Peter Wiggins meets Emmanuel Jal, the Sudanese hip-hop star.
“I am still a soldier. But now my weapon is music.”
Emmanuel Jal was a child when the second phase of the Sudanese civil war began. He watched his life collapse before his eyes. His village was burnt down, his aunt was raped, his mother was killed. When he asked who was responsible, people told him that it was the Northern Sudanese. Jal became one of thousands of children who migrated to Ethiopia to live in a refugee camp. At the age of just seven, lusting for revenge, he joined the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA). His aim was to kill Muslims and Arabs.
In 1991 the SPLA, previously united in enmity towards the North, divided along tribal lines. A new civil war emerged between the two biggest ethnic groups in South Sudan, the Nuer and the Dinka. Jal migrated to Juba where he joined the Nuer faction. He then escaped from the war to a town called Waat. It was the wife of Jal’s guerrilla commander, a British aid worker called Emma McCune, who saved his life. Insisting that he was too young to be a soldier, she smuggled him to Kenya in the baggage area of a plane.
A few months later Emma was killed in a car crash in Nairobi, Jal sank into a deep depression. Recovering slowly with the help of Emma’s friends, he realised that music offered him the hope of a new life. Rapping and writing music, he soon became a rising star in the Kenyan music scene. His first single All We need is Jesus was played endlessly on Kenyan radio. By 2005 Jal was a global star. The Guardian newspaper described him as the ‘hottest thing to hit the African music scene for quite some time”.
I went to meet Jal at a pub near his home in Finsbury Park. He didn’t want a drink. Jal fasts until 5PM each day to raise money for the building of a school in South Sudan. He is much more than a musician. He is a full-time activist.
“Music is powerful”, he tells me. “I am still a soldier. But now my weapon is music”. I ask him what he is fighting for. “Rights’, he declares. “Human beings have rights”. Jal is light-hearted, full of jokes and laughter – but with a profound mission in life. Over and above recording his new album, he is also setting up a record label for young unrecognised artists. And then there is his own charity ‘Gua Africa’ for the rehabilitation and education of former-child soldiers. He is a spokesman for Amnesty International, for the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, and for the Make Poverty History Campaign. “I am really busy”, he explains.
Jal’s music and his activism go together. When he talks politics, his words still have a poetic feel to them. He speaks with a rhythm of his own. “All my work connects”, he explains. Jal takes what he needs from the music that surrounds him. He uses rap and spoken word against a backdrop of African beats. Jal’s first album Gua was recorded in English, Arabic, Nuer, Dinka, and Kashwali. The multiplicity of languages was a deliberate plea for understanding. In the same spirit, Jal released an album Ceasefire, alongside a famous Northern Sudanese singer, Abdel Gadir Salim. He laments the glamorisation of violence that has become prevalent in safe Western hip-hop, knowing first hand what violence looks like.
I ask about the relationship between Jal’s troubled past and his present. I quote to him the words of Arthur Miller: “we move through the world carrying the past”. Jal agrees: “that’s right, you see my past is what inspires me to carry on doing what I do every day. I am doing it for the people whose voices are not being heard. I am doing it for my dreams, for the voices that speak to me, for the dead bodies.”
Jal still suffers from nightmares. His most recent single is entitled ‘War Child”. Under the same title, Jal has published an autobiography. There is also a documentary film chronicling Emmanuel’s early life.
Talking of the troubles of Jals’s motherland, we come to his contentment in his new home, London. I am interested to hear him say that it was only in coming to London that he managed to like himself: “Even when I was in Kenya, I hated myself for being a black person”. After living in London for four years, he loves the range of place, people and culture. “Everyone here is so friendly to me”, he says with a smile.
The politics of identity has been a factor in wars all across Sudan. Jal knows this as well as anyone. “I am Sudanese and I am African”, he asserts.
“It is tribalism that has destroyed my country. I am also a Christian but it is not something that I brag about”.
It surprises me when he tells me that the North Sudanese are his biggest fans. Every bit of the hostility that Jal once felt towards Muslims has been lost.
“I work with people from the North. There are so many Muslims who are wonderful people.” We come to British politics. “Your political system is amazing”, he says plainly. I ask him what he thinks about the MPs’ expenses fiasco. “Your politicians get into trouble if they steal one pound. You should go to Africa. They steal millions”. He laughs loudly. “Your politicians serve the people. You can change your leader. For me that is so amazing. That’s what I want for my country.”
Just as the clock strikes five, I come to the politics of Sudan. Jal can now break his fast and he nips off to buy some nuts and a flapjack, which he shares with me. For the rest of the interview we talk between mouthfuls about what is going on back home. He analyses the difficulties of his country: “Sudan’s problems have never been with the people but with the politicians”. I ask him if he is optimistic about the forthcoming elections. “First of all it is very exciting. But I worry. There could be another war. There are now SPLM soldiers in the North. The South would be wiped from the map and now the North would be affected too. But there’s still a good chance for peace”. It occurs to me that Jal perfectly personifies that chance. He remembers the horrors of war yet he bears no malice.
This interview was conducted in 2009 and appears in a recently published anthology ‘I Know of Two Sudans’ and email email info@