Halfway through our conversation, Emmanuel Jal says, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to go so deep.”
He’s been passionately talking about the power of positive thinking, transcending bitterness, and the importance of imagining a better future. But when you consider the source, an apology isn’t necessary.
When he was seven years old, Jal and hundreds of other children fled to Ethiopia to escape the Second Sudanese Civil War. They were recruited by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, trained to use AK-47 machine guns, and forced to fight the Sudanese government in a war they didn’t understand.
Amnesty International says that during that war, which raged for 22 years, “all parties to the conflict perpetrated serious international human rights violations, including targeted killing of civilians, the recruitment and use of children, acts of sexual violence, and destruction of property.”
After spending three years fighting and witnessing unspeakable horrors, Jal escaped with a few hundred other kids. Their journey to freedom took about three months, and many died along the way. Jal ended up in a small town in South Sudan where a British aid worker, Emma McCune, took a liking to him. She smuggled him into Kenya on an aid flight and paid for his education.
While in Kenya, Jal heard Puff Daddy’s tribute to Jesus, “Best Friend.” It changed his life. “Music was a place where I could become a child again,” he says. “It was like I’d found heaven.” Since then, the self-described “accidental musician” has been trying to provide a piece of heaven to anyone who needs it, through his mix of hip-hop and various African sounds on his six albums.
As a musician and an activist for peace, Jal has helped both himself and the world. His live appearances have included Live 8, Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday Concert, and the One Concert for his Holiness The Dalai Lama. Jal has addressed the United Nations, and the U.S. Congress, and has collaborated and performed alongside artists such as Lauryn Hill, Peter Gabriel, Nelly Furtado, Ed Sheeran, Nile Rodgers, and Alicia Keys. In 2008, a full-length documentary on his life, Warchild, won 12 film festival awards worldwide. In the same year, his autobiography, also called Warchild, was published by Little Brown. For his outstanding commitment to peace building, Jal has been awarded the Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent 2018, and the Desmond Tutu Reconciliation Award 2017, among several other such honours.
He says his latest LP, Shangah, is more celebratory than his past work. “I just want to dance, I love to dance!” he says. “I believe certain kinds of traumas can get out of your body through dancing. You breathe differently after, you process things differently.”
Jal doesn’t just dance up a storm in his videos. Like his Afrobeat contemporaries, his films burst with gorgeous fashions and colours. The video for “Hey Mama,” shot in his home country and in Kenya, is no exception. “I just want to push the young designers and dancers and musicians in Africa,” he says, adding that “I was surprised to discover that people in Asian countries are watching my videos.”
“Hey Mama” features the lines, “South Sudan is my mother, tribalism has no place, languages don’t discriminate, we are all equal, no war, love is our cure.”
“Was it painful returning to South Sudan to shoot the video?,” we ask. “It’s sad to see 98 percent of the people scrambling to live,” says Jal. “Half the population are refugees! I really hope the peace talks produce some tangible results.”
Offstage, Jal heads his own charity, Gua Africa, which focuses on education and supporting families affected by conflicts in East Africa. He’s also worked with organizations like Amnesty International to help prevent the recruitment of child soldiers.
Several times during our chat, Jal emphasizes that we have the power to create the future we want by imagining it. “I’m creating the life I want by drawing wisdom and motivation from my past,” he says. “I’ve shut down many horrible things, like being tempted to eat a comrade when were in the bush and starving, or drinking my own urine, because I’ve healed.
“But sometimes when I look at my life, I ask, ‘Why am I here?’ It feels like a dream.”