Emmanuel Jal: 'Music is my weapon of choice'
Emmanuel Jal: 'Music is my weapon of choice'
By Roya Nikkhah 28 Feb 2009
Photo: Emmanuel Jal: 'I know how it feels to pull that trigger'. Photograph: GEOFF PUGH
For much of his childhood, Emmanuel Jal's best friend was his AK47. He looked up to the gun, literally, because it was taller than him. "When I hear my sisters talk about what happened to them, it makes me want to pick up that gun again and kill," he says. "Hatred and revenge are feelings that I constantly have to fight, but now I fight them through my music; that's my weapon of choice."
Today Jal, 29, is an internationally acclaimed musician whose songs preaching against war and violence have been lauded by Nelson Mandela and formed soundtracks to Hollywood films, but his success follows a less than stellar childhood.
At the age of eight, as a bloody civil war raged in his homeland of Sudan, Jal was taken from his family home by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) rebel movement, and sent to Ethiopia where he was told he would go to "school".
But instead of learning his ABC, he found himself enrolled at an SPLA training camp for child soldiers, where he became one of Sudan's thousands of "lost boys", brainwashed, beaten and starved by the SPLA until he had learned how to throw a grenade and wield a machete.
Jal had seen his mother killed in the fighting, his village burned and his sisters and aunt raped by Arab militia men, so fighting for the SPLA against the Arab-dominated government seemed his only option for survival.
"I'd seen Arabs hit my mother so my desire, when I was taken to train, was to kill as many of them as possible. You are told when you have an AK47 that you are equal to someone really big, even if the gun is bigger than you. I wanted to be big and get revenge for my family and for my village."
Rolling his sleeves up to show me the scars on his arms from crawling for miles on stony ground in training drills, Jal recalls his training that replaced school. "If you stood up, they would kick you in the head, if you tried to crack a joke they would beat you, and they would wake us every hour in the night by blowing a whistle, to train us for night attacks. Even now, I still sleep with one eye open."
At 11, Jal was sent to attack his first town. He speaks slowly and carefully when I ask if he knows whether he killed people. "Yes, I participated in mob justice," he says, looking down at his hands. "I don't know how many, but I was told I killed people. When you're a kid, you don't aim and shoot like an adult, you just shoot like this," he says, closing his eyes and waving an imaginary gun above his head.
In 1993, after five years of fighting for the SPLA, Jal began to question his motivation for staying with the rebel movement. "The commanders used to tell me that this war was not about hatred and revenge, but about freedom," he says. "But I began to see I had the wrong reasons for fighting. When I had seen my mother beaten by Arabs, it sowed the seed of hatred in me and I wanted revenge, but I realised this was not a reason for fighting a war."
Knowing that desertion would mean certain death if he was discovered, Jal and 300 other lost boys took a chance, escaping from their camp in the night and setting off for eastern Sudan, where aid workers were based. A journey that should have taken one month to walk, took three, as they dodged army helicopters and minefields. One of Jal's friends had his leg blown off by a mine. Fewer than 20 survived the trek.
"We were so weak, we had no water and no food," says Jal, who watched some of his friends turn to cannibalism to survive. "That was the darkest part of my life," he continues, recalling how one night, he nearly succumbed to temptation. "I was so hungry, I was about to eat my own friend who was weak. I was holding his hand and thinking: 'I'm going to eat you tomorrow.' But I remembered my mother always telling me to be patient and wait for food because God would make it all right, and the next morning, a bird came which we shot and ate. That bird was a miracle bird. It saved my life."
When he finally reached the town of Waat in eastern Sudan, another miracle happened. He met Emma McCune, a British aid worker who noticed the 13-year-old Jal dragging his gun along the ground, too weak to carry it. McCune, who was working for Street Kids International, a Unicef-funded Canadian charity which built and renovated schools in southern Sudan, smuggled him on to an aid flight to Kenya. "She put on make-up and made herself pretty to distract the men on the plane, and then I crawled on board without them seeing."
Jal smiles for the first time during our interview when he talks of the woman he describes as his "guardian angel" who effectively adopted him, treating him as her own son when they reached Nairobi. "She put me in a good boarding school, paid for my fees, gave me her clothes. I had never had attention like that, I didn't understand what love means until then. She never shouted at me, she always corrected me softly. It is only now that she is gone that I appreciate the impact that she had on my life."
But six months after they settled in Nairobi, McCune was killed in a car crash. Homeless and wandering the slums of Nairobi, Jal sought shelter as an altar boy in a Catholic church. "I didn't do such a good job because my hands were always shaking," he says. "The priest knew I had been a soldier and would tell me: 'You're full of sin, that's why you can't serve properly.' When people know you've been a soldier, they judge you: you are a thief, a lost boy. But I liked the music and I went to concerts at church. I found myself writing music and it made me happy. So I started to perform it and kids liked it. I didn't write about my struggle, I wrote about peace."
Despite not having a record deal, in 2004 he recorded his first single, Gua, (which means "peace" in Nuer, a tribal language of southern Sudan), burning copies of the CDs himself when fans asked him. Word of mouth and radio play alone propelled the song to number one in Kenya for more than two months. "It made me really famous," he says, still sounding surprised, even though his three albums, Gua, Ceasefire and War Child, have gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies around the world.
Jal's songs have been used in the film Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and the television series ER. In 2005, he performed at the Live8: Africa Calling gig in Cornwall's Eden Project, a sister concert to the Hyde Park awareness-raising event that was prompted by accusations that the main event's line-up contained no world musicians. More recently, Jal became the first hip-hop artist to perform at the United Nations in New York, where he received three standing ovations. Last year, he played at the V Festival and at Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday concert in London, performing his song Emma, a tribute to McCune. Her life story, including her relationship with Jal, is being made into a film directed by British director Tony Scott (brother of Ridley), whose films include Top Gun and True Romance. There is even talk that Nicole Kidman has been lined up to play McCune.
Since 2005, Jal has made London his home because he "liked the vibe here". Sitting in his publisher's London office, with his plaited hair, parka jacket, baggy blue jeans and trendy green suede trainers, he explains how writing his autobiography has been cathartic.
"While I was writing the book, my chest was always tight and I had nosebleeds and nightmares," he says, recalling one episode in the book where he describes being whipped and imprisoned in an underground pit with no food or water, as punishment for visiting his aunt without the permission of an SPLA commander. "I would sweat, because the demons came back. But when the book was done, I felt better."
Jal, who describes his music as "gospel rap", has short shrift for many of the mainstream rap artists, such as 50 Cent, who have been criticised for glamorising violence.
"Most hip-hop artists are fake, all that gangster talk is not real. It's fiction, but children don't see that, they think everything is real and people like bad guys. Young people's minds are influenced so easily, their conscience is easily corrupted.
"How can someone who hasn't actually killed anyone think it's fun to kill? It's not. I know how it feels to pull that trigger. If I talked about being a bad guy, death and killing, I would have gone platinum.
"When I wrote my song 50 Cent, I wanted to tell him that he is a role model to young people so he needs to come up with a different style, he needs to tell children it is not cool to be a gangster and kill. Otherwise he is creating a genocidal society."
With the money he has made from his music, Jal sponsors 40 children in primary and secondary schools in Nairobi, and has founded Gua Africa, a charity that works to rehabilitate child soldiers and help communities in Sudan and Kenya overcome the effects of war and poverty. Gua's latest project is in Leer, the village in southern Sudan from where he was taken and where McCune is buried.
"We want to build a school in Leer called Emma's Academy. It will also have a vocational centre where we can train teachers. When I see kids back in Sudan who have been fighting, kids like I used to be, it haunts me. The only way I will feel better is if I build that school to give them a childhood."
'War Child: A Boy Soldier's Story' by Emmanuel Jal is published by Little, Brown on March 5. To order your copy for £11.99 + £1.25 p&p, call Telegraph Books (0844 871 1515) or go to books.telegraph.co.uk For information on Gua Africa, go to www.gua-africa.org