Emmanuel Jal fought as a child soldier in Sudan at the age of nine and survived a 3-month trek across the African desert. Today, he's one of Africa's biggest rap stars -- and he's working hard to make sure that other children in Africa don't share his painful experiences.
In the desert of Sudan, Emmanuel Jal hides in shadows, an AK-47 held steady in his arms. With his finger clenched to the trigger, he is aimed to shoot, ready to kill anyone who crosses his path. He is nine years old.
Eighteen years later, Jal wields his power with a microphone instead of a gun. He stands on the stage in front of thousands, rapping lyrics that ring with truth about his experiences in wartime:
“The music I used to hear was bombs and guns,
So many people die that I don’t even cry no more.
I ask God the question: What am I here for?
Why are my people poor?
I ate snails, roaches rats, frogs—anything that had life.
I know it’s a shame,
But who’s to blame?”
Today, Jal is well known as one of Africa’s greatest rap stars – an unlikely prospect for anyone, let alone a former child soldier and one of the famous Sudanese “lost boys.” But the metamorphosis from child soldier to rap star wasn’t simple by any stretch of the imagination – in fact, it’s a small miracle that Jal is even alive today.
When Jal was a young boy in Sudan, his mother was murdered by rebel soldiers. His sister was raped. At the age of nine, he was recruited to fight in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Filled with rage at what had been done to his family, he was ready to lash back at the world. After several years, though, Jal couldn’t take the fighting any longer. He left Sudan in search of shelter and safety with a group of 400 other boys. During the three-month journey, Jal went days without food or water, and faced dangerous waters and animals. Many of the boys died of starvation, drowned, or were eaten by crocodiles. Of the original group of 400 boys, only 12 survived.
When a British aid worker named Emma McCune encountered Jal at the end of his long trek, he was weak, emaciated, and desperately in need of help. She decided to take him under her wing, smuggling him into Kenya inside of her suitcase. “She was like a mum,” Jal told USA Today. “She would take me everywhere with her and got me into school.” Tragically, McClune was killed in a car accident not long after Jal moved in with her and her husband. But despite all that he had been through, and the darkness that surrounded him, Jal managed to find one thing worth living for: Music.
He first began making music in church, “because that’s where there was hope,” he told Time Magazine. “I looked at my life and I said, ‘I’ve been in hell and I’m told there’s another. Why choose that when I have another option?’” He began attending church services regularly, and joined the congregation’s gospel choir. Music gave Jal a sense of peace and calmness that the troubled teen had never felt before: “Music is powerful. Music is like love: it’s the only thing that can enter your mind without your permission,” he told the World Food Programme.
After falling in love with gospel music, Jal soon became interested in rap. The chance to write rap lyrics that engaged with his own painful past was a form of salvation for Jal. “I allowed myself, opened my heart to learn many things, then it helped me to overcome the bitterness, so I managed to forgive,” he told CNN. It wasn’t long before all of Kenya, and soon, the world, had caught on to Jal’s talent: His singles were chart-toppers in Kenya, and he’s quickly gaining a reputation in Europe as a talented artist to watch.
Just recently, Jal released his debut album for Western audiences. Called Ceasefire, it features duets with a Muslim Sudanese artist, Abdel Gadir Salim. In Sudan, the two singers would have been sworn enemies because of their religious differences. The collaboration, Jal told Church Times, relays the important message that, “it’s important to restore relationships with people, rather than saying ‘Kill them’. It will make a difference. It will take a while for people to follow. But if you practice what you preach, people will follow.”
Jal is trying to make a difference in other ways, too – namely, through his non-profit organization, Gua Africa, which works to build schools in Africa, ensuring that the children will be given books instead of guns, and will not have to face the world of horrors that Jal himself encountered as a youth.
No matter where he goes, the children of Africa are never far from his thoughts. As Jal told the World Food Programme, “Now, when I make music, I keep in mind some hungry tots … that’s what makes my music, my music. I put my hunger into my music.”