He’s hailed as one of Africa’s most influential musicians and peace activists, but Emmanuel Jal was just a child when he overcame the kind of adversity most people only have nightmares about. From a violent gun-wielding childhood and extreme poverty, he emerged an author and role model. Here are 12 things you didn’t know about Emmanuel Jal.
Sources: Emmanuel-jal.webs.com, Emmanueljal.com/bio, Wikimedia.org
Born Jal Jok in a rural village of Sudan, Jal — along with his family — was the victim of the second Sudanese civil war that broke out during the late 1980s. His father joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (pictured above) and his mother was allegedly killed by soldiers employed by the government.
After the death of his mother, 7-year-old Jal started walking toward Ethiopia to receive an education. Along the way, he was approached by the SPLA with another young boy and persuaded to join them instead. He went through intensive military training and was often forced to kill enemies.
Trying to escape the overwhelming violence, Jal and some other young soldiers escaped to find their way to normal life. Many of his friends died along the way from starvation and illness. When Jal was 13, he was found by a British aid worker, Emma McCune (pictured above with Jal) who took him in as her own and legally adopted him. She smuggled him into Kenya and homeschooled Jal. McCune, who married then-guerrilla leader Riek Machar, died in 1993, just six months after she adopted him.
After the death of his adoptive mother, Jal was allegedly kicked out by Machar, who never felt responsible for him. He had no choice but live in the slums for several years.
In the slums, Jal discovered hip hop music. Although he was mainly influenced by American music, he later found gua music (hip hop with African beats) to be his calling. He felt that gua music could be influential, powerful and a spiritual way to be political. When fans heard him sing, he burned many copies of his music on CDs which to his surprise, received very high demands. Local radio stations started playing his CDs and Jal was soon approached by Gatwitch Label to make his first record.
Jal garnered attention from the music industry with his first hit single “All We Need Is Jesus” and “Gua” which went on to sell hundred of thousands copies around the world. He included many positive messages in his songs to promote peace and to end poverty. He also recounted his past experience as a war child in many of his lyrics.
Other rappers such as 50 cents and Ice Cube came under fire for promoting violence and drugs in their lyrics. Jal felt rappers delivering the wrong messages was an especially harmful and negative influence children’s lives. He has publicly scolded his peers and continues to do so.
Jal felt that he had to do more than sing. He became spokesman for several campaigns to end poverty and end the use of child soldiers. He also speaks out against modern-day slavery and human trafficking.
When Jal is not signing or running campaigns, he’s busily coordinating and funding schools to be built in Sudan for impoverished children. He also worked to set up scholarships for ex child soldiers, to help them receive the education they were robbed of.
Aware of the lack of food resources in his native country, Jal only eats one meal a day despite his accumulating wealth. He said he does this to be reminded of the hunger his people often feel.
Jal wrote a biography on his childhood and a feature documentary film was made focusing on him and his grueling experience. Both the documentary and book are called “War Child.”
Famous for overcoming adversity, Jal is widely accepted and praised for his peace activism. He is often invited to live benefits such as Live 8 in the U.K. to fight poverty in Africa. He was also invited to perform at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday.