from his base in London – his voice drops noticeably. “When a kid witnesses something in their eyes, it remains a picture in their mind,” he pauses. “If someone tells you that this is the person who killed your mum or your dad, you don’t think twice, even if you’re young.

“So when we went to Ethiopia, we were willing to be trained. Everybody agreed, you know, because in your own little picture you could see your village burning and people running. You see your mum screaming, screaming. You see all the horrible things, and you say, ‘Yes, I want to be trained’.

“My desire was to kill as many Arabs as possible, as many Muslims. That’s what the politicians instil in you, and then you give a little kid an AK-47 and he has the same powers as anybody who has it. First shot, first kill.”

The fact Jal is still here to tell his story, let alone via the international platform of traditional folk and pop-flecked new album Warchild, is remarkable. His willingness to share his horrific experiences is even more astonishing. Aside from his album, a documentary film about Jal’s life – also named Warchild – has already picked up awards at this year’s Tribeca, Seattle, Edinburgh and Berlin film festivals, while an autobiography is due out next year. It’s within this frame of reference that the young rapper locates his purpose: to tell his story as loud, as clearly and as often as humanly possible.

“It depresses me when I go and talk about this stuff,” he says. “But it’s a choice that I have to make. Like, should I keep quiet and suffer with the pain and not talk about what’s going on? What do I have to lose?

“When you think about it, I’m one of the lucky ones,” he continues. “I’ve survived and I believe I’ve survived to tell this story.”

In relative terms, Jal was fortunate compared with most child soldiers. After fighting in two big battles in three years – armed with an AK-47 taller than himself – Jal and 400 other child soldiers deserted their posts in Ethiopia in an attempt to hike to freedom. They travelled for more than three months in the most trying conditions. Hundreds of the boys, including Jal’s best friend, starved to death. Others were ambushed by enemy forces, drowned or eaten by crocodiles. Many, remembers Jal, had to resort to cannibalism. By the time they made it to Watt in southern Sudan, there were only 16 of the original group left.

“It is not something you forget,” Jal murmurs, pausing for a time. “There was a point where I almost ate my best friend because there was nothing at all for me to eat. It’s a hard feeling to describe.”

But it was in Watt that the 13-year-old Jal’s fortunes changed. He met British aid worker Emma McCune, who adopted him and smuggled him over the border to Kenya, where she brought him back to health and enrolled him in school. But Jal’s brief experience of happiness and security wouldn’t last. Six months after the adoption, McCune was killed in a Nairobi car accident. “I talk about her in one of my songs as my angel, because she was the one who rescued me and turned by life around,” he says of Warchild’s closing track, Emma.

It was music that soon became his focus and, aged 18, he joined a church gospel choir. While singing proved fun, it was a different form of music – one he’d seen on television in which African performers seemed to “just talk over the beat in English” – that really captured his imagination. So he began demo-ing cuts on a second-hand tape deck. “It was the boldness of speaking straight and speaking about what’s happening in the community and speaking about what they want to get done,” he says. “The frustration, the anger – that’s what attracted me to hip-hop.”

Warchild is brimming with such straight-talking sentiments. The follow-up to his multi-lingual 2005 debut, Gua – a huge hit in Kenya that allowed him to move to London – the album sees Jal trace both his specific experience (Warchild, Forced to Sin and Many Rivers to Cross) and the broader topics of exploitation and neglect underscoring Africa’s relationship with the West over a collage of rippling Afro-influenced beats, pealing traditional gospel harmonies and pulsing big-beat hip-hop. On album track Vagina, he calls for Western diamond and oil barons to stop treating Africa as their whore, while the pulsing hook of Shadow of Death lends itself to a parable of righteousness and pride in the face of adversity.

In cuts such as No Bling and 50 Cent, Jal takes a cheeky swipe at commercial hip-hop culture hell-bent on consumerism and street-cred. “What I’m trying to say is that gangster life on TV and in music, I take it as acting, but the kids take it seriously and think it’s real and it’s cool to be a gangster.

50 Cent isn’t an attack on the man,” he says. “We should honour him. He’s come from poverty, he’s been shot nine times and he’s survived to make something out of himself. So let’s not disrespect him, let’s point out the dangers of what he’s doing. Why can’t he be a gangster turned good, you know? He’s made millions already, so who cares if his sales drop a little.”

Jal says the track arose from a distinctly personal standpoint. “You see, my cousin came to England as a refugee, given a chance by the British to stay here and make something with his life,” he says, his voice rising. “So he j oins a gang, calling themselves G-Unit and they go out and stab a white boy! 50 Cent needs to know about these things,” he bristles. “If he ignores them, then he is a fool.”

But for Jal, Warchild is embedded in a terrain far more universal and far more important than hip-hop gangsterisms. “I was brought up on hatred and bitterness and I had my entire childhood taken away from me,” he says. “So many millions more in Sudan have lost much more than that.

“I’m one of the only people who can speak for them in the West and all I’m saying is that human life is valuable. That’s why my album begins with Warchild and finished with Emma, because she was my angel who gave me life.

“It doesn’t have to be an African, it doesn’t have to be anybody in particular,” he pauses. “It’s just worth investing in human life.”

Warchild is out through Sonic360/Stomp.

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