Emmanuel Jal: Behind the Warchild

Mining his life as a child soldier in Sudan, the MC reveals his unique perspective on battle and 50 Cent

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In Issue 1052, Evan Serpick profiled Emmanuel Jal, an MC who grew up in Sudan and became a soldier in the country's vicious civil war at age seven. After escaping five years of battle and unimaginable atrocities, he trekked to Kenya, where he began to channel his emotions and experiences into rhymes. Jal, the subject of new documentary War Child, also spoke about African rap battles and his unique perspective on 50 Cent. Watch Jal's video for his album's title track "Warchild" and listen to two of his tracks — "Warchild" and "50 Cent" — below.

Is it at difficult to keep going over these difficult details about your life?
It's so frustrating, man. But I'm doing it because it's the struggle, you know. My people are in pain now. I see them dying every day. Like now the people in Darfur — what's happening to them in the south. I'm hoping somebody hard will be touched [by my music] and they'll look into the situation of what's happening in my country.

Let's talk about your experience. Was your father a leader of the rebel movement?
Not exactly. My father became a joint SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army] leader. My mom died in the war. [I was sent to Ethiopia] and trained to live as an adult. And trained not to cry because you are told, "You cannot cry. You are a soldier." You're trained to keep your emotion — not to miss anybody.

How do you feel about your father's decision to send you to Ethiopia?
I'm glad that I went because if I was behind I would have been a slave now. Maybe sold into a sugar plantation or maybe I would have died in one of the village raids. If I never joined SPLA, I don't know what I would be. In Ethiopia, every child there agreed to be trained as soldiers. Every person wanted to make a revenge. For me, I wanted to revenge for my mother, I wanted to revenge for my village, for my auntie who was raped in front of me, for our house that was burned. What are your first memories of music?
I listened to music in many ways. Music in my village was to encourage us, when people are dying. And also when we were soldiers, we used to sing music to encourage ourselves to go to war. When we lose battles, we sing. So when there are no musicians, it's so discouraging. I used to listen to songs of war a lot. "Get up, get up, stand up for your right." You know? "Don't give up the fight. Buffalo soldier." Also in my village I used to go in contests. Like, our village would go into contest with another village. It's a form of rap but there's no beat. It's like rapping 'cause it's a spoken word, and then you have to hit a stick. If somebody tried to translate it, they'd say, "Your sister's breasts are so large that when she's milking the cows, she has to tie them on her neck." [Laughs] It's like a dissing session.

That actually sounds similar to western hip-hop.
When I listen to hip-hop, it's like no big difference how people sing in my village, 'cause bling would be their cow. "I'm a warrior, I went to war and killed six adults, and I still have my cows, I have four women behind me, no one can sing better than me in this place, I am the toughest, I'm strong, I'm big." [Laughs]

That's like ice and cars.
Yeah, their cars would be the cows. The bling, that's like African jewelry. But, the good thing is, it's entertainment. It's fun, but there's no violence. Like how you see nowadays, the gangster rap and people fighting and all this. It wasn't like that. It was for fun.

Who were some of your favorites when you started listening to rap?
I used to listen to Lost Boys and Fugees a lot. I used to listen to Public Enemy. But now that I came to the U.K., I want to study what hip-hop is all about. I used to watch 50 Cent when I was in Kenya. It was like you can't kill people and then talk about it on TV. Because if you take somebody's life, for the rest of your life it will haunt you. Like my experience and horrible things that I've done — the pictures are still clear, you know? The worst thing you could ever do is talk about how you're killing somebody.

Can you talk about your song "50 Cent"?
The 50 Cent song is kind of like I wanted to call up 50 Cent and just say "Who are you?!" Because you see, my cousin in the U.K., they're in a little group, they're calling themselves G-Unit. So they go on the street and beat people up. But when they went to school they stabbed a white boy. 50 Cent is big, he's huge, he's like a God, no? I [told my producer I wanted] us to write a song whereby we appreciate his work but at the same time we have to tell him "this is the problem." So if I speak to him through the music he's gonna hear it. But the whole song is not meant for him.

What did you think of American poverty when you first came here?
I was shocked when I came to New Orleans. I never knew there were beggars on the streets here. I didn't know that there were poor people. I thought this was heaven, you know? And everyone Africa is dreaming to come abroad because you see the TV — you never see anything bad on TV about America or England. On TV you see cars, everything flashing, movies, amazing jet fighters, even like Star Wars. But I visited America and realized, my God if you're poor there, it's really tough. In Africa, you know, if you're poor at least you can go to the forest and share some mangoes with the gorillas and monkey.