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Interviews, Music

How Music Changes Lives: Emmanuel Jal, Former Child Soldier, Finds His Way Through Hip-Hop

By: Laura Beaulne-Stuebing – 

Emmanuel Jal.

Emmanuel Jal.


Emmanuel Jal chuckled when he said he “came from the bottom like a lobster, now I’m riding on the top like a rockstar,” but there’s some truth in the joke told by the hip-hop artist from South Sudan.

Jal, whose latest album, The Key, came out on Sept. 9 and who stars in the new film The Good Lie, with Reese Witherspoon, had about as tough a childhood as anyone could imagine. At age six or seven, rebels ripped him from his family and forced to become a child soldier to fight in Sudan’s civil war.

But music helped change his life and with it he’s helping to change the lives of others.

“Music to me is a therapy,” Jal says. “Music is the thing that makes me become a child again. It’s what makes me see heaven. It’s my pain-killer.” It’s also a natural partner to his activism and charity work.

Among other things, he’s contributed to the charity album, Warchild- Help a Day in the Life, performed at Bob Geldof’s “Live 8” concert, and founded his own charity, Gua Africa, which builds schools and supports kids in Africa (“Gua” means peace in Nuer, Jal’s mother tongue).

“Art speaks thousands of words. When you’re an actor, you’re an emotional leader. When you’re a musician, you’re an emotional leader,” he says, mulling over the role music can play in creating political change.

“What art does is act like a catalyst that keeps the candle alive when revolutions are happening. What art does, is it’s illuminary. It puts a spotlight in a dark place.”

The situation back home is dire. Fighting between warring parties in South Sudan erupted last December and has cut off food supplies to the Sudanese caught in the middle, and the country has teetered on the brink of a full-fledged man-made famine.

“Four million people are in a food crisis. One million displaced begging for food,” Jal says. “Our government killing people, spending one billion dollars. When the United Nations are looking for 1.3 billion to feed…What pride do I have when I still have my grandmother growing blind, or my aunt suffering, because there’s no good hospitals around?”

These are some of the dark places the artist is trying to illuminate.

“What art does is act like a catalyst that keeps the candle alive when revolutions are happening.”

The music he writes isn’t typical mainstream hip-hop. It’s conscious hip-hop, as he calls it, which stands in contrast to the music industry machine that chews up artists and spits them out, and wheels and deals in selling souls.

“In terms of conscious hip hop, there’s conscious hip hop all over. In the ghettos it’s there. It’s the CNN of the locals.”

But it’s important to understand there’s often, on the one hand, entertainment and, on the other hand, movement and revolution through music, he says. Jal has decided to “take the long road” with a message, trying to have a positive impact.

Much of his new album, The Key, which is Jal’s fifth work to date, came about because of The Good Lie, he said. The film, which was directed by Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau, chronicles the story of Sudanese “Lost Boys” – a term given to thousands of boys that Sudan’s civil war displaced – and hits very close to home for Jal.

The musician-turned actor says he wrote to ease the pain he was feeling.

There were bigger players involved with this one, compared to previous albums, he added. The Key features collaborations with the likes of Nelly Furtado and Nile Rodgers and two of the songs from The Key made it onto The Good Lie soundtrack.

Jal is heading to Toronto for an official album launch party on Oct. 9, and will makes some stops at a few other Canadian cities throughout the month, where he’ll be sharing his music and the messages behind it.

“I consider myself an artists who uses experience for social and emotional learning,” Jal says. “I’m an entertainer, but I’m doing it for a purpose. Whether it’s going mainstream or not mainstream.”

“In the hip hop world,” he continues, “I am here because I feel there’s something I can say. There are those who can say it better, but I feel like I have a story that I have to tell.”


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