photo by Rob Trucks
Emmanuel Jal is 28 years old–approximately. No one knows for sure exactly when the London-based rapper was born.
What is known is that Jal left his native south Sudan and its seemingly endless civil war as a child, after his village was razed and his mother was killed. For a time he lived in an Ethiopian refugee camp. Then he, along with other “lost boys,” joined the Sudanese rebel army. After two years of battle and frequent flirtations with suicide, starvation and even cannabilism, Jal and 150 of his fellow child soldiers were rescued by British aid worker Emma McCune and taken to Kenya.
Jal’s long journey is documented in the film War Child, this year’s Cadillac Award winner for audience choice at the Tribeca Film Festival. And tomorrow on May 13, Jal’s second album, also entitled War Child, will be released.
We spoke with Emmanuel Jal two weeks ago, between film festival and record release responsibilities, between public appearances and photo shoots, at his temporary residence in the Gild Hotel downtown.
VV: In one of the film’s very first scenes you perform an a cappella rap of “War Child” for some students, and when you finish you say, ‘That’s my story.’ If it’s possible to capture your life in three minutes and 51 seconds, then that song’s probably it, right?
EJ: Yeah, I have a song called “Forced to Sin” that summarize the intensity and everything and tell the story in a short form. That one is inspired by U.S. hip-hop basically. When I listened to Tupac, when I listened to Public Enemy and I listened to some underground. When people talk about ‘my story,’ in the hood, dealing with the drugs and all that, then I say, ‘Let me give my story.’
So “Forced to Sin” is the story as much as the title track?
EJ: Yes. “War Child” is an intro. “Forced to Sin” is the full blow. Then when you come to “Emma,” it’s an appreciation of ending.
You mentioned Tupac and U.S. hip-hop, and that’s as good a segue as any. You’re born in Sudan, live in an Ethiopian refugee camp and eventually attend school in Kenya.
EJ: I escaped the refugee camp. There was war in Ethiopia and I end up going south in the army.
You’re not forced to join the army but rather you volunteer, both for revenge and because you’re a child and all your friends are carrying guns. Where are you when Emma McCune finds you?
EJ: Emma find me when we escaped from a failed battle of a city that we want to capture called Juba (in southern Sudan). So what happened was there was a fight between the rebels themselves. There was an internal fight, so for us, the young ones, we say, ‘Okay, these guys have lost the vision, so let me go and protect my village.’ So we all decided to escape. Me, I was just told, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ So we escaped and the journey was intense and a lot of people died on the way.
This is when your best friend dies.
EJ: Yeah. And then we’re 16 people, the only people left, and then that’s when I arrived in Waat, exhausted. And Waat was not the destiny we wanted to go, but we ended up in Waat and that’s where I met Emma McCune.
When do you first hear recorded music on a regular basis? When do you first hear American music on a regular basis?
EJ: The music that I used to hear was Bob Marley, but I didn’t understand the English. But the commanders used to play “Buffalo Soldier.” [Here Emmanuel sings a bit of “Buffalo Soldier.”]
So you’re still a pre-teen. You’re not even 10 years old.
EJ: I start 7–7, 8, 9–and then I would hear “Get Up Stand Up” [He sings again.] So like those are the commanders who listened to those kind of music. Then some Arab music.
You recorded with (north Sudanese musician) Abdel Galir Salim, and it’s missing the Jamaican influence that’s present in your solo work. Is the difference that he’s traditional and you’re modern? That he’s Muslim and you’re Christian? Or is the difference simply based on north versus south Sudan?
EJ: If you actually go, properly, to Africa, because let me tell you, there’s one place with music that is endless is Africa. Go to any village in Africa. Record it. Tell them to sing. Tell them, ‘Sing for me a different song of different moods.’ Go with your guitar and your cable. You’ll end up either with reggae beats. You’ll end up either with blues. You’ll either end up with soul. You’ll end up with dancing music, jungle music. Like that’s how it is. But the Jamaicans, it’s in the black peoples’ genes, that when they’re in pain they create music.
Music in Africa is in different form. There’s music for war. There’s music for sorrowness, when somebody dies. There’s music for listening. There’s music for loving. There’s poetry. There’s all kind of different, different sound. And sound vary from different village, from different place. But there’s also the music that has been influenced by Arabs that came to Africa, and that’s where you find Abdel Galir Salim’s style. It’s a mixture of Nubians’ culture and Arabs’ culture.
Now when you come to the style that I’ve brought, it’s the way we think in my village [He sings again.] When we ask someone to put a beat into what we’re singing, they came with a hip-hop beat. If you give it to somebody else they give it a reggae beat. Because I’m now in the Western world I’ve tried to make sure I sing the music on the four beat, but in Africa we just sing.
So is Bob Marley played on the radio?
EJ: Someone with a small tape. But we don’t have radio station. These are commanders who’ve bought a radio and maybe they put on BBC and they’ll hear Bob Marley, or they’ll have a tape and they’ll play. But what the soldiers do is they have their own songs. And the way they sing is different. Like I could give you an example of a song [He sings again, this time in a language other than English (Dinka?) . . . though the tune is reminiscent of Big Country’s “In a Big Country.”] Something like that. But that’s now the soldiers singing their own song–not influenced by Jamaica, not influenced by anything.
Oh, sorry. You told me about hip-hop? I had hip-hop when I was in Kenya.
Is that when you were in boarding school?
EJ: No, not there. Before. Primary school. I had it when I was first brought in Kenya and I saw TV and people are rapping and I’m saying, ‘Wow! What are they saying?’ And I just like what they’re talking about. I didn’t understand so I would just jump around what they’re doing. So I thought, ‘These are Kenyans.’ I didn’t know these are Americans. I know like these are Kenyans having fun. Took me like four years to actually realize these are not Kenyans. So I say, ‘Okay, Americans. Okay, cool. Americans.’ But they’re Kenyans. So I thought maybe it’s another tribe called Black Americans [he laughs] which is in Kenya. Because they look like Kenyans because Kenyans are light-skinned and they’re Bantus and those figures that I see in TV is the same except they speak English. So it took me a while.
You’re a young man who has lived a long life already and you’ve taken on some heavy responsibilities. In “Forced to Sin” you talk about fighting for the children of Darfur, Sudan, all of Africa. And of course the War Child documentary endeavors to gain attention to the situation in your home country. But if the conflict in Africa is the most important message, is it diluted by including songs like “No Bling,” “Skirt Too Short” and “50 Cent”?
EJ: This is me as a musician. What’s my perspective? What’s my reaction to the situation I have? That is me talking. So my story, I want to use it to inspire people, to show them where I come from and what I stand for. That’s what the whole album is for. Like there’s a song called “Vagina.” That is because I have seen what is happening in Africa and I know what it is and I feel responsible. I’m here. I’ve lost my childhood. I have adulthood. Let me use the story to inspire people. If it doesn’t highlight the situation in Africa, but somewhere somehow somebody’s heart will be touched because a lady called Emma McCune rescued me and rescued about 150 child soldiers. And poverty’s all over the world. Make a difference. That’s one message I want to pass.
And also to remind people what hip-hop started for in America. It was something to speak for the community, but now it has gone into blings and prostitutions of women and all those things. Like the song “No Bling” came when I was in England because no record label want to sign me. The reason they didn’t want to sign me is because I’m not hardcore. I’m a simple person. When I’m in the public, I don’t carry the state of saying, ‘I’m important. I’m a celebrity. You’re supposed to take me as this great, amazing person.’ I’m just a normal person. So they tell me, ‘You need to have an image. You need to be hard. You need to have the big cross or bling here (he points to his chest). You need to have that look. You need to wear fine shoes. And that way we’ll be able to sell you.’ Then I say, ‘No. I can’t go for that. I’m in pain now. My family’s destroyed. My country’s at war. I’m a refugee. I’ve been a refugee for 25 years. I’ve starved. I have nothing to live for, but I have a lot to say.’
You understand that I’m not disagreeing with you.
EJ: No, no. I’m just trying to show you how angry I was with the record company. So this frustrate me because to fight the record label was difficult. Then the other part was, my cousin who escaped as a refugee to England started forming his own little groups and they called themselves G-Units. And they go and beat boys in school, bullying. He ended up stabbing a white boy. He was sent to jail. Then the producer’s son was sent to jail for doing a drive-by shooting. And both of us were in the studio so we have mixed emotions, mixed feeling. Not blaming hip-hop, that hip-hop is bad, but how can we pass a message to the hip-hop guys up there that they are the icon? They are the people that the kids look up to? Rock only work in the white audience and Europe. Hip-hop has conquered all the continents of the world. You go to China. Reggae used to rule, but now hip-hop rule the young people. The only way I knew about how hip-hop is big is when I went to a village and a small kid singing me a 50 Cent song and he doesn’t know English [laughs.]
Again, I’m not disagreeing with your point. All I’m asking is, When you’re talking to the record label in London and saying, ‘Look, I lost my childhood. My family’s destroyed and people are starving,’ does the inclusion of “No Bling,” “50 Cent,” “Skirt Too Short” dilute your message regarding the situation in Africa?
EJ: No, it doesn’t because it’s my response to an experience that I’ve had. Understand, the music that come out is come out of energy. If you do me something wrong now I’ll come up with a song about it, so that when you go I don’t want to fight you. I don’t want to cuss about you, but take that energy and convert it into something positive.
But energy is energy, and you could write a song if I do something right and not just when you’re angry, right?
EJ: Yeah, but most of these songs came out of anger. Like they come out of hard situations. That’s why I haven’t talked about love yet. I don’t have a song about my experience with a woman, because what is relevant now is what I’m experiencing. I’m talking about what’s happening with 50 Cent. How is 50 Cent influencing me? Me as a person? I’m a fan. I’m listening to learn more hip-hop and improve on my skills of flow and even writing. But what I’m looking is to say, ‘Look, you have a responsibility. You have made millions. It’s time now to turn everything around. Make even advertisement to young people. Go to school. Be somebody. Something like that. Because you keep that gangster image, a lot of kids will think it’s amazing.’
And for me, one thing I know is music is powerful. Nothing speak to a brain or a mind or a heart or soul more than music. And that’s why you find reggae music, the people came with reggae music. Guys like smoking weed and getting high and they’re at peace. Rock music you find guys who are doing that kind of lifestyle and they think it’s cool to be stinky and be rough. And you go to hip-hop it’s cool to be violent. So you see, see how music has affect our society. But at the moment hip-hop is what is ruining our young people, our young generation, so it’s my responsibility as well to pass my message to my opponent because I can’t call him on the phone and tell him, ‘Hey 50. Kids are knifing each other out there. Kids thinking it’s fun shooting. They think it’s cool killing somebody.’ So the best way’s to honor him because he has achieved amazing stuff. I can’t come cussing at him. But I have to speak the truth and to honor him because I’m a fan. At the same time I don’t want to offend him, but I want to stand to my truth to what I want to say if I meet him in the room.
I don’t want to put the cart too far ahead of the horse, but you talked about not having written about your experiences with love. Given that this is your identity now, that there’s a documentary and an album and you are the War Child, how tough is it going to be to leave that behind? Can you record an album, even five years down the road, where the main theme is something other than the situation in Africa?
EJ: You see, music go with timing and people grow. Now I’m at a different point when dealing with issues. My next album may not sound like War Child. My third album may sound different. I’m an artist. I’m still growing. And there’s still more room for improvement, you know. Like I’ve got some love songs about women. I’ve got different stuff. But I’m saying, ‘Is it the right time for me to put them on this album?’
And I guess the answer is, ‘Not yet.’
EJ: It’s not the right time. Next time. Next time maybe.
But you have written love songs?
EJ: I have some love songs. I even have a love song where I’m saying I’m going to find myself an American girl.
Yeah, I think that’s Tom Petty.
The song “War Child” begins, ‘I believe I’ve survived/For a reason/To tell my story/To touch lives.’ Given all of the horrible, inhumane things you have seen and lived through, when do you begin to believe in God? There have to be moments of desperation when you questioned whether or not anyone was looking out for you, right?
EJ: Yeah, but like if you watch the film you find there are points I was tired of life. I want to commit suicide. I want to die. I hated life. I say, ‘Why was I born?’ I used to cuss my life every time, and when I was broke in Kenya when Emma died, that was a breakdown for me because I had to go to slums. I couldn’t afford sometimes one meal a day. We eat the next day. So that happened. And that kind of pain is what brought the music that you hear today.
But when do you begin to believe that your life has a larger purpose? I assume that you felt that way when Emma McCune rescues you, but when Emma dies I would guess that you would question again. It’s saying something for someone who has gone through as much as you have to believe that there’s a higher power with a plan and who is looking out for you.
EJ: One question I would ask myself is, ‘Why didn’t I die when there was bombing? Why did I not die in my village when my village was attacked? Why did I not die when our house was safe and our neighbor’s house got bombed? Why did I not die? Why did I not get shot in the time I was there? Why did I not die in the ship that capsized? Why did I survive that? Why did I survive the trek in the desert? Why did Emma McCune rescue me and brought me to Kenya?’ So those were the questions I was asking myself.
And the answer is . . .
EJ: I believe I survived for a reason. To tell my story.
And that belief comes . . .
EJ: In London. When I came to London. Because I’ve seen the impact when I’m invited somewhere. Though it depresses me to talk about my story, how powerful. It make people to respond and want to do something. And then I say, ‘Look, my country’s at pain. I’m War Child. I lost my childhood.’ Everybody want to know my story. Let me just give it to them. It’s going to help somebody. So what else do I have to lose? I’ve lost everything that I’ve owned. But if this touch somebody’s life to help somebody then it’s worth it.
Okay, tell me something that you’ve never ever done before in your life.
EJ: I’ve never eaten a crab. [Laughs.]
That’s a good one. Tell me something you’ve done once and one time only.
EJ: I cooked avocado, mixed it with onions and tomatoes with eggs. I fried all of them together. I was hungry. I ate it, but I’ll never eat it again.
Really? Because that actually sounds kind of good.
EJ: You know the way you make an omelet of avocado, tomatoes, onion and mushroom, all that together? Because I like eating avocado. It tastes nice when it’s not cooked. So I thought, ‘How nice will it taste when it’s cooked?’
Tell me the name of a movie that you’ve seen at least three times.
EJ: Apart from War Child. I can’t say War Child. Which movie have I watched three times? Shrek [Laughs hysterically]. That shows how weird I am.
No, that’s a wonderful answer.
EJ: It just make me laugh. The donkey was funny. I think the ogre itself was funny. And the girlfriend. Like the whole crew.
And if you could have everyone in the world listen to one Emmanuel Jal song, what song would it be?
EJ: Ah, you’re very clever. “War Child.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 12, 2008