Interview: Sudanese 'Lost Boy' Rapper Emmanuel Jal
"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."
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.