from child soldier to singer for peace

An interview with Emmanuel Jal

by Joseph Roberts and Bob Turner


photo © Jairo Criollo

Emmanuel Jal could easily have become an embittered young man. Instead, he transcended the scars of his early life to inspire millions through his music. Born in Sudan, he was a young child when the Second Sudanese Civil War broke out. His father joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and his mother was killed by soldiers loyal to the government. Emmanuel joined the throng of children lured to Ethiopia with the promise of education only to be recruited into military training camps where they learned to kill: “I didn’t have a life as a child. In five years as a fighting boy, what was in my heart was to kill as many Muslims as possible.”

Emmanuel’s life changed when Emma McCune, a British aid worker, adopted him and smuggled him into Kenya where he attended school. Sadly, McCune died a few months later. It was at school that Emmanuel discovered singing helped him overcome the pain of his experiences. He got active in the community, raising money for local street children and refugees. Now, at 31, Emmanuel has achieved huge success with his unique music and as an activist for peace and ending child hunger, he is an inspiration. Last year, he raised $220,000 for improving and extending primary school facilities in southern Sudan. He is also the founder of GUA Africa, a charity that helps communities overcome the effects of war and poverty. and

Joseph Roberts: What first turned you on to the power of music?

Emmanuel Jal: The biggest experience I ever had was when I was performing at Live 8 at The Eden Project where I was introduced by Peter Gabriel. That day, I felt like I was floating in air. Before I went to the stage, my feet were shaking. It was like I was going to the battlefield. My throat was dry. You know, I had different experiences. It’s like before you go to fight in a battle your body reacts differently. The adrenalin is released and you’re not sure, but after you trigger the bullet you’re engaged in the battle and you can just continue. That day, once I held the mic and started the first song, the crowd went wild and I was floating. I even forgot my words; I started freestyling. But it was a great experience because the crowd was amazing.

JR: I’ve been playing music for many years and it heals my soul. Have you found music to be a source of personal healing?

EJ: Music is the only place I’ve found therapy. It’s the only thing that speaks to your mind, your heart, your soul, your spirit, your cell system. It influences you without you even knowing. So the place that I find to get to see heaven is music. Depending on what I’m listening to, I can dance for a while and forget about my problems. But when I’m engaged, singing to people and seeing their reaction, then I’m dancing and going wild and I become a child. That’s what music is. So music is the biggest therapy to me. It kept me busy – rather than going to see a psychiatrist or someone who can help me with my problems.

JR: Which musicians have influenced you?

EJ: Tupak, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Alicia Keyes.

JR: You’ve said your dad was a policeman and that you didn’t understand the politics.

EJ: That was my song Warchild where I’m telling my story about losing my father and mother in a battle and I talk about the politics. It’s a deep song. It’s one of the first songs where I could personally tell my story. That was the beginning of poetry to tell my story. Before, I was hiding.

JR: Were you about 11-years-old when you became a soldier?

EJ: No, I was trained when I was eight. I left home when I was seven.

JR: You were forced to do what you were told to do?

EJ: You see, my home just got turned at that time. I just witnessed people getting killed. I saw someone next to me get shot when I was five-years-old. Seeing my mother trying to put their intestine back inside. I got used to seeing dead people as a child. Bones, fire, the Savannah grass and forests burning. And we would run from one place to another.

My mother was claimed by war. All my ancestors died in the war. So we were told we were going to go to school in Ethiopia, but that’s also where we got trained to be soldiers.

JR: Now that you are older, what do you feel is the cause of war?

EJ: It’s basically economics. You know, you go to the basics. The root of every war is economics. When I study, I don’t find religion – that’s not part of it. There’s no racism. If everybody has enough to eat and they aren’t worried about the future, there’ll be no war. In my village, when there was not enough food to eat, the elders came with an ideology saying that we’re the only real human beings and any other tribe is irrelevant. So they would invade other tribes and take their cows. The other tribes have their own theory. They say we’re not human beings, that we’re a sub-human species so they come in with the idea to invade our home and take our cattle.

Over the years, when the Arabs came home they invaded our home and brought their religion, calling us to obey them, that we’re slaves and not human beings. But if you look, in reality, what they’re looking for is the land – our cows, our fertile land, everything we have and manpower to work to boost their economy, selling people as slaves. Only prosperity for the few people who want to have more and more and more.

If you look at the Second World War, it was economics. In the scramble for Africa by the Europeans, it was the economics – people looking for raw materials, resources to boost their country so they could go ahead. And when economics is mixed with politics, it becomes a disaster. So religion can be used as an ideology to collect a group of people to extend their empathy, first to the people of the same colour or language and the same faith as them. So they unite together and say, “Look, those people are not believers; let’s rob them.”

The root cause of all the major conflicts that dissolve into long-term war is economics. Like now, there’s going to be a scramble for resources in the Arctic. The ice is going to melt. The Russians have put their flag below sea level. All the European countries, the Canadians, the Chinese, want to claim that part because they just discovered the largest oil reserve in the world below the sea.

Now, because resources are very scarce, everybody’s running there. The wars in Iraq and Africa are all about resources to boost the economy. So economics is – it’s my economy or the economy within the country. That’s what I think the root cause is.

JR: And greed.

photo © Geoff Pugh

EJ: Yes, and a greedy person cannot do a deal with an honest person. A greedy person in Europe and a greedy person in Africa cannot make a deal because their work is to rob people. If you look at the bands, their economy collapsed. The bands are still getting big bonuses. There is war. It’s the children of the poor that are going to fight. Poor whites, poor Africans, it’s the poor everywhere that are going to fight. The second group of people are just benefitting.

So we’re all in it together, whether you’re a European or an African. All of humanity needs to unite. But not to point fingers at the people, but to walk with them to raise their emotional intelligence so they could share what they have in the world. People like Warren Buffett, who decided to put some of his money into education and peace, y’know, philanthropy. If we can get the corporations to be socially active – social responsibility – and get the CEOs and the people working there to develop emotional intelligence and caution about the environment, our world is going to be into the future. It’s going to look better.

Because the biggest destructors are the corporations. Our governments have become puppets to the corporations.

JR: The problem is hundreds, maybe thousands, of years of lies. How can we find peace?

EJ: Peace is possible. One thing we have to look at is that crime has reduced. The year 1700 was more violent than now. In the 1940s it was more violent than now. The 1980s were more violent than now. With education and the passing of information, human rights abuses are actually decreasing because the public is aware. Look at China; it has begun to open up slowly to the people. They’re beginning to bend their rules. They’re beginning to allow investment. They’re beginning to allow people to go to their country.

Now, for human beings, with technology and information being passed around, there is hope. If you look at the civil rights movement, that’s the best gift they’ve ever given to humanity. Now we’re living in the time of Martin Luther King’s reign. We have people like William Wilberforce who abandoned slavery.

So we live in the best times in which there’s a dialogue between humans. Chinese people can speak English. The Japanese can come to America and set up a business. So there is hope. We can count our blessings. The future looks bright if we start up that fire again now, so we don’t close our eyes. People care about Darfur. In 1945, who cared about the people in Darfur? You see. People were concerned about Sudan.

Emma McCune, a British aid worker, adopted me and put me in school. We have a lot of good individuals who are doing things out there if we can reach out to the people. It’s the people’s power, not the governments. The governments depend on the people. The corporations also depend on the people.

JR: The biggest trick is to make people believe they have no power. People give their power away.

EJ: To every person, power comes. One email can affect the lives of a thousand people, instantly. A person who thinks they’re not powerful – they have an impact of one thousand people. They can reach one thousand people within one month by a story. Who doesn’t have a way to publicize themselves? You see the people power. The people in the Middle East said, “Look, we need a change. We don’t want to be lied to and kept prisoners. We want our women to drive and to go to school. We want our children to go to school. You know? We don’t want much. We just want to be free to speak our minds.” The greatest thing I like about the west is you can get out there and say, “I don’t like so and so and I don’t like what they’re doing.” You get away with it. In the Middle East, you open your mouth, you die.

There is freedom of speech in Africa, but you are not free after you speak. People are fed up that they’ve been put down for hundreds of years into submission so there’s a people’s revolution. That’s why a normal person in America or Canada or Australia does not care if someone is a Muslim or an unbeliever, but they care that that is their right. So the people’s revolution is what is taking the wave there.

In Egypt, you see the people’s power without firing any guns. In Libya, they messed it up big. They should have just kept themselves as a people without firing. Once you’re demanding something from someone more powerful than you, when you fight back with weapons, you’re giving them an opportunity to oppress you more. But when you fight back peacefully you’re giving them an opportunity to think. You’re hitting their conscious level. Because they’re killing you. You’re beginning to act like Gandhi. And they’re beginning to think, “Oh wait, we’re killing them but they’re just saying, ‘No, we want this’ and we’re killing them.” So they’ll begin to negotiate because you’re not a threat to them. All you want is to be free. You’re not demanding them to go away, you’re just saying, “Look, this is what I want and you can take my life and I’m not going to fight you.”

That’s what the Egyptians and the Tunisians did. They went to the streets, “Shoot me. Tomorrow we’re coming back, but we’re not going to fire on you; we’re not going to fight back.” And they won. People have so much power. We are powerful when we come together and speak our voice, like the walls of Jericho in the Bible. People sang songs around the wall and it fell down. So we could sing together the same song until the walls fall down and release the money and save the world! We’re hopeful. We can’t say there’s no hope. We will win in the end.

The first thing you need to do as a human being is to forgive yourself. You need to love yourself. How do you love yourself? You empower your mind and heart and your own body, leading a positive life and being thankful for what you have. A person with a constant giving heart will live a healthy life, because there’s joy and power in giving. When you forgive, you become powerful. You’re elevated to a different form as a human being and you actually live a healthy life.

So choose your battles. What battle do you want to fight? A healthy battle is when somebody’s hungry, you give them something to eat; you go home healthy. It actually releases your stress. If somebody steps on your toe, if you fight back it’s going to make even more harm, but if you let it go you’re letting all the stress and negativity go. Taking care of yourself as a human being is very important. Looking at yourself – you can do sport, any exercise, you can pray. You know, releasing the stress. The reason there’s so much joy in Africa is because most of the time you’re not on the tube, you’re not driving, you’re not on computer. You walk. There’s a park. You’re running. There’s so much you’re getting just by being out and smiling and playing. So a lot of physical stress can be released. Meditation, even taking a normal walk for one hour – as you look around your body exercises, your heart, your system. So our physical body can heal just by doing things. Loving yourself doesn’t mean just eating all this stuff. Avoiding what you eat too because certain foods can give you stress. So giving is the main important thing. It keeps your heart healthy.

I mean, I don’t know, but I’m speaking what I’ve experienced. I hated Muslims and Arabs and I wanted to kill as many as possible. But when I forgave, something happened. I changed. I became a different human being. I’m happy. My body cannot accept to be upset for more than two hours now. So my body works against being mad. In two years, my system learned how to be against being upset. You upset me, step on my toe, steal my money or didn’t pay me – the next day I will be able to smile. You are responsible for your own happiness. You are responsible every time you wake up in the morning. You don’t expect somebody to make you smile. Whoever makes you smile has just added to your happiness. If they crack a joke or do a comedy for you or give you a gift, they’re just adding.

I always just ask people, “What do you want to be?” Blessing is a force that pushes somebody towards their destiny. A curse is a force that is pulling somebody away from their destiny. So what do you want to be as a human being? If you’re fortunate – every human being that is fortunate on this earth has a greater responsibility and a bigger accountability to make this world a better place because you have the resources to do so. That’s what I would say. Every human being here is responsible to make this world a better place.

Everybody needs to play a part. A poor person, a middle-class person, a rich person. We as human beings are in crisis now and the biggest battle that we have to fight to win is education. Educating young people. Empowering those who are fortunate enough. Empowering their minds, empowering them emotionally that they have a great responsibility for this planet. Giving them tools to better themselves. The biggest battle we need to win peace is education.

It works in the west. When the west was educated the wars reduced. It’s easy to manipulate somebody who’s not educated. That’s why we have so many terrorists in the East. They don’t understand that not all Europeans think like those who come and invade. Education is the biggest fight we have to win as humanity.

JR: We have to educate the heart.

EJ: That’s emotional intelligence. Social-emotional learning.

JR: A lot of musicians start turning to alcohol and drugs when they become famous. How can you take care of your own sense of well being? There are a lot of kids in Vancouver addicted to drugs and who are very messed up.

EJ: Music can destroy you or make you, depending on how you do it. Money can do the same. Anybody with no vision and who don’t know their purpose for why they’re on this earth is going to get lost. A lot of musicians are disturbed human beings. You’re giving out so much that you go home empty. That’s when you begin to take alcohol and drugs. You’re feeling the parts that are missing. That’s why a lot of them are into drugs.

Look at somebody like George Clooney. He’s no drunkard. He’s one of the highest paid artists. He’s focused. He knows what he’s doing. He knows his purpose. He knows he can use his power to save lives and better humanity. Look at Alicia Keys, one of the biggest selling R & B artists. She’s able to use her talent and keep herself. When you’re a musician, you’re a modern day prophet. You’re an emotional leader. You have a greater responsibility. So a lot of them get lost in society. Those who’ve got vision survive. If you look at Black-Eyed Peas, they’re focused. They’re entertaining and doing good stuff for humanity. There are good musicians out there. Kids on drugs need to understand if you don’t have a purpose you’ll get lost.

I’m actually going to tour 200 schools worldwide and I’m going to do 50 in Canada. Probably I can do 10 in Vancouver. In September, the tour begins in Toronto.

Emmanual Jal performs on the main stage at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival Sunday July 17, and offers workshops during the weekend. The Festival runs July 15-17. See for times. Call 604-602-9798 for tickets or drop into the box office at 411 Dunsmuir Street in Vancouver.

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