The good fight
After a stolen childhood as a soldier in Sudan, rapper Emmanuel Jal is still fighting, but now it’s for the rights and education of other African kids.
For some hip-hop artists, a violent past is something to be worn as a badge of honour. But for Sudanese rapper Emmanuel Jal it’s a history of abuse to be conquered and channelled into good. In 1987, aged around seven (he is not exactly sure of his date of birth), he was recruited as a child soldier and spent the next five years fighting in two civil wars for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
“For me, it wasn’t a choice,” he says. “I saw my village burned down, my auntie raped, my mum die, claimed by the war. We got scattered with my brothers and sisters. And what I saw is what made me want to be trained. There was no brainwashing; it was practical. You choose the gun. If you try to run away, where would you go? You’re running away from where?”
Eventually though, he did run away and was smuggled into Kenya by a British aid worker, Emma McCune, who later adopted him. Within the year, she died in a car accident. But by this time, Jal had discovered music as an outlet for the incredible agony he had endured.
Though far from a conventional rapper, he found fame, first in Kenya, with his albums Gua (meaning “peace” in his native Nuer tongue) and Ceasefire, and then worldwide with Warchild, released last year, and accompanied by a documentary of the same name, designed to spread the word about child soldiers and the plight of Sudan.
“When I picked up the AK47, I was fighting for hatred. I wanted to kill as many Muslims and Arabs as possible,” he says. “But now I’m fighting a different war, and this time I’m using my microphone, reaching people’s hearts. There is something about music that engages your emotions and carries your mind away. You’re not thinking about paying your bills, you’re just having a good time. When you sing, your emotions get energised. It’s like a painkiller.”
Writing his autobiography, also called Warchild, was a more painful catharsis, causing him nosebleeds and nightmares. “Writing the book was digging into things that I normally don’t talk about, that I’d hidden in the back of my mind,” he says. “I don’t cry with tears – the tears are inside.”
Even now, he prefers not to talk about being reunited with the surviving members of his family, including his father, saying simply “everything is in the book”. But his attitude to “home” speaks volumes.
Jal has lived in London for the past four years, but says “I’m not settled mentally and emotionally to call a place home. I don’t attach my feelings to a place because I know anything can happen and I can be moved. If I come to Scotland now, I’ll not miss London. If I go to Birmingham, I’ll not miss Scotland. That’s the way I’ve been trained. When I was a kid, I used to miss my family members, my home; now I miss nothing. It’s a torture when you start missing a place, so I don’t put myself in that position.”
Instead, he channels all his considerable drive into improving life for his people. “What we really need now is education,” he explains passionately, “not building wells and water for us. That is temporary. You want to help us in the long run? Build a small school in a little village. Educate the people.”
Jal is working towards that goal right now, raising funds through his charity, GUA Africa, to build Emma Academy (named in honour of McCune) in Leer, southern Sudan. Since December, he has been eating only one meal a day and donating the money he would spend on breakfast and lunch to the project. One senses he feels he can never do enough, and that perhaps there is a touch of survivor’s guilt motivating him to keep raking over his awful history again and again for the world’s media in order to keep Sudan in the news.
“It is painful,” he agrees, “but I have no choice because I’m the voice for those who can’t speak for themselves, so I just have to keep on doing this. If I don’t continue to pass the message along for the people, I’ll feel like I’ve betrayed them.”
Emmanuel Jal Charlotte Square, 15 August, 8.30pm, From £7, 0845 373 5888
If you like this, try Abel Bari Atwan and Ghada Karmi at Charlotte Square, 23 August