November 19, 2008 / 8:11 PM / 10 years ago

Former child soldier Jal uses rap to spread peace

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sudanese child soldier turned global hip hop star Emmanuel Jal has both embraced rap as a way to reach a global audience and distanced himself from what he says is a tendency to glorify violence.

Emmanuel Jal in an undated photo. Jal, who fought with the Sudan People's Liberation Army for five years as a child and guesses he is 28 years old, tells his story in detail in the documentary "War Child," released on DVD this month, and in a memoir and an album of the same name. REUTERS./Handout

Jal, who fought with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army for five years as a child and guesses he is 28 years old, tells his story in detail in the documentary “War Child,” released on DVD this month, and in a memoir and an album of the same name.

The documentary won the Audience Choice Award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Jal’s memoir will be published in February by St. Martin’s Press.

In a recent interview with Reuters, Jal said that hip hop should be about demanding positive change.

“When somebody comes and says that they enjoy killing people, they don’t know what they’re talking about. The real killers, they don’t talk about killing,” Jal said.

Jal’s “War Child” album includes both biographical songs where he confesses doing “inhuman and barbaric” things and playful songs advising women not to wear their “skirts too short” and scolding U.S. rappers for using bad language.

In the song “50 Cent” he takes the U.S. rapper to task for producing a violent video game called “Bulletproof.”

For Jal, who now lives in London, music is a form of therapy that allows him to sort through feelings of guilt while serving as a role model for child victims of war.

He has set up the Gua Africa charity and is planning to build a school in Leer, his village in southern Sudan.

“I believe I have survived for a reason, to tell my story to touch lives,” Jal says in the song “War Child.”


In about 1987, his village in southern Sudan was attacked by soldiers loyal to the government and his mother was killed. He was brought into the SPLA and taught to fire an AK-47 rifle that Jal said he was barely strong enough to hold.

“I lost my childhood completely, you know, and I’ll never recover that,” said Jal, who raps in Arabic, English, Swahili, and his native Nuer language. “But through music I feel like a child again. I can sing and dance again.”

When he was about 13, Jal was discovered by Emma McCune, a British aid worker who was married to Riek Machar, a military commander who is now vice president of the semi-autonomous Southern Sudan.

McCune smuggled him into Kenya and enrolled him in school in Nairobi. Jal says McCune rescued 150 child soldiers from the fighting in southern Sudan before she died in a car crash.

In 2005, Jal released the song “Gua,” which means “peace” in Nuer, and the song became a hit in Kenya.

The same year, the Sudanese government in Khartoum and southern rebels ended the 21-year civil war that killed 2 million people and forced 4 million from their homes.

An independence referendum is expected to be held in 2011.

Introducing Jal this year at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebration in London, the musician Peter Gabriel called Jal “someone with the potential of a young Bob Marley.”

Jal, who is Christian, said writing his memoir helped “deliver” him from the guilt and pain of his past. While writing the war scenes, Jal said he suffered bloody noses and violent nightmares and was tempted to give up.

He said he keeps going because he wants to make a difference, and also because he is afraid of what his mind will go through if he slows down.

“When I’m idle, that’s when my brain actually messes me up and sometimes I’m worried,” he said. “I say, what about when I’m gonna be 60? Will I be hit by my history? That’s the only fear I think about every day.”

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