Former Child Soldier Emmanuel Jal To Speak at Canadian Schools, Release Album On Universal

By Luther Mallory 5/17/11 |

Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier now 31, is making a name for himself as a conscious rapper on a global scale. The new album, See Me Mama, will be released in Canada in September via his own label, Gatwitch, through Universal Music Canada. The first single is "We Want Peace.” The video was directed by Anna Gabriel, Peter’s daughter, and features appearances by George Clooney and Alicia Keys.

His music often reflects his traumatic past spent in Sudan, where he was recruited at age 8 by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) to fight against the Sudanese government who had been responsible for the death of many of his family members during the civil war.

When he was 13, Jal had the good fortune of meeting Emma McClune, a British aid worker who rescued and adopted him and took him to Kenya to receive an education. He was then able to redirect his anger and turn it into positivity and creativity, writing music to spread his message.  

War Child, a 2008 documentary based on his life, earned five film festival awards, including Audience Choice at the Tribeca Film Festival. He also released an autobiography last year called War Child: A Child Soldier's Story.

Jal also has a great passion for humanitarian work. He founded the charity Gua Africa to provide education for children and young adults in Sudan and Kenya who would otherwise be denied such opportunities. In December 2008 until October 2010, he ate one meal a day, as part of a fundraising initiative he called Lose To Win in order to build a school in Sudan. He also travels the world speaking at colleges, universities and high schools to tell his story and inspire the youth of today towards his goal for peace.

This summer, he will be in Canada speaking and performing. In June, he will tour high schools in Ontario and will also showcase at the Canadian Organization of Campus Actvities (COCA) in Whistler, BC.  In July, he plays Quebec Festival D'ete on the 15th; Vancouver Folk Festival 16th to 17th; and Guelph Hillside Festival on 22nd to 24th, specific dates TBD.  In September, there will be a university tour, radio promo dates and Indigo Books & Music tour.

Jal is presently based in London or Kenya, while seeking Canadian residency, but is officially still a citizen of Sudan.  His music and activism are both meant to push his ideas and educate about peace, but with the world in such crisis, can peace really be achieved?

Jal spoke with Samaritanmag via Skype from London, England.


promo for the 2008 documentary on Emmanuel Jal
promo for the 2008 documentary on Emmanuel Jal
On your college visits, what's the cornerstone of your speech?

“I’m telling them they have the power to correct their past mistakes and also to correct the future. I tell my story just to raise emotional intelligence, for people to empathize. I’m targeting young people because most of them are going to be the CEO of companies. They’re going to be important. They could be the next President, Senators. So that's why I aim at them so that when you reach them now, and they reach in those hard places, then they will be emotionally intelligent and they will be in touch with society and they can help in making the world a better place.

“If you look at human beings now — because of education and the improvement of emotional intelligence, empathy — violence has reduced compared to 1945, compared to 1700, 1600. People are beginning to say, ‘Oh, no no, wait a minute, we are all human beings. We are equal. We're the same. We have one blood. We can feel pain. We need to eat. We need the same things.’ So you can see how the world has changed.

“The violence has reduced, but we can continue to reduce it more and more and more if we have more people acting. Look what students did to Darfur []. They saved Darfur. Look at what the people can do to influence the government. It’s the university people, so that's why I go to the universities and high schools because when a time comes up where there's something bad, make yourself available. Your voice counts. It’s not money. It’s your voice that makes the difference.”

A lot of people throughout history have strived for peace. What makes you think it can be achieved?

“Peace is achievable. In Europe, now, you have peace. In America, there is peace. So peace is achievable. But peace means different things to people. Peace means living in your house and coming back home and not being beaten by a policeman. That's what other people perceive. Peace could mean I'm not going to sleep hungry and wake up hungry tomorrow. Peace means nobody's going to raid my home and chase me out of my home. So peace is different [to different people]. Even though I'm in a peaceful place now, I still face some battles when I'm asleep. So I came up with a formula nowadays — whenever I have a nightmare I wake up and write it ‘cause I don't know how to run away from the nightmares. I'm peaceful. There's no war, but when I sleep I get invaded by dreams.”

You write the dream into music or poetry?

“No, this time I actually write the dream. There's the poetry; that's for live performance, but I came up with a new way — I actually write every dream, the ones I can remember. I write the whole thing immediately. Sometimes, I can have five dreams in the whole night.”

What are you're dreaming about?

“Horrors, you know? It’s some town. [There are] helicopters. Sometimes, they don't really make sense. The latest dream I had, I happened to be in a helicopter. We were running so I could go on the flight. There was only one helicopter left and a pilot. There was nobody to actually operate the gun, so I was trained how to use the gun in the helicopter. I have to fly it in case any thing happened, so I could land the helicopter and fly. It’s so funny. It was very annoying that there was someone who was with us who I’m being trained with, who kept opening up the helicopter as we are flying. The helicopter almost crashed. So we ended up landing in the wrong place in an enemy territory. We have to lie to them that we were surrendering to them, but they discovered we're not.  So the pilot said it's okay and we took off and we started fighting. So I’m operating the machinegun; now I’m killing people in the dream that are shooting at us. I almost got shot. Then we escaped. Most of the dreams build up a story and then there's a battle. Sometimes, my gun doesn't work. And then you see bombs exploding.”

book cover for Emmanuel Jal's 2010 autobiography
book cover for Emmanuel Jal's 2010 autobiography
Emma McCune was the woman who ultimately rescued you from your life as a child soldier. What do you recall of that rescue?

“I was rescued when I was 13. I escaped the place. We were like 400 people and only 16 people survived. I was tempted to eat my friend. We’d run out of food. We were eating snails and roaches. Then I met her and she smuggled me to Kenya where she put me in school. But she later died [in a car accident].”

You went to Ethiopia to seek out education, before joining the SPLA?

“We actually went to school for a while.”

Did the SPLA kidnap you or recruit you because you wanted to go?

“Most people decided to go without being forced.”

Were you one of those people?


You wanted to go?

“I wanted revenge for my family. We lost everything. When you've lost your loved ones, or you don't know where they are, you can do anything [because of] the fear of somebody losing their life and the fear of you losing the people you really care about. The one that is tormenting is not losing your life, but the people you care about.”

After you got rescued, how did you turn your mind around and become this peace advocate when you harboured so much anger?

“It's the people I met and the opportunities they gave me.  Emma brought me to school, a good school. I was educated properly. I happened to discover Martin Luther King [and] Gandhi. Education gave me an option to discover the truth and find out what's actually killing us. So it's not about Muslims and Arabs; it’s economics. So discovering the truth helped me to heal, gave me an option. Should I forgive or should I continue to hate?

“Now, I’ve forgiven and I’m living a good life because peace is the only way out. We are all human beings. If the world had only one color, it would be boring. I like different coloured people, different sizes, fat, short, skinny, blonde, super black like me, Chinese; you see round headed, small eyes. It’s amazing!”

What’s your idea of peace now compared to when you were 10 years old in Sudan?

“I’m at a peaceful place now. I can walk about my house, whereas when I was young, I would hear guns everyday. You’d hear people exploding, bombs exploding, people running from one place to another. You’d hear sad stories, people always crying. But now I’m in a different place. I’m entertained. The only stories I hear are maybe from TV or people calling. But I’m not in that situation.”

A lot of people with painful pasts get therapy or work through it some way and then don't want to talk about it. Why have you chosen to open and reopen those wounds?

“The thing is you are free as you want to tell the story. If you go to therapy, you're going to tell the story. They’re going to log into your mind and you tell whatever thing that happened. And that's when you begin to be free. But now I’m doing it as a sacrifice so that the story can be heard and people can be rescued. It’s the story of the lost boys, the child soldier stories. It’s what makes people want to say, ‘Oh, no, what's happening?’  That's why people are working and trying to stop the problems that are happening and trying to create a solution. Telling this story has put my country on the map. It’s a different kind of fight, by educating people on how they are going to help and telling them these things exist.

“I did what was called 'Lose To Win,’ where I was eating one meal a day to try to raise awareness and also to try to build a school in honour of Emma in Sudan. One thing I said is if you're able to buy a chocolate, then you have power to make a difference in this world because there are people who live on less than a dollar a day. Young people say, ‘Oh look, I can actually buy a chocolate. So if I stop one chocolate today and put that one dollar in a tin, then I’m going to help a family to have food, but if I do that all year, I’m going to put a kid through school.’  So you see the reason. It excites young people and they think, ‘I can actually make a difference.’”

How many days were able to keep it up, eating one meal a day?

“I thought I was really famous that I would raise the money to build the school in a month, but it took me 662 days. it was really, really, really humbling.”

So you're going to try it again?

“I’m going to try Lose To Win again in December. But I'm trying to tour Toronto schools between this year and next year — universities, colleges, high schools. I’m trying to find sponsors who can cover my expenses.”

You seem so comfortable talking about your past. Is there was going to be a time when you stop talking about it?

“Yeah, I’ll stop probably next year. I talk to masses, but I’ve done a lot of interviews about it so I tend to want to push new content because it's not just all about my story. There are a lot of things that I’m doing, but if a journalist knows about [my past] and they have a few questions [that’s okay]. I don't want to tell the whole story. It's draining.”

Why are you focusing on Canada so much this summer?

“I’ve signed a deal with Universal [Music Canada]. So my album [See Me Mama] will be released there, but also because the Canadians are different. They’re so supportive.”

How did you end up hooking up Peter Gabriel; his daughter, Anna; George Clooney and Alicia Keys for “We Want Peace”?

“Peter Gabriel has been helping me for a very long time and so Anna came to me through Peter. I met him in Cornwall at Live8. He knew a couple of people and sent an email and that's how we got everybody involved.”

What are the major themes on this record?

“I've been too political so I'm trying to be a bit soft and then come a bit hard later on. There's a political message, but there's also some cheekiness too. Human beings want to have fun. If you're too political, they'll put you in a corner so I'm trying to be diverse.”

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