From Sudan Child Soldier to Hip-Hop Star

Popular hip-hop artists are not usually the silent type. But Emmanuel Jal, one of Africa's up-and-coming rappers, is hardly typical. As a preadolescent boy Jal carried an AK-47 for the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army. He once was so hungry in the bush that he was tempted to eat the flesh of a dead friend. During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., however, he was staying at the five-star Willard Hotel. A promoter for a forthcoming documentary called “War Child” needed Jal to help market the film, which is about Jal's life—before and after he was rescued by a British aid worker. But Jal was suffering bouts of fatigue and depression. He could hardly muster the energy to answer a question when first reached by phone. "I'm finding it hard to talk about my story all the time," he mumbled. Jal agreed to meet later at a reception for the new film at a trendy bistro called Leftbank. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How is it going here in Washington?
I'm having fun. It's tiring, but I have to believe it's worth it.

It must be strange. Do you ever feel a sense of cultural confusion? Staying at the Willard Hotel with a feather pillow and room service and all the cable channels …
[Chuckles] And I used to be here. [Points to a magazine photo of Sudanese boys in threadbare clothes cooking over a fire]

Do you find it strange?
It's very strange. Unbelievable. I used to cook like this. [Gestures again at the photo]

But you've come this distance. What goes through your head?
I'm kind of getting used to the situation now. But what goes through my head is, "How can I give back to those people? What can I do?"

You have the Gua Africa foundation .
Yeah, I have a foundation whereby you pick kids from the [refugee] camps and put them in better schools. We get a child and match them with a sponsor. The sponsors pay school fees directly to the school. And if the sponsor wants to visit the child, they can actually go and visit.

How many kids have you placed in schools so far?
At the moment we have 16 sponsored. I'm sponsoring six. I used to sponsor eight, but it was dragging me financially.

How much does it cost to sponsor a child?
It depends on how much you want to invest. It could be $1,000, $1,200, or $2,000 a year.

So they go to a boarding school?
Private boarding schools are best.

How did you come to know about hip-hop music?
When I was in south Sudan, people used to rap in my village. But the rapping was more in the mother tongue, Nuer. They used sticks and clapping hands [instead of instruments].

Did you see American hip-hop on television in Kenya?
Yes, in Kenya. I used to think they were Kenyans. It took me, like, one year to realize they were Americans.

Your first CD was called "Gua" [which means peace in Nuer]. When did it come out?
"Gua" came out in 2005, February. I did it myself: printed a couple thousand CDs, and they all sold out in Kenya. And I became famous, and I didn't get a chance to print more, because I went on tour and got signed to a record company. We did [a second CD called] "Ceasefire." So there was a lot of hype, a lot of things happening.

What's the hype about?
The biggest hype is people saying, "OK, this guy is an ex-child soldier. Now he's doing something about his life and making an impact."

Tell me your favorite lyrics.
There's one song called "Forced to Sin," which is about my story, and there's one called "War Child."

Can you sing me a verse of "War Child"?
OK. [Begins rapping] I lost my father and mother in this battle/My brothers, too, perish in this struggle/All my life I've been hiding in the jungle/The pain I'm carrying is too much to handle/Who's there please to light my candle … something like that.

You played here [in Washington]. How was the response?
People liked it.

Do you have a record deal now in the U.K. or in the U.S.?
I just signed a new record deal with Sonic360.

Where did you learn English?
I learned English when I was smuggled into Kenya by [British aid worker] Emma
McCune [who later died in a car accident]. She put me into a British school.

How did she come to take a liking to you in particular?
Well, I'm shocked. Why me? She rescued over 150 child soldiers, and it happened to be that I was the one she fell for the most. I just say that she was my angel.

Your adoptive father, her husband at the time [Riek Machar], was a rebel commander. He was out there fighting and recruiting child soldiers, right?
Actually, Emma made a deal with Riek. She was asking Riek, "Let me disarm the child soldiers." That's how they became friends. She managed to convince him.

Do you still speak to Riek?
Yeah, I still speak to him once in a while. He's busy, but he's proud of what I'm doing.

Are your birth parents still alive?
My mom, it's confirmed she's not alive. My dad, I met him when I went back to Sudan [early this year].

That must have been a strange reunion.
It was strange. There was not much connection, a lot of memories, I was confused, I didn't know what to do. Because leaving home and staying away for ages has made me lose feelings, so even when I meet my relatives I'm detached. Do you get what I mean? We were trained not to miss anyone, and not to have attachments to people. It's hard, because I cried and missed home for years, until I no longer missed anymore.

So you still have that distance?
I'm working on it now. I'm working on it.

Your dad became a rebel before you. Did he leave home, or was he forced to be a rebel?
There was a lot of insecurity, so a lot of his friends used to get killed at night. Some were tortured. So he managed to escape before [government troops] arrested him. And he joined the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

You were left on your own?
I was left with my mom, and we had to find a way to move south.

And you eventually got sucked into the SPLA.
Yes. When we went into Ethiopia we actually went to school. But most of us had bitterness, wanting revenge, wanting to know who destroyed our villages. That's why we all agreed to be trained as soldiers. Some of the Lost Boys [kids who eventually escaped the war by walking hundreds of miles in large groups to refugee camps across the border] managed to trek to Kenya, but some were left in Sudan to fight, like me.

You witnessed terrible things. You saw some of your friends killed.
That's the worst part. I've lost a lot of friends. Most of the friends I had kept dying, until I was scared to attach myself to a friend emotionally. Because your friend today, tomorrow he is dead. I couldn't carry that.

Can you make friends now?
I make friends now. But I'm really far from my family, and I want to get closer to my family.

Where is your family now?
Sudan, and my brother and sister are in Kenya.

How many other siblings do you have?
A lot. My father married 12 wives. So we have many brothers and sisters.

What do you think is going to happen in Sudan? There was a peace deal [between the mostly Muslim north and the animist and Christian south] in 2005, but now people are saying it's going to fall apart.
I don't trust the government of Sudan. They are putting a lot of pressure on now [to encourage] the SPLA to start the fire, so the government can say, "Look, they are the ones who started it." The world is not focusing. And if there is no peace in south Sudan, there will be no peace in Darfur.

You made your last album with a singer from the north, a Muslim, so you're obviously trying to reach across that divide. How did that work?
It was difficult. We had to overcome differences.

Have you read the book "A Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone?
I'm actually reading it, and a lot of things he's talking about are similar to what I was going through.

When he starts the book, he and some friends are sitting around watching some rap musicians [on a television], trying to imitate the musicians.
He was 14 [when he became a child soldier]. I began when I was young--seven, eight. I fired the first bullet when I was nine or 10.

How did you handle the recoil on an AK-47? I'd think that would knock you down.
Actually, the AK-47 is better than [other guns] that will throw you down. You put the strap over your shoulder and hold it down … Chuk-chuk-chuk.

It must have been a great sensation of power for a nine-year-old kid.
Yeah, because you feel you can kill a big person.

Were you involved in battles?
Some of them. Some battles.

I read that at one point you and the people you were with were reduced to great hunger and even cannibalism. You had no food left and you were lost.
When we were escaping. The journey became tough. Soldiers forced their fellow soldiers to drink urine. So you put a gun to their head and tell them to fill a cup, and they would drink. A lot of them never survived. Other places, cannibalism started. Some people started eating. Even I was tempted to eat my best friend, because there was nothing for me to eat. He was dead. A lot of adults died with their pride, because they don't want to eat anything. We survived on vultures, snakes, frogs, anything that was available.

So again, it must be very strange to be at the Willard Hotel right now.
[Laughs] I'm in shock. Now I'm in a five-star hotel. It's big. It's like I'm living in a dream. I can't believe I'm a human being. I used to run for aid bags dropping from the sky. Now I'm here. And I'm using this opportunity to try to help people back at home and to encourage people. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It can actually be a blessing.

Do you have nightmares?
Nightmares come when I tell about my story. They're not as bad as before. When I got myself involved in the music, the nightmares dropped off. Now I know when I'm dreaming, when it's a dream. Before I'd just shake. Emma would find me …

Tell me about the movie, "War Child."
"War Child" is about my story and the situation and the politics of Sudan. Me going back to meet my family, finding out who survived. It's a journey, about me and my country. I want to use it as a way to bring attention to my people. I want to build a school in a place called Leer, and also to build a school in Kenya.

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