Last Friday I had a phone conversation with Emmanuel Jal in Juba, South Sudan. Mr. Jal is a rising world music star, activist, and former child soldier whose personal story is as compelling as is his music. This Thursday and Friday, September 20-21, Jal and his entourage of American hip hop and rap artists will be performing in Juba at Independence (Freedom) Hall for International Peace Day. He talks about the upcoming concert and the “We Want Peace” Business Gala on Thursday: “We’re trying to enjoy the peace we have right now, despite how the situation is right now, and to join the rest of the world on International Peace Day. . . and to attract responsible investment.” He tells us about his new album, See Me Mama, that is coming out this month and features D.M.C., who is also coming to South Sudan to perform with him this week, having never set foot on African soil before. Click here to hear this part of the interview:
Ironically, only one week before the concert, while Jal was coming home from a meeting with a peace organization which is also involved in this coming Friday’s Peace Day activities, when he stopped to ask some policemen for directions, they brutally beat him until he was unconscious. I called him to get a personal account of the incident and to find out if it has changed his attitude toward the big concert, and to get a little more information about the concert itself. Jal says that, despite the beating, “democracy is working in South Sudan”, because a spokesperson for the police at the ministry of the interior called him after the incident to participate in a live debate on the radio. He had just come from that debate when I talked to him, and felt uplifted because a lot of people who had similar experiences of police brutality were also there, and they all told their stories. “That’s great”, he says, “and the good thing is that I think South Sudan is moving forward because I’m talking about my freedom, how I’ve been beaten, and nobody harassed me after that. Usually, in other countries, you’ll even get beaten more if you talk about that.” Click here for this part of the interview:
Jal’s unique African hip hop sound makes a powerful contribution to global hip hop. Not only does his sound make him one of a kind, but so does his message of peace and forgiveness. Jal’s most recent single and music video, a remake of a 2011 release called “We Want Peace”, clamours for peace in no uncertain terms. It features American hip hop legend, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels from one of the America’s pioneer hip hop groups, Run-DMC. The new video also contains cameos of endorsements by Alicia Keys, George Clooney, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Peter Gabriel, Ringo Star and others, all saying three simple words: “We want peace.” Check out the video here: We Want Peace Reloaded
One of the most remarkable aspects of this hugely talented artist is his background. Jal was born in South Sudan during the time of the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983 to 2005) that was marked by intense racial and religious conflict between Arabs and Muslims in the central government of the North vs. Africans and Christians and animist religions in the South. He lost his mother to the war when he was seven and witnessed the rape of his aunt among many other atrocities. After that he joined thousands of other children who fled to Ethiopia with the dream of escaping war and getting an education. But once in Ethiopia, Jal and many of the other children were tricked into joining an SPLA military training camp instead of school, and were trained to fight. He was a child soldier by age eight. He fought for five years doing what he was taught to do and what he says he felt in his heart out of revenge for his family and his village–“kill as many Muslims and Arabs as possible”–until war broke out in Ethiopia as well. SPLA then forced him back into Sudan to resume fighting there for the government in Juba. Jal and some of the other child soldiers finally ran away from Juba and eventually joined the headquarters of a small group, that had also defected from SPLA, in Waat, a small town in the northeastern part of what is today South Sudan. He left with hundreds of children and only sixteen survived the journey. It is there in Waat, when Emmanuel was only eleven or twelve, that he met his adoptive British mother, Emma McCune. She was an aid worker and an educator, and recognized that little Emmanuel didn’t want to be a soldier, so she smuggled him to Nairobi and enrolled him in school. He was one of about 150 children that Emma rescued. Only a few months later, she died in a road accident but Jal continued to study and complete his education despite more hardships. In a 2009 performance, Jal tells this story partly in monologue, poetry and end concluding with the song, “Emma.” Music is his therapy, heexplains, and where he “actually sees” heaven. “Where I can be a child again and be happy and dance again is through music.” Today Jal’s mission in music, aside for promoting peace, is to raise money for schools in South Sudan through his charity Gua Africa.
Jal started studying music in Kenya and was increasingly drawn to its power to overcome personal pain and anxiety, and to unite people from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Though he had no formal music training, hip hop naturally appealed to him because it emphasizes speaking or chanting and rhythm, the two elements he needed to tell his story and share his vision for peace and political change. He has produced two albums: Ceasefire (2005), a mix of rap in Arabic, English, Swahili, Dinka and Nuer, and Warchild (2008); he has also issued a handful of singles, and his new album–the one that features D.M.C. and some other hip hop groups such as Das Racist, Dispatch, and OAR–is scheduled for release this month (September). I’ve already noted Jal’s unique hip hop sound and message of peace, but his dynamic stage presence in live shows is also extraordinary. Among other places, he performed at the Live 8 Concert in Cornwall, England, in the summer of 2005. He was awarded a 2005 American Gospel Music Award for Best International Artist, and performed songs at Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday concert at London’s Hyde Park on June 27, 2008.
I find it amazing that Jal has emerged from his traumatic and violent childhood as a gentle, articulate, and thoughtful man.In a deeply moving video shot in Kenya in 2006, he speaks about why he support arms control, and I am struck by how, even today–as I found in our conversation–he sticks to his beliefs. In the second part of my interview with him featured above, I asked him whether or not he wanted to see justice served. He explained that when the police who beat him were finally taken in for questioning by national security officials –“when I saw them put in the car and their guns were removed, I thought ‘That was it. Justice has been served.’ ” That would have been enough, but as he explains in our interview, the national security officials requested that he identify the soldiers for further investigation, a request that Jal happily honored. Especially with the future in the hands of an active citizen like Emmanuel Jal and his infectious enthusiasm, peace and democracy in South Sudan have a fighting chance.