Meet Emmanuel Jal, the Former South Sudanese Child Soldier Who Now Jams with Nile Rodgers

Emmanuel Jal has transformed his harrowing story into a triumphant new album.

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Nov 6 2014, 7:31pm

Emmanuel Jal was only eight years old when he was kidnapped. Trained through the abuse of his rebel captors, by the age of ten he was a killer. He was a Sudanese child soldier, one of tens of thousands of kids who the parts of an AK-47 better than their family.

Jal was taken by the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), but as the second Sudanese civil war grew, armies from all sides were enlisting child soldiers, usually manipulating their early memories of seeing families and villages ripped apart and convincing them that it was the fault of whoever they were required to shoot at.

Jal escaped when he was 12, joining a group that deserted the SPLA in the dead of night. Nearly 400 boys fled with him that night, embarking on a journey across the desert landscapes of rural South Sudan, from Juba to the northern region of the country. It took them three months, as evading repeat capture was prioritized over journey speed. Illness, starvation, dehydration, and cannibalism befell the group, and Jal was one of only 16 to survive, reaching a relative safe haven in the village of Waat.

As Emmanuel Jal talks me through his story, it sometimes seems as though we’re talking about a completely different person, someone who is not here right now, a fictional character from an unfortunate horror story. The Emmanuel I’m talking to is energized, happy, politically charged and full of love and faith—in himself, in music, and in his country of South Sudan. “My shows are always full of women,” he jokes excitedly. “So, in fact, if you come to my London show: BRING MEN!”

Those who know Emmanuel Jal, will know he has plenty of sad stories, but he’s also got a shitload of ecstatically happy ones, and they are mostly the ones he’s interested in telling me today.

Jal’s work as a politicized hip-hop artist has always revolved around deeper meanings and lyrical messages, but on his fifth record, The Key, he has also expanded on a musical level, pulling in the legendary talents of rap’s finest Darryl “DMC” Daniels, pop doyenne Nelly Furtado, and the unmistakable Nile Rodgers of Chic.

“On this album I tried to put a happy mood on it because I like dancing and I like jumping around,” he says. “There is so much I can do with each and every sound, to try and create a different way of moving your body. It has some big hits. The one featuring Nile Rogers, 'My Power,' really rocks. It is a MONSTER live. Every song on there has its own way of driving and asking for attention.” The resulting record is a vibrant musical ecosystem that throbs with the culture of Jal’s past and the enlightenment of his adulthood—all expressed through traditional East African rhythms, reflective rap, and feel good pop flavored with tones of reggae, dub and soul.

“Nile Rodgers told me I should focus on my flow, my breathing and my hooks, and only then should I think about the lyrics. That was a new way of writing for me,” admits Jal. Over time he has concluded that writing lyrics purely about the situations in Northeastern Africa is effective, but it also falls victim to the unfortunate reality that hard-hitting and informative music like his can just be too heavy for a mass audience, walking a fine line between “shit got real” and “tl;dr”. A lot of people just want escapism from their pop music, not reminders of the desperate need for peace in South Sudan. Jal’s found that balance on The Key, creating an album that can shake, boom, and groove with infectious cadence and slinky bass lines while still carrying that significant political message. Thus, his message ripples further than ever before.

“It’s done in a way that is easier for the masses to jump on,” Jal explains. “It is entertaining, but there are also political messages. 'My Power' is about people having power—whatever skill you have, that is your power. It’s about how we have the potential to use our power to make the world better. But at the same time, power can be corruption: the cowards, the greedy, the ones eating everything. We need to stand up and speak up, not keep quiet. We have to coexist, because if we don’t, we’re going to be extinct. We can keep killing each other if we want, but the more we bleed, the more the belly of the beast will never be satisfied.”

There has been no happy ending yet in South Sudan. It might not be as neatly labeled as the civil wars of recent history, but if you define civil war as a violent and bloody conflict between factions of the same state, then Sudan is still glowing red with hostility. An inexplicable reluctance by the UN to enforce an arms embargo—and actually stop weapons from flooding into the country—has undermined sanctions that many hoped would bring some form of peace to the country. A recent report also suggests that a recent lull in violence—brought on by the wet season—is coming to an end. As the drier weather approaches, the warring sides of government and rebels prepare to resume their fighting.

When I ask Emmanuel about his last visit, his tone darkens. “I was beaten when I went to do a peace conference over there,” he tells me. “They told me they don’t like activists. I came to do a peace concert to mobilize young people about us coexisting and making our world better, but I was beaten, because I’m from another tribe. Now, I don’t go back at the moment, because the country is at war. The government have killed 60 people from my family, and two of them were my brothers. When the UN is looking for $1.3 billion to help the people of my country, our government are spending a billion on arms to continue the war. They are lying to the world, and too many people are turning a blind eye.”

Screengrab from Vice's documentary Saving South Sudan.

Jal has dedicated his life to bringing attention to the daily injustices of life in South Sudan. Alongside the new album, he's also just finished working on The Good Lie, a forthcoming film starring Reese Witherspoon (yes, but she does it well), which looks to tell the story of the lost boys of Sudan. Witherspoon's character subtly evokes the late Emma Mclune, a British aid worker who helped Jal escape South Sudan. “I had to put it down,” he recalls of first reading the script, “because it was too deep for me. It was resonating in me that this is my story; this is the story of my brothers and sisters; this is the story of my country. This is the voice of the dead.”

While the story of Emmanuel Jal's path from African warfare to international artistic acclaim is heartwarming, it also provides a window into the generation that could have been for South Sudan. Since escaping his traumatic childhood, he has kept telling the story of his country, through books, music, and activism, giving South Sudan a consistent voice in popular culture. And that’s enough to make you wonder how many gifted young Sudanese kids never got to fulfil their potential. “Sometimes I still meet childhood friends who I thought were dead and who thought I was dead,” smiles Emmanuel. “Those who did well were those who were taken in by families and given a life. Those lost boys with families to house them and treat like their own children did very well.”

Earlier this year, VICE’s investigation into South Sudan yielded some incredible stories about other kids from that bloody civil war period who have since gone on to become talented individuals. Nyakong Thok was a refugee who found her way to the US and became a model; Ger Duany went from child army life to starring alongside Mark Wahlberg in I Heart Huckabees; John Dau fled the war scenes of Duk Country to become a human rights activist and founder of his own healthcare charity. And those are just three random stories, so easily found if you are willing to scratch the surface of this complex country.

“I hope peace comes,” Jal says. “The people of South Sudan need to know what peace is. Many people don’t even know what it is. Peace is when somebody has food on the table. It’s when the basic services are provided: like health, shelter and schools. Peace is conflict management, and the distribution of wealth is a form of conflict management. Peace is putting in place a system that treats everyone fairly and creates a common identity for the country.”

For all of those lost kids of Sudan, now spread across the world on the breeze of a wartime diaspora, it must feel they have lived two lives. I ask Emmanuel if his past feels more like a nightmare than a reality, with the perspective of years now passed, but he, as ever, is defiant: “Actually, with everything that is happening at the minute, it feels more like right now is a dream and I haven’t woken up yet. But in this dream I want to do as much as I can to make a difference.”

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