Emmanuel Jal’s book War Child: A Child Soldier’s Story is one of his ways of fighting against war and working for peace. The other way is through his African hip-hop music. As he says in the book, “It is time for me to tell my story using the music and lyrics that are my weapons now I have laid down guns and machetes forever. For him this is a struggle for his homeland, for the world, and for his own soul. Again he writes in War Child, “I will escape hell, survive, and learn how to transform the war still raging inside me long after the battlefields have fallen silent.”
As a black Nuer child in a Christian family from the south he was swept up in the civil war tearing apart Sudan. Many times the young Jal fled with his family from village to village to try to find escape from the violence of the Arab Muslim Sudanese Army. During one of the times when the family fled a village under fire he was separated from his mother. Years later he learned she had been killed, but for a long time he kept looking to be reunited with her. Eventually through a long harrowing and horrific journey he ended up in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
There he was recruited to be a child soldier for the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) in which he father was a commander. He saw his father only briefly, and was sternly told to be a good soldier. Eventually he saw combat around the city of Juba.
Throughout, however, people saw some special in this child. Some commanders tried to keep him out of the most severe fighting. Eventually he met Emma McCune who took an interest in Jal and many other south Sudanese children. She was a British aid worker who had married Rick Machar, a leading SPLA commander. McCune rescued Jal from the SPLA and took him to Kenya where she enrolled him in school. As a former child soldier Jal had many challenges and behavioral problems, which were exacerbated when McCune was killed in an automobile accident.
He drifted into the slums of Nairobi where he was once again rescued by a woman who cared for the “lost boys” of Sudan, Mrs. Mumo. She kept him working at school. Meanwhile Jal had been entertaining people with his rhymes and music. He sang about the pain of his life and formed a group including his sister and some friends. They raised money for the Sudanese children in Kenya, especially for the former child soldiers.
He released his first album titled Gua, which means “peace” in Nuer and “power” in Sudanese Arabic. Using a blend of American hip-hop and African beats Jal sang of his dreams of peace and for an independent homeland. His song “War Child” broke him out into the world music scene. He sang, “I am a war child/I believed I survived for a reason/to tell my story, to touch lives.”
His next album Ceasefire was an amazing collaboration with an Arab Sudanese Muslim singer, Abd El Gadir Salim. Together modeled the dream of peace and reconciliation of which they sang. The Jal and Salim blended two very different musical styles in a compelling way.
His music propelled him into activism and became a great entre for his message. He became a spokesperson for Make Poverty History and also the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. He wrote War Child, which was also turned into a documentary. In 2012 he became a spokesperson for the We Want Peace campaign with his music video of that same title.
Jal has also jumped into the dialog in the hip-hop community about violence in lyrics. He passionately uses his music for peace and healing as well as for confronting those who abuse others. He challenged U.S. hip-hop artist 50 Cent and his “Bulletproof” video game for encouraging the culture of violence that leads to so many young people being killed. Jal raps: “You have done enough damage selling crack cocaine/now you got a ‘kill a black man’ video game/We have lost a whole generation through this lifestyle/now you want to put it in the game for a little child to play.” Jal has moved from being a local survivor sharing his story to being a global voice for peace in many different spheres.