|Emmanuel Jal at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival / Photo by David Shankbone|
But for the first part of his life, Emmanuel Jal was a child soldier himself.
When Jal was about 7 years old, he was taken from his home in southern Sudan and trained as a soldier for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). His father had joined the SPLA and his mother had been killed. He and several hundred other children eventually escaped the fighting, travelling for almost 3 months, most of the group dying on the way. Jal survived and was taken in by a British aid worker, Emma McCune, who was married to an SPLA commander. She took Jal to Kenya for schooling. She was killed shortly after in a car crash, but friends continued to support Jal.
While living in Nairobi, Jal began singing. He found in music a way to express the horrors he’d lived, and was particularly drawn to rap music. He released his first album, Gua, which means "good" in the southern Sudanese language of Nuer and "power" in Sudanese Arabic, its name symbolically linking opposing sides in the Sudanese conflict.
Jal’s songs focus on his experience as a "war child" and on his wish for peace and reconciliation. His story is one of seeming contradictions. He’s a Christian rap artist who was once taught to hate Muslims but who collaborated on his second album, Ceasefire, with the Sudanese Muslim musician Abdel Gadir Salim to promote reconciliation. He’s an emerging international star who sings frankly about how he could have ended up: "You would’ve seen my face on the telly / fat hungry belly / flies in my eyes / head too big for my size / Just another little starving child…." But he’s clear in his purpose: "I believe I survived for a reason / to tell my story / to touch lives."
Jal says that "What energised me and kept me going was the music I do." He says that music is like therapy, and that it "is where I can be a child again."
Jal founded Gua Africa, an organisation that promotes education in Sudan, Kenya and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. A documentary has been made about his life and his return to Sudan to reunite with his remaining family. More recently, on his website, he is encouraging people to call for peace in the upcoming southern Sudan referendum. Emmanuel Jal continues to demonstrate "the power of music".