by Michael Juliani

“When I was rescued, I still wanted to go back to war,” Emmanuel Jal said, reclining in his office chair. “I wanted to educate myself to ␣ght back. But all of this changed. Now I’m fighting a different war: education and peace, coexistence, equality. There’s no need to revenge if you get your freedom and justice.”

Emmanuel Jal is an internationally known rapper and a former Sudanese child soldier. He is dark-skinned, thin and speaks English with a mongrel accent, British by way of Kenya, with the inflection of his native Nuer dialect. He was born, he said, at the worst time, when his country had devolved into inexhaustible war, and it’s hard for him to strain for good memories of childhood.

Jal’s family was swallowed by the war. When he was very small, he saw his aunt get raped by an enemy soldier. Most of his siblings were killed once his family was scattered. His father joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and his mother was killed when Jal was about seven years old.

Photo by Ben Cornford /
Emmanuel Jal

With many other boys, Jal went to Ethiopia where he was promised an education and some stability. He said he learned eight languages there but soon realized that the schooling was geared toward making him a child soldier.

The British humanitarian Emma McCune, who was later killed in a car accident in Kenya, rescued him after he had fought for the SPLA in Ethiopia and been pushed back into Sudan. McCune found Jal and more than a hundred other “Lost Boys” after they had deserted the army and wandered the wild; many of their original companions had starved to death and were eaten by animals on the way.

Jal often talks about a night when he almost ate the corpse of one of his best friends. He ended up not having to. In his memoir, War Child, he writes about hitching grenades to the corpse of another friend, hoping that the explosives would kill whatever came to eat the body – so that he could eat the dead animals instead. In the darkness, he could hear the laughing of hyenas. The grenades went off, but when he ran to the spot, there was nothing there, no corpse left, no hyenas. “A body may scream for food and water,” he writes, “but a mind will always shriek louder.”

Jal and the group of deserted Lost Boys had grown disillusioned with the confusion of battle, where their side was beginning to kill people the boys didn’t think they should be killing. Jal’s early memories of Arab soldiers attacking his village and beating his mother conditioned him to hate a specific, lighter-skinned enemy, and he couldn’t fathom why darker-skinned faces had started to try to kill him in battle.

The wandering group of Lost Boys had fought in firefights, shot at and slashed enemies with machetes. They raided and pillaged Muslim villages much like their own former homes. Jal could recognize his own terror in the faces of the people he hurt, but it only emboldened his rage. He stormed into villages chanting war cries, helping others tear prisoners apart with machetes and intimidating old women who reminded him of his grandmother.

Jal and the few other surviving Lost Boys were seeking refuge in the city of Qaat when he met McCune. She smuggled him into Kenya illegally, and he hasn’t been back there since he left in 2005 or so. When he was rescued he was a boy about ot start puberty. He was eager to go to school. Hatred of Arabs still boiled inside him. He wanted to become a smarter soldier.

Photo by Ben Cornford /
Emmanuel Jal

At first, Jal wasn’t stable in his new life. Living with McCune, he’d set off house alarms when he was specifically asked not to, and he ran away from home sometimes – following the sea like he was taught to do in the army. In his memoir, he writes about facing bullies and chauvinistic authority figures in his new life. He was tempted to shoot them with a gun he’d found but fought against his own instincts. Later he was denied a visa to return to England, where he needed to finish his studies at a university. He found himself cursing, “Fuck white people. Fuck Britain.”

Jal has been honest about the mechanics of his journey of conscious- ness. He is a Christian — always has been, his mother telling him to seek God for protection against earth-shattering danger. He professes a path of retribution, where his belief in God was always pure and innocent but clouded by his own lack of wisdom. One of his songs is called “Forced to Sin.” Jal profoundly believes in the capacity of education to empower the blinded, having once been blind himself to what peace had to offer.

“Dropping food out of airplanes, doesn’t teach anybody anything. If you want to help people be independent, you have to educate.”

At the end of our Skype talk, which kept cutting out and lagging, he reiterated a mantra that he returns to: “The worst people on earth are not the ones who are committing atrocities, but the ones who are burying their head in the sand.”

Jal isn’t sure exactly how old he is but like many other Lost Boys, he took the birthday January 1, 1980. For many years, he couldn’t sleep well. When he did he would have terrible dreams — bombs, bodies — but recently it has been better for him. Healthy diet, near vegetarianism helps stave off migraines and keeps his body clean. “I used to have high blood pressure and I didn’t understand why,” he said, “so now I know how to control that. Now I’ve become a health freak.” He’s invented his own kind of smoothies, based on his traditional diet, and he’s wondering if he can market them somehow. He uses a special grain (I can’t catch the proper phonetics of it) that he said can prevent cancer, high cholesterol, and works against obesity. He laughed about how Americans don’t understand these concepts of finding the lowest common denominator. If you look on his Face- book he posts a lot about his experiments in cooking, which he said keeps him busy when he’s not traveling or making music.

I asked him if he kept in touch with other former child soldiers who had made it out of Sudan and he said that he had. “Some of them are having a really difficult, difficult life,” he said. “Some are in school, some are still in the army, some have managed to come to the United States.” Some have wanted to support Jal’s activist efforts, but he said, “most of them are busy with what they have going on.

Photo by Ben Cornford /
Emmanuel Jal

When we spoke in the middle of May, he had recently finished acting in a movie with Reese Witherspoon. He was living out of his office as part of a campaign he orchestrated called Lose to Win. You can go to the website ( and pledge to give something up (coffee, your primary home, etc.) for a certain number of days, and then you inform people about your campaign, asking them to donate in support of a number of charities that want to build education resources for children in Africa.

Abstinence was the theme of Jal’s other major charity action, when he ate only one meal a day for 661 days to raise money to build a school in Sudan. He asked people to donate in support of his fasting. The process took longer than expected. He thought his fame would produce quicker results, and he was humbled. But he did meet his goal of raising 300,000 dollars that ended up going to restoring a couple of schools that were in need of renovation.

Jal focuses his activism on education, which he perceives to be the root of the solution in Africa. Dropping food out of airplanes, he told me, doesn’t teach anybody anything, and it won’t change Sudan. “The aid helps temporarily, but if you want to help people be independent, you have to educate,” he said. “Education is our freedom.”

His music speaks to these beliefs. When he started going to school in Kenya, he not only learned the humanity of his Arab classmates, but also the validity of speaking about your own experience. He was always a lover of music. He came in contact with songs by rappers like Ice Cube and 2Pac, who spoke about the conditions of their origins and circumstances. He would hear songs wafting around the city and became curious enough to eventually get close to the material and become inspired. He started making music when he was about twenty years old. Jal’s songs aren’t usually poetic in the sense of wordplay. The approach is simple and focused on the instinct to testify his experience.

Jal sees the power of music as indefatigable, able to reach those who have no other educated perspective on the world. In 2004, with the release of his first album Gua, Jal had a number one hit in Kenya with the album’s title track. He has rapped in many languages, and he has released three other albums since then.

Photo by Ben Cornford /
Emmanuel Jal

He performed his song “Emma” (“I aint an angel, hope I’ll be one soon / and if I am, I want to be like Emma McCune”) at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday concert for peace. He goes to schools to speak to kids he says are war children like him but in a different sense – raised in crime, illness, abuse, and addiction. He recognizes how children raised in these conditions might be accustomed to seeking revenge.

In light of Jal’s approach, the standards set by popular rap music seem rooted in an unwillingness to think independently against these impulses of revenge. He’s outspoken about rappers who extol virtues of violence, dominance and degradation. He said that drugs, sex and violence are clearly what sell and, as a result, the “conscious” rap doesn’t get the same exposure.

Though he’s a fan of some of these “unconscious” rappers, he wants more from hip-hop. “They don’t want to talk about consciousness… What is promoted is what is going to get people out of their houses to spend money, not something that is going to educate people to not spend money and just be.”

I watched Jal dance in a video clip from his 2009 TED Talk in England. It’s a dance I wish I’d grown up with, a rickety, head-and-limb oriented thing. The Brits in the crowd clap and smile. Jal’s dancing seems like something that stayed constant throughout his life, an impulse that’s always there.

Throughout Jal’s narrative, there’s this heart of impulse — in his memoir, his music, and the way he discusses his life. I think this is how he connects to people whose experiences don’t compare to his. We can recognize the breath of good intentions even in the moments where he’s most deluded as a child soldier and teenager adjusting to a more structured existence.

“Sometimes I wondered how God could let them into heaven when they killed everyone,” he writes in his memoir, “and secretly I told myself I would attack the Arabs with my father when I grew up. All I wanted to do was stop them from hurting us anymore. But at times I could forget the hatred I felt for jallabas [Arabs], because children are better at war than adults.”

If we were to have seen him then, we probably wouldn’t have sensed the breathing room, but now it’s not so hard to see the material of his change. So in the music, the dancing and the activism lives and thrives and we’re in touch with it.

A theory has been developed that the job of the artist is to wake people up from the slumber of stasis — and from Jal and others like him, we learn that there is a stasis to chaos as well. People are generally conditioned to not think for themselves, in America as well as within the disintegrated social fabric of Sudan. Jal said that this is what forces him to wake up every day and speak, no matter how tired he may be of the burdens of his own story.

The famous English musician Peter Gabriel said that when he met Jal he felt that he was “meeting a man with the potential of a young Bob Marley. There is a generosity and compassion in his approach to the world that is an inspiration to me, and I am sure it will be to many others.”

Looking at the singing, rapping, dancing, cooking and educating that Jal has dedicated his life to, you can see a pattern that’s almost primitive in its humanity. As a child who was denied the capacity to nourish himself, his preoccupations as a man focuses on what many modern societies ignore.

Jal was once asked whether art and politics should mix, and he said that when they have to, they must. But this question misses the point. Earlier role models like Marley proved the line between art and politics doesn’t exist if the artist is focused on individual growth and nourishment. The transcendence of this mindset is inherently political, among other things.

Jal said that sometimes the dream is stressful and frustrating. It becomes less and less that way, as he keeps doing the uncertain things that drive him toward saving the lives of more children, who would be dead without him. 

“The dream is what you see you want to reach,” he said. “The sense of purpose is what allows you to walk in the right place. It’s what reminds you every morning. It’s what motivates you, it’s what doesn’t allow you to get tired, because you are doing things that are making people smile. You’re making a difference. You are at peace.”