Emmanuel Jal: A Child Of War, a Voice of Peace
Sunday, January 6, 2008
Short dreadlocks, stylishly askew, frame Emmanuel Jal's face, aglow with a sheen as brown and smooth as coffee beans.
His story as a Sudanese child warrior turned rapper is a tapestry of tragedy and sheer luck. Jal's narrative flows between darkness and light, the terror that befell his family and kinsmen, the horrors he went on to inflict upon others, and a deep-seated desire to set things right.
Kind strangers rescued him, and now at 27 he wants to protect the childhood of others.
The singer got his peak moment in 2005 with a song called "Gua," which means "peace" in his Nuer dialect. Jal had confronted Bob Geldof, the organizer of the Live 8 concert in London's Hyde Park, for putting together a performance benefiting Africa that did not feature African entertainers. Eventually Jal got to perform at the Live 8 show in Cornwall, England. Good looks and stage presence, raw pluck and a message of pain have shaped his nascent career and cause.
A documentary on Jal, "War Child," will have its premiere in Washington next month. An album with the same title will be released in April. In September, he performed before adoring crowds at Georgetown University and Ibiza, a local club, to raise money for a school he plans to build in his native Bentiu in southern Sudan.
His art was never an end in itself. He fell into it as his Plan B after he had to abandon engineering studies in England because of visa problems.
Still, his songs enhanced the movie "Blood Diamond," and his haunting soundtracks accompanied scenes set in Africa on the TV series "ER."
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Unable to sit still in his chair during a fall interview at the Four Seasons, Jal keeps rearranging his gangly frame as he recounts his adventures, lived out in the killing fields of southern Sudan.
At 6, he was sent with other South Sudanese children to a school in Ethiopia, where President Mengistu Haile Mariam supported the separatist movement in neighboring Sudan. The war in Sudan between the mainly Muslim North and the Christian South was raging. Jal's father was a commander in the southern rebel movement, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, and the children attended training camp along with their studies.
Jal's mother was "claimed by the war when we all fled in different directions," he says. "I saw her get beaten by strangers when I was 6. My auntie was raped in front of me. My home was burned." His father gave him up to the rebels to set an example for others.
But Mengistu was toppled in 1991, and the children fled their school on foot to reach rebel-held territories. Jal was barely 11. Once they reached SPLA territory, older fighters armed them and ordered them to raid government troops in the regional capital, Juba.