Emmanuel Jal – who plays Camden Assembly tomorrow (Friday) – has escaped from unimaginable horrors in South Sudan to become a much-lauded musician and rapper
21 November, 2019 — By Róisín Gadelrab
Former child soldier Emmanuel Jal escaped South Sudan before establishing himself as a respected rapper and musician
I WAS an accidental musician, a musician who never planned to be, I never dreamed to be one. It just happened that I was one of the leaders for young people and looking for a stage so I could talk about the issues and one day I stumbled upon rap.”
Former child soldier Emmanuel Jal has escaped from unimaginable horrors in South Sudan to become a much-lauded musician and rapper.
Emmanuel, who plays Camden Assembly tomorrow (Friday) and is now a peace ambassador, has turned his experiences into something positive – creating a combination of love songs and traditional folklore steeped in meaning, mixed with uplifting Sudanese Afrobeat and infectious dance tunes – and has been championed by the likes of Pete Tong and Mary Anne Hobbs.
“I come from a country torn by war and that war took my family,” he says.
“I became a refugee from my own village, running from one village to another. By age seven my mother was taken, then my aunt.”
Emmanuel has touched down in the UK from Toronto, where he is now a citizen, having escaped from South Sudan to Kenya, ending up in Canada via a few stays in the UK, including a brief spell studying at Westminster University.
After his mother was killed, his father told him he was going to school in Ethiopia – the “school” turned out to be something much darker.
“It was a long journey, tiring, a lot of children died of starvation, dehydration, some were eaten by wild animals,” he says.
“It was a journey that left so many pictures in my head. When you see children of six or seven… We dig our own graves, make our own prayers, bury our own dead, a sea of children … and that’s the early beginning.
“In that process we were being made stronger to be child soldiers.”
Emmanuel endured such terrible experiences in the ensuing years that he tried to end his life on several occasions.
“I ended my life probably three times and I failed,” he says.
“I once fired a bullet in my head but I failed, I took a couple of pills but it didn’t work.”
Eventually, he managed to escape.
“There were 200 to 400 of us. By the end of the journey only 16 of us made it. I was smuggled into Kenya when I was 13 or 14.”
Finally in safety, Emmanuel battled with the mental images of his experiences.
“When you are in survival stage, you don’t see the challenges. The most challenging part is not the battlefield, it’s the challenging war where everything else plays out in your mind.
“Flashbacks keep playing. Once you have one flashback, when it’s gone, yourself and your body begins to hurt and after that your heart begins to crunch.
“What I didn’t have a name for before was a depression that comes and a point of isolation, you feel sorry about yourself, useless, disgusted, there’s a lot of mixed emotions internally and no hope.
“You go to sleep and you have nightmares, wake up and there’s flashbacks. I remember being in class and the teacher was teaching and the lesson flashed by.
“I didn’t know I was stuck in the past. The pen was so heavy I wished that the teacher asked me what’s in your head.
“Nobody asked me.”
Salvation came one day when he heard Puff Daddy’s Jesus My Best Friend on the radio.
“This guy was singing about positive stuff and I thought, ‘cool I want to do that’. I wondered if I could write a song, I never knew if I could write.
“I got kicked out of choir because I couldn’t hit a note. I went to studios to try rapping and was kicked out three times. When it’s in your heart, if you feel it, give it a try, it will eventually come, if you feel you can fly and you don’t have wings, the wings will come.”
Emmanuel’s persistence paid off, and, just as music came late to him, so it did for his sister Nyaruach, who he was reunited with years after their separation – living in a refugee camp.
Nyaruach discovered her own voice and writes her own songs and the two have recently recorded album Naath, the subject of Emmanuel’s current tour.
Emmanuel added: “South Sudan is still suffering from years of war and oppression. We feel it is our cultural responsibility to bring out the music and voices from our country.”