War child turned international rap super star

Emmanuel Jal, founder of Gua Africa and We Want Peace

How does a surviving child soldier from South Sudan come to count Alicia Keys amongst his friends?  No, this isn’t another story of a celebrity ambassador adopting a child in need. This is the story of Emmanuel Jal, an extraordinary international rap star who, unlike his counterparts, uses music for a moral purpose. Against all the odds, Emmanuel survived a traumatic childhood and now uses his talent to put right the wrongs in his own past and to change the future for other young people. As he sums up in the first line of his hit record War Child: “I believe I’ve survived for a reason, to tell my story to touch lives.”

Sudan’s past is punctuated with periods of unrest, but the second civil war, which ran for over 20 years and officially ended in 2005, was devastating. Roughly two million people died as a result of war, famine and disease caused by the conflict, making it one of the highest civilian death tolls of any war since World War II.[1] To make it worse, both sides (the central government and the rebel forces) enlisted tens of thousands of children into their ranks;[2] Emmanuel Jal included.

Emmanuel was seven when his mother was killed by soldiers loyal to the government. His family took desperate measures to try and protect Emmanuel from any more traumatic consequences of war. They sent him to join the thousands of children travelling to Ethiopia where it was believed to be safer. But the risks were high and on the way, Emmanuel and many others were intercepted, snatched by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and taken to military training camps in the bush.

After several years of harrowing combat on the frontline, Emmanuel escaped along with 300 others known as ‘The Lost Boys’. Few survived their torturous three month trek to safety but Emmanuel’s bravery was rewarded when, at age 11, he was rescued by a remarkable British aid worker called Emma McCune. Emma smuggled Emmanuel to freedom in Kenya and enrolled him in school, but it wasn’t long before Emmanuel was forced to fend for himself once again. Tragically, just months after meeting Emmanuel, Emma died in a fatal car crash.

By now I’m sure you’re beginning to see quite why Emmanuel’s story is so extraordinary. Emmanuel admits that, after Emma passed away, rebuilding his life whilst living in the slums was an uphill struggle. But thankfully he found something which bolstered his resilience – music. “When I was in Kenya I was stressed out and confused; I didn’t know what to do so I used to go to church and see people sing and dance. The music was good. So, even though I didn’t like the pastors, I started going to church every Sunday because I liked the music.”

Despite having no musical background, from this point on Emmanuel sought inspiration and direction in music and became a huge hip hop follower. Religion also became central to his life, making P-Diddy’s hit, Jesus my best friend, a firm favourite tune. “Even gangsters can sing songs to God!” he told us with animation. Aged 20, Emmanuel took centre stage for the first time and shared his first song, All we need is Jesus, with his congregation. “We were rocking the church and it was explosive”, Emmanuel said in a voice tinged with surprise. The song became a huge hit in Kenya and received airplay in the UK.

As well being a full-time occupation, music became a form of therapy for Emmanuel. Sharing his personal philosophy about the power of music he told us, “It’s the only thing which can speak to your heart, your mind and your soul system. It can influence you without your permission.” Compelled to use his music to help others as well as himself, he started to write lyrics which lobbied for political change and called for peace and independence in South Sudan.

In 2004, he released his first album, Gua, meaning both ‘good’ in Nuer (a South Sudanese tribal language) and ‘power’ in Sudanese Arabic. Rapping in Arabic, English, Swahili, Dinka and Nuer (I wonder how many languages Eminem can rap in?), the album was a storming success. The title track, also called Gua, was a number one hit in Kenya and gained huge traction with everyone affected by the conflict in Sudan. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

In my homeland, Sudan

Not one sister will be forced into marriage

And not one cow will be taken by force

And not one person will starve from hunger again

I can’t compare to anything

The time when people will understand each other

And there’s peace in my homeland, Sudan

If you type ‘Emmanuel Jal Gua’ into YouTube you can watch and listen to a version of this song, which is ten million times better than reading the lyrics on a page. Emmanuel’s style is totally unique. Poetic, soulful and rich with African beats, it falls under the banner of hip hop but couldn’t be further from listening to Jay Z. This alternative style, combined with a social agenda which comes out of the depth of his experiences, is precisely what excites people about Emmanuel. After being invited to perform in the UK at Live 8 in 2005, a music producer seized on Jal and since then his music has featured on an album alongside that of Coldplay, Gorillaz and Radiohead, and his singles have been used both on TV (namely ER…very exciting) and the big screen (namely Blood Diamond…even more exciting). In 2008 Emmanuel performed at the 90th birthday concert for Nelson Mandela and in early 2012 his third album will go on mass release.

All of Emmanuel’s songs promote the message of peace over persecution, a theme which resonates far and wide and has led hundreds of thousands of people to listen to his work. But more than just influencing the world through album sales, Emmanuel has used his music in a myriad of ways. Most significantly, a lot of the money he has made through music has been re-invested in building a better Sudan. “I never used to enjoy spending my money on myself”, Emmanuel told us modestly. “I like to use it to put somebody in school.”

Even before Emmanuel was earning a decent wage, he used money from odd jobs like washing cars to help street children and fellow refugees to pay their school fees. To formalise his efforts he founded the organisation Consolidated Association for South Sudanese (CASS), that later became a registered charity called Gua Africa. “I am so passionate about education because aid has crippled us and if we want to save my people, education is the only way”, Emmanuel said persuasively.

Based in South Sudan and Kenya, the core programme at Gua Africa is the provision of shelter, sponsorship and support for young people rescued from refugee camps. We met Matthew, one of the 32 young people currently being supported, at one of Gua Africa’s homes in Nairobi. Having lost his siblings to war, at age 11 his parents forced him and his only remaining brother to flee Sudan. After more than a year of travel by foot and transit truck, they settled at Kakuma Refugee camp in Kenya and joined a school run by the United Nations (UN).

Gua Africa has strong working links with Kakuma and it was from here that they rescued both Matthew and his brother, bringing them to Nairobi for a better education. Both worked hard, determined to make the most of their new opportunity despite joining classes with people half their age, a certain challenge to any young person’s pride. Matthew is now studying Surgery and Human Health at university and throughout his journey, Emmanuel Jal has been his role model: “We appreciate him for what he’s doing. We normally listen to his music as it’s a lesson to us. It gives us a lot of encouragement.”

Matthew and his peers all aim to return to South Sudan once they have completed their education, a life choice which Gua Africa actively supports. By the time this happens, Gua Africa will have finished their first community education centre in Matthew’s hometown of Leer. Named the Emma Academy in memory of Emmanuel’s saviour, this school is a response to the hugely pressing need for education in South Sudan, where UNESCO estimates that less than 2% of children are completing primary school and where secondary education is available at just 40 schools [3] (Note: South Sudan has a population of 9 million and is 2.5 times bigger than the UK, which has nearly 4000 secondary schools).[4]

Despite his busy workload and being based in the UK, Emmanuel’s personal commitment to Gua Africa is striking. In order to raise funds for the Emma Academy he completed a 661-day ‘Lose to Win’ fast. Eating only one meal a day, he donated the money he saved to the project and encouraged others to do the same, raising over $200,000. “I thought I was that famous that I would raise money quickly”, Emmanuel said to us, admitting he underestimated how long it would take him to reach his target.

Undeterred by the two years he spent living on limited calories, Emmanuel had us in stitches over his next fundraising master plan which he’s called the Modern Day Nomad Campaign. “I will leave my house and close it and until I raise $1.5 million I won’t go back in!” he said in between bursts of laughter. Having gained an insight into Emmanuel’s eccentric ways during our interview with him, we felt assured that no matter how long it takes living as a nomad, Emmanuel would reach his goal.

Although $1.5m might sound like a lot of money, it matches the size of Emmanuel’s vision for the future. In the years to come he wants Gua Africa to “be able to help anywhere that is in need”, and he plans to do that by “setting up different scenarios to inspire the world”. Beyond his music and his charitable works, Emmanuel has already experimented with almost every medium there is to get his message across. As well as being an artist, he’s an actor (a documentary about his life called War Chid was made in 2008), an author (his autobiography was released in 2009 and he’s written feature articles for newspapers including the Guardian) and he’s an activist.

As well as supporting existing campaigns and causes like Amnesty International and Oxfam, Emmanuel has his own personal activist’s agenda. Most recently he launched his own We Want Peace (WWP) campaign to coincide with the referendum in South Sudan. This global campaign has a bold aim: to raise awareness of the fundamental principles of justice, equality, unification and conflict-prevention, through the power of music, worldwide.

Once again demonstrating the powerful potential role of music in social change, WWP is centred around a new release featuring Alicia Keys, George Clooney, Richard Branson and Kofi Anan. The call to action underpinning WWP is about asking people to take a few simple steps to promote peace and once signed up to the campaign you’re christened  a ‘Peace Soldier’ (nice touch). The campaign aims to have one million Peace Soldiers by the end of 2012. When we read through the jaw-dropping list of celebrity supporters behind WWP, we pondered how Emmanuel remains so modest about his work. When asking him what he was most proud of he offered a sheepish response, unwilling to big himself up. “I don’t really know, I’m just doing what I do. I just want to make a difference that’s all.”

But On the Up is about celebrating the incredible success of social entrepreneurs like Emmanuel Jal, so let us do some boasting on his behalf. Now it’s probably a step too far to credit him with ensuring the referendum process in Sudan remained peaceful, but it certainly would be fair to say that, together with his army of ‘Peace Soldiers’, his messages had a significant part to play. In January 2011, over 98% of the population of South Sudan voted in favour of independence and in July, South Sudan became an independent state.[5] Like so many South Sudanese, Emmanuel sees this landmark divide as an exciting opportunity for the years ahead.

Whilst the future of the country lies in the shaky hands of a new government, it’s people like Emmanuel Jal who are really making a difference. Emmanuel’s work just shows what real dedication from a public figure can achieve – he is keeping South Sudan present in the hearts and minds of millions of his followers and helping to ensure that the young people of this newest of nations have the skills and opportunities they need to stop history from re-writing itself.

For more info visit:

Gua Africa: www.gua-africa.org

Emmanuel Jal: www.emmanueljal.org

We Want Peace: www.we-want-peace.com

[1] U.S. Committee for Refugees (2001)

[3] UNESCO Policy Paper: Building a better future: Education for an Independent South Sudan (2011)

Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011