Emmanuel Jal is a South Sudanese rapper with a story from hell. A child soldier who fled the conflict that split Sudan into two countries, Jal emerged from his tribulations in 2004 with his first album, Gua, and gained international attention with a CD, War Child, and a film and autobiography of the same name in 2008/2009. His latest album, The Key (Gatwich Records), is a diverse, highly musical African hip-hop production focused on the education and empowerment of children in Africa. Jal is a committed activist but also a highly entertaining artist, as he showed in a spectacular live set at New York’s Central Park SummerStage this June, on a bill with Angelique Kidjo. Afropop’s Banning Eyre caught up with Jal just before his performance. Here’s their conversation, with photographs from the show. (Photos by Banning Eyre.)
Banning Eyre: It’s been seven years since we first spoke. What’s been going on? That was a real turning point in your life when War Child came out. What have you been doing since?
Emmanuel Jal: Seven years to now is a long way. So, I managed to produce two more albums. There was See Me Mama. And now there’s The Key. So I’ve done two more albums on top of War Child. There was Ceasefire before that.
Right. That was your collaboration with Abdel Gadir Salim, such an interesting album. But let’s talk about the new work.
The latest one is called The Key. All the proceeds from it go to fund an enterprise that gives small business entrepreneurs loans to start a business, but those businesses must have an impact in children’s lives. I’m still doing the music business. I have the War Child album and I have the movement called We Want Peace–wewantpeace.org–which is my platform now that I travel around the world and share my experiences on. I go to high schools, universities, colleges, conferences, and engage with people and try to recruit more peace soldiers. And the peace soldiers are anybody who’s using their skills to make the world better.
Peace soldiers. That’s nice. So, let’s talk about some of the songs on that new CD.
There’s a song called “My Power,” which is featuring Nile Rodgers. There’s one called “Party” featuring Nelly Furtado. There’s another one called “Scars,” which also features Nelly Furtado. I have a couple of songs with other artists, like Tanika. One of the songs was in a movie, The Good Lie, that I acted in with Reese Witherspoon. It’s an interesting album for anybody who has been following my career because I try to go with the flow. A hook comes in my head. I try to make a song about it. Now at SummerStage, a hook came in my head when one of the sound guys was saying, “I’m in this city where people don’t sleep.” He’s awake in the city. So I said yeah, [sings] “I’m rolling in the city where nobody sleeping. Here we hustle. We hustlin’. Yeah, I sleep with one eye open like a soldier.” So now from there, I’m going to be able to write a song.
When you say “The Key,” what’s that about?
The song, “The Key,” I was writing it for the movie The Good Lie, which actually they did not take, so I kept it. And that song gave birth to so many other songs and I ended up having an album.
Interesting. I’ve read about The Good Lie, but not seen it. What was it like being in a movie? Did it have to have a certain level of engagement for you to be interested, or was it just a good gig?
The movie The Good Lie is the story of the lost boys of South Sudan. It’s my story. It’s the story of my sister. It’s the story of the country. And when I was asked to be a part of it, I felt honored. Reese Witherspoon was playing in it. And also you have Ger Duany, Arnold Oceng and Kuoth Wiel. Those are the young actors. It was a great experience for me.
I bet. But let’s come back to that song “The Key.” What does it say?
“The Key” is talking about education. It says it’s never too late to go back to school. It’s talking about the importance of what education is. The key is education. Because if you look at it, those who know will always exploit those who don’t know, so knowledge is valuable. There are two valuable things on earth now, which is knowledge and human soul. Everybody’s soul is the most expensive commodity and that’s why the Bible says, “You want to gain the whole world and lose your soul.” Everybody’s after the soul. When you get somebody’s soul, then you manage to enslave that person’s soul, then that person loses hope. They’ll never have the will to move forward. That’s why somebody can gain so much money, but they have no purpose in life. The money can begin to destroy them. They can get into drug addiction. They start drinking. They can even commit suicide. The way I look at it is I like to listen to soulful music. And soulful music is music that communicates with your soul. That gives you strength. If you listen to something like Bob Marley, you don’t care what color Bob Marley is. It’s just [sings] “One love.” It’s able to open your heart to love.
Can’t wait to hear this. Maybe pick one or two more songs to tell us about.
There is a song called “Shalom Salaam” that is inspired by the situation in Israel–the war that is going on, the Palestinian issue. And it’s about love basically. Maybe I’m not going to speak about it much. I’ll allow you to listen to the lyrics. There’s a song called “Dollar.” We talk about dollar, what dollar is, when the dollar is angry, what it can do to you. I don’t want to let the dollar control me. But I want a piece of the dollar, so that I can use it to support the causes I believe in.
I remember talking to you about the Ceasefire project, when you were really making a generational connection of music styles, working with a much older artist. And even on the War Child album, there was a lot of interesting connection with different music styles, a lot of variation in the music. It’s not straight up hip-hop or ragga or rap. What are your musical inspirations? What do you try to do on the musical side when you’re making a record?
I never like my next track to be the same as the previous track. If you go to African villages, you’ll see how the music is. There’s nothing called “genre” that you have to stick to this place. You can [hums] and then you [hums]. Or you say [high-pitched hum]. So it depends on the motion and the situation and what you want to express and how would you express it. Nowadays, we have so many ways we can do it. One thing I like about African music–you can never go off key, whether you know how to sing or you don’t know how to sing, you can’t go off key if you just want to sing. It’s like the basic sound of every sound of every human being. And you can say [high-pitched hum] anywhere and it’ll work. You can jam. You can slap. It’s music that you can never go off beat.
I love African music for that too. Everywhere you go, it’s always changing. There’s always something new. But I’m interested because you’re kind of operating under the general realm of hip-hop. I’m sure you know the rapper Baloji from the Congo who lives in Belgium.
No, probably I need to find him.
Anyway, his story is different from yours, but it’s similar in the sense that he’s out here in the world and he’s making this combination of hip-hop and a lot of African sounds that he grew up with. He talked about how it’s hard to get accepted within the ranks of hip-hop. He actually said to me that hip-hop was the most conservative music genre he’s ever encountered, because people have very clear ideas about how things should be. Have you had any experience like that? Do you feel welcome within the world of more mainstream hip-hop?
Mainstream hip-hop is about the beat and your flow. So, they don’t want to mix it. They just want to stick to that. I think it’s business–they’re protecting the business. It’s a business protection. So if you have all of these invaders from Africa coming with new sounds, entering into a system, then you’re diverging that tension. You’re taking away the market. So that’s why they’re put into the “world music.” Even if you find a cool African artist that can flow properly in hip-hop and just put an African chorus–“Oh, it’s world music.”
If you can rap in any sound and flow in it, it doesn’t matter what the chorus is. It should be hip-hop. The coolest thing that makes hip-hop interesting is the people who do hip-hop are smart. The top guys in the game are also smart, because if you look at the way they twist the words, the way they deliver, they get into it. It’s “do it or die.” It’s like “this is it.” If you listen to Eminem, he’s crazy. His lyrics just go for it. If you want to go real real hip-hop to get respected, then you have to do it that way. Then they’ll respect you. But if you don’t do it that way, then you do the more comfortable way, where you can just play with different sounds and say a few things. Then they’re not going to get respect, unless you’re really exposed as equally as the rest. Then you’re going to get respect. In hip-hop, they’re looking for flow and lyrics. Your delivery. Your content.
I’m not going to start swearing. You can’t glorify killing. But if you’re angry, you can talk about angry stuff. If you listen to someone like Tupac, he’s not planning on killing anybody, but he’s angry. He hasn’t forgiven anyone. And also it’s entertainment. It’s what sells. Sex and violence sell. You can’t just be lovey-dovey. Unless you’re so smart, like Bob Marley. He shifts from “Get up, stand up, fight for your right” to “One Love,” and the next thing, “No Woman No Cry.” The guy was just playing around with everybody. But now when you go concrete in just one direction, you get locked in a box and it’s hard to move. Places like SummerStage create an exposure. Today, I’ve been put in the eye of New Yorkers in Central Park. It’s an historical venue.
Yes, congratulations. I’m glad to see you here. Let’s just talk for a minute about Sudan because since the last time we talked, there’s been the whole separation of the two countries and all the aftermath of that. I imagine you get back there some. Talk about what it’s like for you now.
It’s terrifying. It’s sad. Because the beast has come back to drink the blood. We thought “we’re free now. We’re going to have our country. We’re going to build it.” But the war’s come back, and the way I have experienced it is that 60 people from my family–family members–my sister tells me, died, got killed by their own government. And yesterday I spoke with one of my brothers and he told me, “Look, we have 22 brothers, 27 sisters. Our village has been burned down by government soldiers, and they came wearing U.N. clothes,” because when you wear the United Nations clothes, you think they are coming to rescue. The people waited for them, and then they just killed and slaughtered. And then when the U.N. come up, it’s like the government doesn’t allow any inspection to take place, so they try to clean up. My sister, when the war was happening, I was on the phone with her and she was crying. Her husband worked for the government. And she couldn’t understand why the tanks would come and chase them. She saw three children crushed by a tank. So she’s going through the same situation I went through.
And if you look at it, sometimes people will say, “peace, peace, peace, peace, peace.” But it’s hard to say peace when it has ripped your home, when it has taken your mother, it has taken your brother, taken everything. And just to go more into reality, the war happening in South Sudan is not political. It’s not a tribal war. Because citizens were saving each other. One of my brothers was rescued by another person. You find different people have different stories. It’s the man wearing the military uniform, killing people. And you see, our government fabricated the situation that there’s a coup so that they can kill the elite people, so the president can stay in power for years. And it always happens when there’s a new president in any country, if the president is smart, the system will kill that president. If you have a dumb, greedy president who has no vision, then the corporations are willing to keep that president in power.
So you say it’s not political. It’s not tribal. What is driving it then?
It’s economical. The thing that is killing us is the basic thing: fear of poverty, fear of having no food on the table, fear of having no shelter and clothing. Because what is peace? Peace is justice, equality and freedom for all. Peace is food on the table. Peace is opportunity. And so, we have contracts that have been signed that were signed in a bad way, and those people don’t want a new government to come so a light can be seen. We have fertile land. So at the top here, they created the situation that there’s a coup. I was speaking with one young man and he told me, “Look, the war that happened was planned to happen, and they kill Nuer people in the city because they know if you kill the children of Nuer, they’ll fight back and they’ll fight back without end.”
That’s a project in itself. Basically, now you have Uganda helping the government to try to kill these people. And in South Sudan–I know how South Sudanese are stubborn, it doesn’t matter what tribe you pick. Once you kill their children and you destroy their home and their cattle, no matter how strong you are, they’ll keep fighting to the end. Because the president has no vision for the country, you run into creating war, because in war, people get rich. That’s the best time when there’s no accountability. So Uganda loves war. Uganda has nothing to export, except soldiers to go and fight and refugees brings in 200 to a half-billion dollars into the economy. So if South Sudan has peace and Congo has peace and Rwanda has peace and Somalia’s at peace and other countries, Uganda’s not making money. So Uganda backed up the president, even though our president wants to make peace, but Uganda is saying, “No we can’t have peace. We’ll win the war.” The best way to win the war is not firing any bullet. It’s reaching a compromise. Every human being loves freedom.
What you just said about Uganda’s role in the war, and that people have an interest in war to make money, I don’t think that a lot of people over here really understand that. Is that something that you rap about? Do you feel any desire to use your platform to help people understand better what’s happening there?
Yes, I try musically. My next album, one of the songs I wrote is “I Dance Naked,” because I was mad. I’ve never been in this situation. I got so angry that I wanted to kill somebody.
You’ve gone back there. You’ve seen this.
I’ve seen this. I was beaten once by our government, because I’m doing a peace concert. And they said, “We don’t like activists. We don’t like you guys.”
Was that before the split?
Before the new war, in 2012. So, the situation that we are in now, we are locked in interests. Sudan has an interest, Ethiopia has an interest, Kenya has an interest, Uganda has an interest. And NGOs have an interest, because NGOs love disaster. They make money on our suffering. It’s hard to find a real NGO that’s interested in peace. Because when there’s peace there’s no job. You’re getting them off the job. Now I spoke one time with one U.N. guy and he told me, “Hey, I want to tell you something. We think your president is mentally ill. But we can’t say it. We’re not allowed. But because I trust you, that’s what I want to tell you. Because we don’t understand how somebody can choose to go to war when he just has a new country, where investing in peace is cheaper. Like how can he lie about a coup when everybody’s there? We know the politics within.” But he said, “We work for the U.N.. We only stick what to do to protect. We’re not interested in the politics.”
So Emmanuel, you’ve lived this thing your whole life, you’ve seen it in all these stages. Do you have any hope after all this?
You must have hope. When you have no hope you will commit suicide. When you lose hope, your body will poison you. Depression kicks in. You start drinking alcohol. You have to keep hope alive, that tomorrow is going to be better. These disasters come. We’re going to learn from them. There are beautiful stories that come out of this. And the beauty is this is not a tribal war. Even though they want to make it like this is a tribal war, this is not a tribal war. It’s an economical war, where people are fooled to say it’s political, that it’s a struggle for power. The guys on the top have disagreement in ideas, but they’ve been tricked into this situation. One party will split by this situation. Different forces will say, “Push for democracy within your party.” Then another party goes to the president and says, “We’ll back you up. Stay in party for the next 30 years, because your people, this country don’t know what democracy is. They have to work for it.” How do we have to work for it? We suffered. At least give us that freedom to speak out our mind.
So the people were telling the president to stay for more years and interested in looting money. They’re interested in doing business. They don’t really care about us. So they know, if he stays in power, there’s going to be oppression. Look who are backing him–dictators. He’s surrounded by dictators. He was going to be clean, now they don’t want him. He’s one of them, so they have to protect each other. We have a situation where our leaders claim that the West destroys our country, but they bank in the West. They have fat big accounts in the West. Some of them will die and their money will be left rotten. I just heard something about the president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan. And I was really inspired by what he did.
The fact that he didn’t fight when he lost the election.
That is amazing, because what happened is his party told him, “We have to fight.” And one person told me that he said: “Fight for what? So that we can remain in power? Then how many Nigerians are going to die? So who are we fighting for when the Nigerians have decided?” That is so fantastic! That’s a revolution in itself. So he got everybody around and he said no and then he pick up the phone and call the other guy and say, “Yo man, congratulations. Let’s organize a day. I’ll hand the office to you.” That is peace! He should win a Nobel Peace Prize!
I was just interviewing a great artist from Nigeria, Lagbaja. He said the same thing. He said, “Look, I didn’t support the guy. I supported the opposition, but when I saw what he did, I had this whole new respect for the man.” Because, just like you said, he put the country ahead of himself and that’s rare.
Yeah, I should tweet about it today. One president in Africa this year should win a Nobel Peace Prize, because he chose the country ahead of him. I was really amazed because everyone was like, “No, we have to fight.” Fight, for what, for our position? Fight for whom? For Nigeria? But they have decided. They decided who should lead them. No, I don’t want to be a part of it.
So Emmanuel, these are huge problems we’re dealing with and such huge powers are behind them—as you were saying, all this money, all this self-interest. You as an artist, do you feel like you have an ability to affect the situation? Is it something that motivates you and engages you when you’re creating music, creating songs, doing performances? Do you feel like you can make a difference?
Yeah, we create conscious awakening. We pass the word around. We write stories. We make history. We communicate with souls. We’re the modern-day prophets. Corporations are the modern-day emperors. Charities are the modern-day high priests. They replace the church, where they do the good work. The church and the mosque have been replaced by charities. And the real power is the corporation. And here we are–the musicians, actors, activists, anybody who’s conscious to try to bring change–you’re a modern-day prophet. Some are prophets of war and some are prophets of peace. And the prophets of war are those activists that go and they get shot, they get beaten and they keep standing there, and later on, they mobilize people and they try to fight. They use guns. And the prophets of peace use nonviolence, regardless of how violence is put on top of them. They stick to nonviolence.
I was tempted by violence. I tried to write a song to put away the bitterness. I couldn’t. Because it went straight into my heart so fast. People think once you forgive, that’s it. No. You can be hurt again. How do you deal with that? Sometimes you may not be able to sense that. I almost lost my head because I am angry, I am frustrated. People know, they do nothing. You go to the U.N. They say, “Look, to hell with this peace thing. Let me just pick up an AK47, go, fight, be like Che Guevara.” It’s always between Che and Gandhi. So one man is telling me, “This peace of yours is not going to work. You need to go on and explain the truth.” And then I took time. When you haven’t decided what side you’re going to take, that’s when people lose their head. The decision is important. Either you decide to do the wrong thing, then later try to do the right thing, or do the right thing. But when you’re in between, you have no peace, and that’s the time I said, “I’m going to do the traditional way.” I went to a park and danced naked, just danced naked. I lost my mind. I didn’t know who I was at that time. I was on tour. I was doing a school tour. I said, “I can go to the next school tomorrow, but I am not me. I’m going to collapse.” So I said, “What do they do in the village?” We used to have dancing for God. We used to have dancing where people express themselves. People would do it naked without anything. You free yourself. I applied myself with white paint and I just danced.
Where did you do that?
I think that was in Edmonton. So we kept the records of everything, of what I did. In the future, probably, I’ll put them in a museum. And after that I wrote a song called “Dance Naked,” just to express the pain. So now, I found there is another way that I can put a deadly pain that is exhausting me through dancing and combining with music. I prayed. It did not help me at that time. I tried to write a song. It could not help me. So I said, “O.K., let me try something else.” Because what do I have to lose? My people are suffering. People are dying. I’m frustrated. I’ve lost everything. By coming to that solution to humble myself, I was able to relive bitterness in just seconds. Because it was eating me inside. And I wrote a song. So I am still think about how I have the lyrics. Probably I’ll create exclusive photos and put it in a museum. And people see there’s another way you can express yourself. You can go scream loud in the park, nobody sees you. You can scream as loud as you can and cuss it out.
So the artist is a prophet, but also an entertainer. Do you ever find a tension between the philosophical and mission-oriented things you want to accomplish and just entertaining people?
An artist speaks to the soul. An artist is a soul leader. I saw a little kid that is a big fan of Nicki Minaj and the little kid couldn’t believe when Nicki Minaj was coming. She went crazy. And she’s a star in her own right, the little kid. She sings any song. She raps and sings. All the pop stars’ songs–she would sing and rap them. I think she is a British little girl. And I saw her on the Ellen show and I said, “Wow.” And she said, “I love you.” Why? Because she managed to communicate with this little girl’s soul. And that little girl is inspired by her. She’s now using her music to inspire so many people.
You never know who’s going to inspire your kids. You’ll find when you turn on the television, who is trying to speak to their soul. Music is the only thing, or any form of art, whether it’s writing art–when you write the words, you could be a journalist, you could be an entertainer, whatever form of art, because there’s art in singing. There’s art in words. Not everybody can write, but certain people can write stories. Stories speak to the soul. When you have an opportunity to reach that person’s soul, that person will be with you for a long time. And that’s why I say the soul is the most valuable thing every human has. And it’s something that you cannot control by force. People have to choose what they want to be a part of. That’s why the devil is saying, “Give me your soul. I’ll give you all the riches you need.” And then if you don’t give your soul to the devil, he makes your life a hell. God tells you, “I have heaven for you. Give me your soul.” And then you don’t want to take heaven. He promises you hell. You have a girlfriend? “I love you baby, I love you baby.” They want your soul. And if you don’t love them back, they’re going to make your life hell too.
So why is everybody interested in the soul? I don’t know. Because inside it, there’s free will. Inside it, there’s innocence. People want to gain somebody’s soul because they want that person to genuinely understand them. When you care so much about somebody, you would do anything for them. That’s also the battlefield is here. We as musicians try to throw as many lyrics as possible, because the mind got the soul. You begin to sense the information. But if you’re able to communicate directly to the soul by passing the mind, you have to be a poet, a real good poet. You have to be an amazing singer. Even with a guitar, you can communicate with anything. So music is the only thing that can reach your mind, your soul and influence you without even you knowing. I used it as a painkiller. It’s the place I get to see heaven.
Thank you so much, Emmanuel. Such a pleasure to speak with you.
All photos by Banning Eyre.