Franck Martin sits down with Emmanuel Jal, author, musician and documentary maker, to learn what hip-hop means to him and why he feels it is his duty to relive his days as a Sudanese child soldier.
It is a gross simplification to say that Emmanuel Jal has had a remarkable life. Forced by circumstances to leave his family as a child of roughly 6, (he is still unsure of his exact age but he places it close to 30) he went on to serve as a child soldier in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
Unlike the estimated three hundred thousand child soldiers throughout the world, when Emmanuel turned 13 he luckily escaped this hellish fate. His journey has taken him from the wilds of Sudan, where as a child battling government troops brought him to the brink of insanity, to the stage of Hyde Park where he performed at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday concert. As a man who has led such a dramatic life I start by asking him at what point he found his musical voice.
“I am still searching” he explains in his cool and calm Sudanese accent. “I am experiencing every day and trying to find a voice that is mine, but I am still developing and improving.” His previous album, ‘Gua’, amalgamated Arabic, English, Kiswahili, Dinka and Nuer (a compromise sadly lacking in Sudanese politics) raps with minimal, hip hop beats. So how has he progressed following the release of ‘War Child’ and what does this former soldier think of hip hops glorification of violence?
“I have gone back and listened to Nas, the Fugues and Tupac to learn how they delivered the lyrics and in the new album I have attempted to build on this. I have tried to go to a new level while keeping the tracks diverse. The album also uses honest metaphors and a wide range of samples compared to previous works. The problem as I see it is that artists have realised that sex and violence sell so they incorporate it into their music but this has a negative influence on children. I always avoid this and try to emulate the old School hip hop artists who were about unity and had something important to say; sadly it’s not about peace anymore!” Despite his enthusiasm Emmanuel seems distant, though I later find out is he is only allowing himself one meal a day until his GUA charity raises enough money to build a new school in his home town, today is day 97.
Emmanuel has had great success, from performing with Razorlight, Supergrass, Alica Keys and Faithless, to American tours and accompanying soundtracks on ER and Blood Diamond. Yet he is also an artist that is remarkably frank about his life experience. I am curious to know if he views music as therapy or has reliving the horrific memories become a macabre vocation thrust upon him as he became the unfortunate victim of unimaginable circumstances.
After a lengthy pause that borders on the uncomfortable I am about to move onto my next question but he calmly looks me in the eye: “I am forced into this situation because…” again he pauses before continuing. I feel guilty as I realise that this is difficult for him. “I am happy but I see on the TV that my people are still suffering. It is my duty to use my story as a voice to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. It is not easy doing this job. It is painful.”
Sitting in a matching ensemble of orange and black Vans, black jeans, orange polo shirt, and orange and grey jacket he is the picture of urban cool. But what attracted a young Sudanese man to use Hip Hop as a vehicle of expression? “Hip Hop is just speaking and you can say many words in a verse and you do not need an amazing voice, you just talk.” Unexpectedly he breaks into some impromptu, tongue-in-cheek acappella as proof of this fact. “I like eating nuts and everyday is cool and I wake up and jump on top of the building and I am so happy.” “It’s such a cool type of music” laughs Emmanuel as I sit amazed at his ability to juxtapose trauma and optimism.
The International Criminal Court recently issued a warrant for the arrest of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s tyrannical leader. While this is undoubtedly the correct decision the effect on the ground has been devastating for the ordinary people. Virtually all the international NGOs have been expelled and the catalogue of suffering by the people of Darfur is set to increase. It is impossible to interview Emmanuel without raising the issue of the violence of Sudan; indeed it defines him almost as totally as it does his homeland. I inquire if he believes the warrant was the most appropriate course of action.
“They have done a good job by actually identifying what is happening but Bashir is not alone.” The change in Emmanuel is stark as he lends his support to the ICC decision. Unsurprisingly the moment the issue of genocide is raised he becomes a different person, the laidback hip hopper is usurped by the enraged Sudanese native. He bangs his fist off the table, eyes glowing with intensity and tells me that “there are people who are committing genocide and people need to be punished. From 1983 up until now we only know about the genocide of Darfur. What about the ordinary people who have had their lives destroyed? It is good news to see the world finally addressing this issue but on the other hand the people of Sudan are now locked in and to defy Bashir would cost you your life.” I am full of questions but it is time for Emmanuel to meet with some local school children, 50 Cent he most certainly is not!
Shortly after the interview I go down to watch him speak at the Mitchell Library as part of the Aye Write festival. As well has his own album Emmanuel is also the author of War Child, his harrowing biography. The audience sit awkwardly as he explains how he travelled from a world of refugees and rifles and a life of rap. His tales of an idyllic rural life obliterated by starvation, cannibalism, rape, and genocide echo incongruously around the opulent chandeliers and stained glass windows of the main auditorium. I see that Emmanuel Jal truly is a voice for the voiceless; Óscar Romero would be proud!