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Storytelling

Emmanuel Jal - Interview With Child Soldier Turned Rap Star

This week we celebrate International Peace Day and revisit the most arresting and inspirational story of our interview series – that of former child solider, Emmanuel Jal . Having escaped civil war in South Sudan, Emmanuel faced brutal loss, starvation, and final salvation through music. By creatively channeling his traumatic experiences through his music, he has today become an internationally renowned hip-hop artist and philanthropist, campaigning globally for increased investment in education and peace in Africa. Emmanuel is a truly incredible individual and visionary – even the great Peter Gabriel described him as having the potential of a young Bob Marley.

Transcript

Fergus:
Hi, and welcome to Creativity: Weapon of Mass Disruption, where we profile pioneers who have unleashed the power of creativity to disrupt our assumptions, categories, industries, and drive agendas to great effect. Today I’m joined by former Sudanese child soldier, now Africa’s most famous rap artist and activist, Emmanuel Jal.  Emmanuel’s story would bring anyone to their knees. At the age of seven, his childhood in South Sudan was violently interrupted with the outbreak of civil war. The next five years of his life were the most brutal tapestry of violent warfare, starvation and survival. However, today Emmanuel is Africa’s best known rap artist, using his music to promote peace in his home continent. Peter Gabriel has labeled him an artist with the potential of a young Bob Marley and his activist single, We Want Peace, gives us an insight into his life dedication, the formation of his charity, GUA Africa, and his movement for peace in his home.

Emmanuel, thank you so much for joining us. I really wanted first to have a chat about your childhood, and in particular I’d love to know whether you feel you have a connection to the young Emmanuel before the war?

Emmanuel:
The only time I get truly connected to my childhood is through music; this is where I become a child again. This is where I get to see heaven. When I’m on stage, that’s when I get to dance. When the war broke out, you see, I didn’t understand what was going on. For my first experience of war I thought, this is it, the world is ending.

Fergus:
You talk in your music about losing your mother to the war, what happened?

Emmanuel:
I used to think she was shot but actually she died out of exhaustion because she was pregnant when she was running, and she died on my grandmother’s arm trying to give birth. So she died with a baby. I wasn’t in connection with what was going on, and up to now I don’t know everything because at the age of seven my father sent me to school in Ethiopia and it was a difficult journey. You know, the first time we’re going, we used a ship to cross the Nile and the ship was overloaded, and a lot of kids died when it capsized.

Fergus:
How many kids?

Emmanuel:
Around two hundred and sixty and I think fifty people survived. The kids who survived, their parents came for them, visited them, gave them food. Here I am, nobody there. A lot of young people when we arrived in Ethiopia were dying of starvation. A lot of things happen, you know, and you see a kid saying where is my mum? Where is my dad? Why is this happening to me? Where is God? Does God care about us? You know, it’s like having a bottle in your mind and then you’re just about to lose it.  So I was just about to lose my head when I saw young child soldiers. I managed to cross the road, and the kid was strong he punched me so hard I fell down, and I said wow this kid is strong and he has a gun on him, boots and I said woah I want to be like this kid, you know.

Fergus:
And you’re still seven, eight years old at this point?

Emmanuel:
I was trained at eight about to be nine. I remember what happened to my village and I said I’m going to learn how to fight with this AK-47 so I could avenge my family. I went for the wrong reason. I did not know what the war was for but in my mind I know my home has been burned down and I have an idea who did this.

Fergus:
So it was hatred and revenge?

Emmanuel:
Mine was hatred and revenge. I wanted to kill as many Muslims and Arabs as possible.

Fergus:
You say in your song, War Child, there’s a lyric which talks about you being seven years old, lying in bed with an AK-47 keeping one eye open. Did the sense of suspicion and vulnerability typify your age between seven and twelve?

Emmanuel:
Well actually, having the gun makes you powerful, you actually forget you’re young.  Because with a gun you can get free food, with a gun you can defend yourself. All you have to do, have a gun, go to the next village and sit with your gun. You’ll get food. You don’t have to ask for it.

Fergus:
So when was the moment that you realised that this was not right? What happened that enabled you to say hang on a minute, the hatred and revenge isn’t what I need?

Emmanuel:
We planned an escape which was terrifying. A lot of us died on the way. I remember only 16 people survived the journey and I was tempted to eat my friend. We ran out of food and we depended on vultures and snails. Part of my head said eat now and some part tell me it would haunt me for the rest of my life. So a bird came, and a friend of mine shot that bird and that’s the bird, a crow. So I ate every little piece of that crow – the feathers, intestine, the brain, the claws, everything. And that’s the bird that stopped me from eating my friend.

Fergus:
You know, the story of your childhood is full of darkness and you have an amazing line which is that you want to ‘shine a light where there is darkness.’ But there is so much that you’ve been through, do you think that light can really penetrate?

Emmanuel:
If a woman is raped, it’s like she has been poisoned but if she managed to survive the poison, she comes back to life. She is no longer herself, she is a different human being. She becomes a super human being and she will shine like light. So, my journey is I’ve been poisoned. You know, look at anybody who has been traumatised. They never grow. If you witness anything, abuse or any kind of thing, you never grow as a human being. You have been poisoned. You have been literally killed. So with time, when you heal you become somebody else.

Fergus:
Have you healed?

Emmanuel:
I have healed. And part of the journey that helped me to be who I am and to forgive was through education. I was rescued by a British Aid worker called Emma McCune. She smuggled me to Kenya, put me in school. When I was able to later read and write and learn a bit of English, I met other people, a lady called Mrs Mumo who introduced me to Martin Luther King and other people introduced me to Gandhi. So I was able to read and learn about people who have gone through difficult times and how they converted their energy. So, I fed my soul with positivity and by that, by realising the truth, then I was able to forgive and let go.

Fergus:
Your music is so soulful and the lyrics are so rooted in a personal story that no one can really, ever understand. What was the role that music played when you were a kid going through those terrible experiences?

Emmanuel:
Well, music is the only thing that would speak to your mind, your heart, your soul system, and also influence you without even you knowing.

Fergus: Right.

Emmanuel:
See, music is where everybody gets to see heaven. Music can make you cry. Make music and can make you laugh, music can make you dance, music can make you kill.

Fergus:
In your second album, Ceasefire, which was a collaboration for the first time of Christian and Muslim artists. You said that ‘it was a challenge to myself’ saying if you really have forgiven then you can do this song. Was it possible you could forgive and you could do that song?

Emmanuel:
I had already forgiven but it was the album to say look here, we are working for a common call, we all want peace.

Fergus:
And you think you can use it to inspire?

Emmanuel:
I have to focus on something tangible because education has rescued me. Education has elevated me and has opened my mind. So I want to use my platform to give other people opportunities, finding them scholarship. That’s why I founded a charity called GUA Africa to help me build schools in my country.

Fergus:
You have such a clear vision of what you think needs to be done and I know that over the last few years you’ve met with the United Nations, Davos, world leaders like Barack Obama. What is it that you’re trying to get them to do?

Emmanuel:
Well, I’m just trying to be reasonable. What I’m trying to push is I’m interested in getting peace soldiers. A peace soldier is anybody who has skills, who can use their skills, whatever they are, and shine a light wherever they are. What is peace to me? Peace is justice, equality, freedom for all. Peace is when my belly’s full. You know, it’s impossible to give peace to somebody who has an empty belly. An empty bellied person can be influenced by anybody.

Fergus:
Clearly rebuilding Africa is something you care a huge amount about and you wrote a very powerful song called Vagina where you state ‘we should stop treating Africa as your vagina.’ What do you mean by this?

Emmanuel:
So, you come to realise some corporations are like human beings. They own property, you can’t take them to court, they get given fines and they’re going to steal gold. And this is where the song is to Mr Oil, Diamond and Gold mines. Stop treating Mama Africa like your vagina. She is not your whore, not anymore. You take the riches and you leave the people poor. So if you look at it, that’s the reality. So the campaign was supposed to be pushed to corporations – look, you can play a part in making peace, open your eyes to the issues. Whatever you’re investing find out, that oil, does it benefit the people there?

Fergus:
What do you think is the root, the soul of your creativity? What is it that enables you to write such fantastic music with such powerful lyrics but then also take on the world problems of Africa, challenge current infrastructure and governments on how they handle it. What do you think is the thing that makes you be able to be so creative?

Emmanuel:
Well, the music that I do come out of pain, you know, and Africa has got many countries but our problem is the same – poverty. We have resources, we never benefit from them. Here is, I’m coming using my story. I’m using it for education, social, emotional learning. Then I pick a little thing that I want to do, that I can tangibly do. So every person has to be realistic, what little thing can you deliver? Some of my best lines come out of pain. One of my latest favourite line is ‘I sold my soul not for silver and gold but to tell a story that need to be told.’ Because I found myself so exhausted. At one point I’m trying to raise money. I couldn’t get it to go and help people. You try and knockout there then you realise I’ve been telling my story, what have I left for myself. And other people beginning to attack me back, then the line to strengthen my emotion is: ‘All I got to do is shine some light in this darkness and I’ll be alright’ and I have another line which says: ‘I sold my soul for silver and gold but to tell a story that need to be told.’

Fergus: Emmanuel, thank you so much. You’ve been inspirational, iconic and the way that you use music to reach the world, I think, is the true essence of disruptive creativity.

Emmanuel: Thank you.

Fergus:
So today, we’ve heard the incredible story of a child who has overcome incredible adversity. He put down an AK-47 and picked up a pencil and used his experiences to create powerful, soulful music with a purpose. But Emmanuel’s creativity is not just expressed in his albums; it is in his approach to the world. He works with a singular purpose with no boundaries and with a belief in peace in Africa that is unconquerable. You can become a peace soldier. Visit wewantpeace.org and follow Emmanuel at @emmanueljal and for more information on Creativity: Weapon of Mass Disruption visit ogilvydo.com. Find us on facebook/ogilvydo and follow us @CWMD. Thank you.

Recent article by The Guardian explaining the Sudan crisis, recommended by Jal.

We Want Peace Official Music Video

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