A Boy Soldier's Story


Hip-hop fans would be excited to know that Sudanese musician, Emmanuel Jal, is in Australia at the moment. His albums and live performances blister with descriptions of his homeland and the civil war that has terrorised the Sudanese people. His lyrics are mostly about "my journey" as he gravely calls it: the searing ugliness of growing up with violence and horror in the Sudan; and the unlikely story of being a child soldier, a survivor and now a star.

Sadly his first tour to Australia is brief and doesn’t include any live gigs or appearances beyond the festival. Still, Jal relishes the exposure for his message, which he regards almost religiously as his reason for being. He spreads that message prolifically and it’s his writing, not his music, that has landed him in Sydney this week.

While he maintains that hip-hop is his first language and he has released three albums in the past four years, the Emmanuel Jal story comes in many mediums. Jal is here to promote his biographical book, War Child. For those who don’t like to read, there is a documentary film and a new album by the same name.

His presence here makes for an interesting look at the power of  the medium. His message is simple: peace and reconciliation. On his albums, he delivers it in Arabic, English, Swahili and his native South Sudanese tongue, Nuer. His second album "Ceasefire" is a cry for peace, a collaboration with a Muslim musician from Northern Sudan, Abdel Gadir Salim. His voice is young yet experienced; sometimes angry, but full of hope and a drive to help his people.

As a successful musician with multilingual albums, a growing global following, a massive fan-base across North-East Africa and an impressive list of stadium and film soundtrack credits, Jal could be satisfied that his message was being heard. But still he wants to reach more people and with his latest output, he has the English-speaking demographic covered.

"Sometimes music is not for everybody. The form I was doing, I was only reaching a certain kind of people, who like world music or hip-hop — so I was locking out a lot of people. Then there are other people that just like stories."

A glance around the festival crowd will confirm that they are indeed the people he refers to. These are not your regular fans of fast fusion political rap, but thanks to Emmanuel’s irrepressible drive to talk about his life, the lucky people attending the Sydney Writers’ Festival will get to hear his tale first hand.

Emmanuel Jal was born in war-torn Sudan. As a young child, he fled the encroaching civil war with his family, but around the age of seven he was separated from his mother and later learned that she had been killed. As a child, he had witnessed her being intimidated and assaulted and he admits openly that the news of her death filled him with a desire for revenge. His father had become a powerful commander in the Christian Sudanese Liberation Army and soon Jal himself was one of 10,000 conscripted children. He remembers being so eager to train and fight for Sudan’s liberation and his mother’s honour, that he couldn’t sleep.

By the time he was 13, he had survived two civil wars and seen hundreds of his fellow child soldiers killed or reduced to taking unspeakable measures in a bid to survive the battlefields of Southern Sudan. After a series of harrowing events, he was rescued by a British aid worker (Emma McCune) who smuggled him into Kenya to raise him as her own. Jal attributes his first encounters with hip-hop to his time in Nairobi.

Jal is a writer who has witnessed a level of suffering that most festival-goers would find incomprehensible. A young man who can candidly describe cannibalism, "waiting for attack" and "eating snails and vultures" from an experience that took place before he was even a teenager, when his AK47 stood taller than him.

The fact that he lives to tell the tale is so remarkable there is almost a fatefulness about it. As if the very purpose of his survival is to tell his story. Jal is humble, but does not deny his own importance. He tells me that often, when he is falling asleep: "I think why should I stay alive, what is the reason? Hope is the reason. If I look at my country, there is so much disaster, and I say, why didn’t I die? Why did see these terrible things? Because this story has to be told."

Since finding success, he identifies as a "leader" and takes his role very seriously. "My music influences people. I have a responsibility now. I have to tell people our history. So we don’t make these mistakes [again]." He believes that promoting his "causes" is part of the responsibility that comes with fame. When I meet him, he is on day 169 of a "hunger campaign" to raise money for the construction of a school in South Sudan.

But he didn’t set out to be a leader, or to be an important person. He was drawn to hip-hop because it was "just these guys talking. I wasn’t musical, but I thought I could tell a story like that." Jal now sees writing and performing music as a kind of therapy. "Music is the thing that helped me not to do violence. When I am sad I write a song. I have never written a song when I am happy. I write them when I am upset, when I have seen something on TV, something bad, something that upset me, or I have done something wrong."

While he insists he is at peace now, it’s difficult not to notice that conflict churns inside him. He is determined to reconstruct a positive identity, but his responses are full of contradictions. He still has to "work at controlling" his anger when he thinks of his sisters and mother. Even living in "peaceful" London, he is haunted by his memories. "When you are in a peaceful place, that is when those things revisit you. So you got War Part II. You already got the real war, and then there is the one that only goes on in your brain. You might be sleeping but it seems real — you see people with their heads chopped off, my gun refusing to fire. And then you wake up and it’s like you were there, you feel the pain in your body."

How does he live with that? Apart from "self-medicating" through his music and writing down his stories, he believes that Sudanese people have acclimatised to a state of conflict. "If you haven’t grown with violence — if war came to Sydney, BAM! — a lot of people would be traumatised. But if it came slowly, and if it’s continuing for 10 years, kids are born in that war, then it’s different, it’s become normal to them. Sudanese kids, each one of them has seen something wrong, but they can live with it."

You might imagine that returning to Sudan to make the War Child film would be the most confronting process in documenting his extraordinary story, but his observation is surprising. Jal says rather, "it brought up mixed feelings". He says writing the book was by far the most painful and difficult process to undertake, "because the writer has to dig and ask some of the most serious questions".

"I had to explain everything. The colour of the tree, or the colour of the road. What was the colour of my mum’s teeth, or does she smile? What was her expression? What was the expression of your neighbour when you were running, how were they screaming? In the battlefield you are about to fight, what happened next?"

The trauma manifested physically. "In the month that I started writing the book, I would get a nosebleed every morning, my chest would tighten up, my behaviour changed, I would get angry quickly and I hated the [ghost]writer for a while. I didn’t want to go and meet and talk and tell my story and if anybody asked me about my story, I would get mad."

Until, he says, he had a terrifying nightmare that shook him so much that it put something into place and enabled him to finish the book.

"It took me back into a journey. A journey that I thought I had left behind."

Emmanuel Jal is appearing this weekend at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

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