From harrowing experiences as a child soldier to international recognition as a hip-hop artist, Emmanuel Jal's life has followed an extraordinary path. At the age of seven, he was taken away to fight with rebel forces in Sudan's brutal civil war. After his escape, Jal is now working on a new album and documentary about his life. Malcolm Brown caught up with the child-soldier-turned-rapper during a recent visit to Washington, D.C.
Watching Emmanuel Jal perform now, it is hard to imagine his life as a child soldier in the Sudan People's Liberation Army. "Left home, don't even know the day I will ever return," he says onstage. "My country is war-torn. The music I used to hear was bombs and fire of guns. So many people die that I don't even cry no more."
Having swapped an assault rifle for a microphone, he now uses this stage to seek help for his troubled country.
Among those who came to hear Jal perform in Washington, D.C. were activists concerned about the Sudanese region of Darfur including Megan Ragany. "When people can see someone like Emmanuel Jal, who's an amazing person, and has gone through all of this, it's just a really powerful way to get the message across," she says.
It is a testament to Jal's star power that he was introduced at Georgetown University by the U.S. government's special envoy for Sudan, Andrew Natsios. "To have a Sudanese, who's also a famous person - a legendary figure in the pop world - to speak about these issues, I think is very important to educate the American people and the rest of the world about what the reality is in Sudan," said Natsios.
Jal does not sugarcoat that reality, talking openly about combat and the horrors of his escape through the bush. "I was sleeping next to a friend of mine, and he died that night," he recalls. "And I said: OK, fine, I am going to eat you tomorrow, my friend, because I have nothing to eat."
Jal says he never actually resorted to cannibalism, though others did. He clearly sees reliving the painful past as a duty. "There are a lot of young children who were my age who have gone through (a) tough life, worse than my situation, but they have no chance to be heard, and the only thing I can do is sacrifice my pride and my everything and talk about the story to represent them," he says.
A new documentary by 18th Street Films tells that story, along with a music album. Jal uses his high profile to promote Gua Africa - a charity he founded. He also campaigns for peace in his native Sudan. "The higher you go, the bigger the responsibility, the more the pressure and the higher the demand for people to expect you to do things," says Jal.
He says he hopes that his music will motivate a young and international audience with the energy and passion to make a difference.