Emmanuel Jal can still remember the first time he experienced the transformative power of music. When the South Sudan-born, Canada-based hip-hop artist and peace activist was a young boy in Tonj, a village in war-ravaged South Sudan in the early eighties, his mother risked violence at the hands of attackers twice a week so she could have the opportunity to sing.
“My mum used to be in the church choir in our village town,” recalls Jal, who’s never been able to trace his birth records but estimates that he’s in his late thirties. He's currently in Australia to speak at an event, run by the Melbourne arm of the London organisation for the development of emotional intelligence, School of Life.
“Even though it was a sacrifice, people would go out into the village twice a week to contribute their art and that in itself was therapy. Music is the only thing that can speak to your mind, your soul, influence every cell in your body. When we lost battles in war, music gave us strength. When we won, music helped us celebrate. Without it, human beings would go crazy.”
“As a child soldier you have a gun, you feel strong and as a child, going to war is fun because you don’t know any better — until you’re six, seven, eight years old and all around you, they’re dead bodies, your food smells like gunpowder and you’re burying people you know."
Jal’s trajectory as an internationally acclaimed hip-hop artist — one who’s released five studio albums, recorded music with Nile Rodgers and performed for the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela — is light years from the events that shaped his early life. At approximately eight, he was kidnapped by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army rebel movement (SPLA) and, along with thousands of South Sudanese boys, was trained as a child soldier and taught to distrust his early memories. He escaped as a 12-year-old, making a three-month trek across the parched Sudanese landscape during which he endured starvation, fatigue and cannibalism. Of the 400 child soldiers who fled with him, he was one of only 16 who survived.
“As a child soldier you have a gun, you feel strong and as a child, going to war is fun because you don’t know any better — until you’re six, seven, eight years old and all around you, they’re dead bodies, your food smells like gunpowder and you’re burying people you know,” says Jal, who was smuggled out of South Sudan to Kenya by Emma McCune, a British foreign aid worker who died in a car crash six months later. The story was immortalised in the 2008 documentary War Child and The Good Lie, which was produced by Reese Witherspoon and released in 2014. “You lose your appetite, you don’t ever want to eat meat. These things come back to haunt you but I was lucky.”
He says that Western perceptions of the civil war in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, have been dogged by the desire to oversimplify and overlook the larger forces at work. “War is big business and governments choose to go to war to avoid accountability and transparency,” says Jal, who works in the tradition of ‘conscious’ hip-hop — a sub-genre of the form that uses the power of storytelling to shed light on political and social issues. He ranks Bob Marley, Lost Boyz and Tupac among the artists who’ve inspired him the most. “The media always reports that the war is tribal but it’s not tribal! It’s just that one side happens to be of a tribe that is following a specific idea of freedom for all.
“Those who have managed to own their mind use that to exploit those who who don’t own their mind. Recently, six people in my family were killed. We hear that genocide is looming but it’s happening right now.”
“You will never know the potential of other human beings until you give them opportunities."
It’s hard to imagine not being overwhelmed by this darkness but for Jal, who runs My Life is Art, a global venture that helps people tell their stories and The Key is E, a social enterprise that empowers social entrepreneurs working in Africa, the past has emboldened him to spread his message of fearlessness, connection and peace. And music, of course, is the biggest part of his plan.
“At the moment, I’m doing an EP with my sister, who lives in a refugee camp with two kids, so that she can use her own voice as an artist to speak out for women,” smiles Jal, who moved to Canada four years ago and whose mother was murdered by soldiers when he was around seven years old.
“You will never know the potential of other human beings until you give them opportunities. I look at my life and feel like I’m still dreaming! Sometimes, you think a child needs water but really they just need a hug and when a child is naughty, no one sits down and asks them: what do you want to communicate.” He pauses.
“All my life, all I’ve done is speak out against child soldiers and to be a conscious artist, it’s an effort because you have to push through your heart and mind. But I know that just by telling their own stories, people can heal.”
Sunshine, a four part drama that explores the hopes and heartbreak felt by those forging a new life in a foreign land, will air over two big weeks, premiering on Wednesday 18 October at 8.30pm on SBS. You can watch an encore screening on SBS VICELAND at 9.30pm after it airs or stream it online on SBS On Demand.