Emmanuel Jal, Child Soldier to Global Icon


  • He was a child soldier during Sudan’s second civil war 
  • He has over 5 solo albums to his name
  • Author of ‘War Child: A Child Soldier’s Story'
  • Documentary and film acting credits

Afrospora.com presents:

Emmanuel Jal: Child Soldier to Global Icon

A child soldier during Sudan’s second civil war, Emmanuel Jal, a musician, author and actor, recently headlined the Habari Africa Festival at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre (July 18 – 20, 2014), where he granted an interview to Afrospora.com.

Jal, the Child Soldier

Growing up as a kid in South Sudan, Emmanuel had to face ordeals that would weaken a grown man. During Sudan’s second civil war, his mother was killed in the violence that ensued; Jal was only about seven years old.

Not long after, in the process of seeking out a safe haven, Emmanuel was conscripted into the Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) and forced to fight the Sundanese government as a child soldier. Jal’s ray of hope came in the form of Emma McCune - a British aid worker who later married South Sudan’s first vice president, Riek Macha - who smuggled him into Kenya and away from the insidious lifestyle he had come to know so well.

But in another sad twist of fate, McCune, only a few months after, died in an auto crash and Emmanuel was once again left alone to fend for himself.

Sadder is the fact that the country – South Sudan – Emmanuel fought for as a child soldier hasn’t known peace since its creation in 2011!

In admonishing Africans in the diaspora and who like him, experienced untold trauma at a young age (especially those brought on by civil wars), Jal has this to say: "trauma (heals) depending on where people are. Back at home people heal quickly because we have family around, people visit you, share with you; distribute the weight of your trauma…here in the west you have therapists who can help through the stages. You are free as you tell the story, whatever you have experienced, find somebody, talk to them and just share it from your heart. The more you bring it out the better."

Jal, the Multi-talented Musician

When fate deals you such hard blows, you choose to either sink or swim. True to his resilient nature, Emmanuel chose to swim and the transformative steps he has taken since his days as a refugee in Kenya has gifted the world with a multi-talented inspiration of a man who is bent on leaving the world a better place than he met it.

Emmanuel is a recording artist, an actor a philanthropist, a social change maker and a political activist. He summarized his approach thus: ‘I use my music for social and emotional learning and to share my experiences for conscience awakening…I want to shine the spotlight on the atrocities that happened before in my country and on the ones that are happening now.’

Emmanuel has since shared a stage with Hollywood royalties and other powerhouses from the global entertainment industry and the calibre of his collaborations are staggering. He appears with Reese Witherspoon in the soon to be released movie "The Good Lie." 

Jal, the Voice of Sudan’s Dead Warriors

The ‘global citizen’, as he calls himself, has travelled far and wide spreading his message and performing for the world’s greatest - including the late Nelson Mandela - and before millions of viewers. Only recently he took his message of peace to the Leadership Gatherings, hosted by Richard Branson on his beautiful Necker Island. 

Emmanuel could be a hip hop star with all the bells and whistles but he has chosen instead to sing, speak, think and live for the freedom of his people in South Sudan. "Some of my people have not tasted freedom. I am here and I am free, what I have experienced is what I want them to have too… my pride is in my people."

Music for Emmanuel is not a tool meant to create personal fame. In fact, it is very hard to get him to talk about his music purely from a pleasure-inducing perspective. Lay too much focus on how fabulous an artist he is, or how mesmerizing he could be on stage, and he is sure to steer you right back – lest you forget - to the incisive strain and purpose behind his art: ‘stability and justice for his people.’

He confessed that he finds it very difficult to focus on his own life and he reiterated the reason why in this rhetorical question; "what joy and pride do I have when I turn on the TV and see children from my home town begging for food or waiting for aid to drop from the sky?"

Music for Emmanuel is a way to give substance to and magnify the voices of the dead warriors, the voices of "all those civilians who stood against the oppressive government and died in battle and of starvation so I could be where I am today…"

He credits his taking the mantle to communicate on behalf of the fallen warriors as having shaped his music to be more educational as opposed to being purely entertainment-driven.

Pictures courtesy Emmanuel Jal

Jal’s Brand of Music

Emmanuel’s music is hip-hop spiced with vibes from Africa and he mostly favours the traditional sounds out of South Sudan. When he started taking music seriously, he found himself in a web of cultures – American, South Sudanese, Kenyan, and he decided to fuse these cultures to create his own unique sound.  For instance, his soon to be released song, 'My Power' (produced by Nile Rogers), fuses traditional South Sudanese "village style" with hip-hop. According to Jal, "if someone from my village listened to 'My Power' they will be able to jump well to it"

Jal and Relaxation Hour

For some one so introspective and philosophical, one would expect that Emmanuel spends his day on a recliner thinking up lyrics and wisdom-laden words as he is known for; but that is far from the truth.

He works very hard and is constantly on the road, and for him to relax means taking a nap when his body is "burning out" or "crashing." When asked about his favourite vacation spot, he let out a hearty laugh: "vacation? Ehn? (laughing still) I find vacations boring. I do not understand the concept. Like, how do I spend a lot of money and stay on the beach? My body does not understand it…just boring."

Jal, the Cook

If in doubt of Emmanuel’s love for his birth continent, try popping into his home in Ontario unannounced and you just might catch him making his favourite Sudanese-inspired breakfast meal: "normal village-style porridge from sorghum."

Emmanuel loves traditional African food and will settle for Indian cuisine in the absence of his favourite. Interestingly, considering his busy lifestyle, he prefers eating in: "I cook mostly for myself, my own food. I barely eat outside."

Jal’s Take on Success

In terms of shaping his craft for the future, Emmanuel says he is still evolving as an artiste and hopes that, to his listeners, his next album will be better than the last. He vows to keep doing the best he can, adapting and transforming as the need arises because "the moment you think you have arrived, that’s when you fall down very hard."

Emmanuel’s musical talent and socio-political activism have been recognized globally and rewarded with numerous awards. He, however, delights more in the thoughts behind the awards than the actual awards: "when you are given an award you know someone is saying we recognize you, we are behind you, we support you. I find that very inspiring." 

In a world rife with self indulgence and egotistical tendencies, Africa's Emmanuel Jal, despite his impressive resume, stands tall as an epitome of humility acting towards the collective good of an entire nation. It feels quite right to say that Jal holds dear to his heart more than anything, the stages from which he shares his life changing experiences and passes on the message of hope, peace, justice and reconciliation. 

About Afrospora.com

Afrospora.com covers African-themed events and Africans who are making meaningful contributions in the diaspora with a view to raising the collective profile of Africans and Africa. Contact us at info@afrospora.com

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