A child in time
This article is from 2009.
Growing up around hate and violence, Emmanuel Jal is still trying to put the horrors of Sudan’s civil war behind him. He chats to Claire Sawers about his perfect therapy
Emmanuel Jal likes to relax after a hard day’s work by watching some TV. He may be 29 years old, but is a big fan of Tom and Jerry cartoons, animated films like Ice Age and Madagascar, or some all-out action, along the lines of Troy. ‘I loved that film,’ he tells me. ‘The story and the romance, and all the violence too. It’s real entertainment.’ So far, so normal, until you realise that Jal’s own experience of violence is far from normal. Born in Sudan, around 29 years ago – he doesn’t know exactly – Jal was one of 10,000 child soldiers sent to fight with the rebel army during Sudan’s civil war.
Jal was about eight when he was taken from his family, under the pretense that he would be attending school in Ethiopia. Instead, he was beaten, starved and tortured, and trained in combat. Although the AK47 he carried was taller than him, he was taught how to fire it, and how to use a machete. For almost five years, he fought for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and witnessed unspeakable atrocities on the battlefields and refugee camps of his homeland and Ethiopia.
After a failed escape landed him in a desert prison, he was rescued, aged 13, by a British aid worker who smuggled him into Kenya. ‘When you’re from a war-torn country, you miss that violence,’ Jal explains, in his very calm, slow way. ‘You have seen so much suffering, and then you find yourself in a peaceful place; part of you almost misses it. Violence is addictive, and it is fun too. Otherwise how can you explain why boxing and wrestling are so popular? Or rugby or American football? Men dominating other men for entertainment is nothing new.’
When Jal was seven, he saw Arab men beating his mother and uncle, and soon after, he witnessed his auntie being raped by a Muslim soldier. ‘Even the gentlest, calmest of animals can become violent if you attack its family,’ he says. Although Jal is a peaceful, softly spoken, bible-reading Christian now, dedicated to raising awareness of the effects of war and poverty on Sudan, he admits that he spent part of his childhood as a hate-filled boy. He trained himself to ignore the sadness he felt when he learned his mother, Angelina, had died, hiding his tears from SPLA soldiers who would have beaten him for showing such weakness.
‘I wanted to kill as many Arabs and Muslims as I could,’ he says, quietly but bluntly. Growing up in a war-ravaged country, where cannibalism, starvation and mob violence were all part of everyday life, Jal couldn’t help but be influenced by such brutality. ‘When a child’s mind is developing, it’s influenced by everything it sees and hears. Now I know the truth, that the war was nothing to do with religion, just oil, and people in power wanting to manipulate the poor.’
Although Jal confesses that, ‘the past is not gone’, and he still carries deep emotional scars from his time in the SPLA, he would never resort to violence now. ‘I have laid down guns and machetes forever. Music and lyrics are my weapons now,’ says Jal, who has channelled his feelings into rap music, and released three albums to date. His transition from boy soldier to hip hop artist was the subject of a feature-length documentary, War Child, which won last year’s Tribeca Film Festival Audience Choice award. He also performed at the Live 8 concert in 2005, and at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations in Hyde Park last year, which he describes as ‘the happiest moment of my career’.
Although hip hop music wasn’t something Jal was exposed to when growing up in Sudan, he does see a few similarities between the bling-flashing bravado of modern rappers and African village life. ‘Children used to get together and have these dissing competitions in front of a crowd,’ he remembers. The contest was won by whoever got the biggest laugh as they slagged off the other person’s mother or sister. ‘They’d say things like, “Your sister’s breasts are so large, when she’s milking the cows, she has to tie them round her neck.” Or, “Your mother is so ugly, she would make a lion faint.” Men would brag about how many cows they owned, the number of wives they had, or the men they had killed in battle. ‘People would sing about things like that, which isn’t really so different from a hip hop artist boasting about owning cars or jewellery, or shooting people.’
Although Jal says he finds rappers like 50 Cent ‘entertaining’, he worries about the influence that violent lyrics and video games have on young children. ‘Kids don’t get it that you only die once, and you don’t get back up like in a video game.’ Jal’s own lyrics are a mix of English, Arabic, Swahili and Nuer, the Sudanese tribal language that he spoke growing up. In his songs, which have been praised by artists including Peter Gabriel and Damon Albarn, Jal calls for peace in Sudan, and tells the story of his own harrowing childhood.
‘Music is a painkiller for me. If I spend more than a week without music, I can feel myself getting irritable quickly, and maybe my language will start to change. I use the mic to let my frustration out when I perform.’ As he tours the UK, giving talks in schools and book festivals about his experiences, he says he is used to the same questions popping up. ‘Kids always ask me if I saw dead people, or what it feels like to kill a man. I am used to that, but what really makes me angry is if someone tries to counsel me or give me therapy. I want to shout at them: “What do you know?” Music is my therapy. That and the cartoons.’
Emmanuel Jal, 15 Aug, 8.30pm, £9 (£7).