A Rapper Out of Sudan's Civil War

Emmanuel Jal was a child soldier in Sudan's brutal civil war. Now he is a rapper with a new album out called Warchild. Music journalist Christian Bordal has a review and profile of the artist.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with Day to Day. Sudan won its independence more than half a century ago, but since then, the East African nation has been mostly mired in Civil War. Emmanuel Jal was a child soldier who escaped the conflict. On his new CD, Warchild, Jal raps about what he saw when he was forced to fight. He talked recently with music journalist, Christian Bordal, who has the story.

CHRISTIAN BORDAL: As the title of his new album suggests, Emmanuel Jal was a war child. In fact now, at the age of what he guesses to be about 28, he's still struggling to overcome the emotional toll of the war he grew up with.

Mr. EMMANUEL JAL (Rapper): My childhood wasn't fun. I was born in the times when the war that already happened. We were always moving, running, bombs dropping. Funerals after funerals, sad songs every now and then.

(Soundbite of song from album "Warchild")

Mr. JAL: (Rapping) I believe I've survived, for a reason, to tell my story, to touch lives. All the people struggling down there (unintelligible).

BORDAL: Jal was about seven when his mother was killed in the war. His father, who was a commander in insurgent force known as the Sudan People's Liberation Army sent him away to school in Ethiopia. Jal says many kids ended up making that journey over hundreds of war torn and inhospitable miles by foot.

Mr. JAL: A lot of people died, I would say a third of the kids died on the journey, because of starvation, wild animals, and raid by other villages to steal the kids and keep them, it was an awful journey.

(Soundbite of song from album "Warchild")

Mr. JAL: (Rapping) I lost my father (unintelligible). All my life I've been hiding in the jungle. The pain I'm cutting is too much to handle.

BORDAL: When he finally reached Ethiopia, Jal found that he was enrolled not in your average school, but in a school come military training camp. Along with their ABCs, Jal and the other children were taught to be soldiers, how to use guns, knives, and machetes, how to attack towns. And after all the atrocities he had experienced in the civil war, his mother killed, his aunt raped in front of him, his village burned down, Jal says being given the chance to fight back was exactly what he wanted.

Mr. JAL: We were told we have an enemy and they are called Arabs and this, for me, I knew these are the people who burned my village and I wanted to revenge and I wanted to kill as many Muslims and many Arabs as possible.

(Soundbite of song from album "Warchild")

CHORUS: I'm a warchild.

BORDAL: After two years of fighting as a child soldier, Jal managed to escape the rebel army and make his way to a refugee camp where a British aid worker named Emma McCune discovered him. McCune took an immediate liking to the tough boy with his AK-47 as tall as he was and his ammunition belt dragging on the ground, and she snuck Jal with her onto a UN flight to Kenya, away from war and into the start of a new life. The last song on the album, Emma, is a tribute to her.

(Soundbite of song "Emma")

Mr. JAL: (Rapping) Where would I be, if Emma never rescued me? I see my face on the telly, fat, hungry belly, flies in my eyes, head to big for my own size. That's another little starving child running around in Africa, born to be wild...

BORDAL: In Kenya, Jal was haunted by his war experiences. He says it was music that helped him keep the nightmares at bay.

Mr. JAL: I used to watch TV a lot, so instead of watching guys rapping and I say, then I tried to write something. And then I realized I became busy and my dreams are beginning to disappear. So - and I become - having friends and people are giving me attention. It created love around me and I found home.

BORDAL: Emmanuel Jal's raps are at times almost child-like in the simplicity and directness. And some of that is the issue of language, and maybe there are some deeper artistic and psychological reasons for handling these issues that way. But Jal says his childish hatred of Muslims and Arabs has been replaced by a more sophisticated understanding of Africa. In his song, Vagina, he holds multinational corporations responsible for much of the continent's personal and political devastation.

Mr. JAL: So, my call is to all the corporate companies, it's like telling them stop (bleep) Africa. She's not your prostitute. It's like you go any time you want, you grab what you like, you leave the people starving on the TV, for the public here to start sending aid.

(Soundbite of song "Vagina")

Mr. JAL: (Rapping) Oh mister (unintelligible) taking over Africa like a vagina. She's not you whore, not anymore. You take the riches and you leave the people poor. Never ever forget the genocide in Rwanda, child soldiers with broken hearts in Uganda. Massacre taking place in Sudan...

BORDAL: Last year, Jal went back to Sudan for the making of a documentary about his life also called Warchild. He says it was not an easy homecoming.

Mr. JAL: And what made me sad was to realize the war has reached the core of my family. People have been scarred, scars that will haunt you until the day you die. My little sister was raped several times in that war. And my bigger sister, she was married when she was 13 to one of the war lords and she was like a sex slave to him.

(Soundbite of song from "Warchild")

Mr. JAL: (Rapping) Left home at the age of seven, one year later leave with an AK-47 by my side, slept with one eye open wide...

BORDAL: Jal was at first reluctant to write about his life. And his songs certainly stand in stark contrast of the glorification of guns and violence that characterizes a lot of western hip hop. Ironically, it was American rappers' tales of life of the inner city that gave Jal the courage to begin exploring his past and his music. And as his story has emerged, it's taken on a life of its own even overwhelming the music itself, so that now, it's all about the story. And that's a mixed blessing from an artistic perspective. The work comes from an incredibly potent source, but it's so potent in fact, that it can overwhelm the sometimes meager vessel trying to carry it.

(Soundbite of song from "Warchild")

Mr. JAL: (Rapping) I (unintelligible) to lead you to my motherland, I'll do everything possible to make her stand...

BORDAL: For NPR News, this is Christian Bordal.

CHADWICK: Emmanuel Jal's new CD is called Warchild and for more information, you can go to npr.org.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick.

BRAND: And I'm Madeleine Brand.

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Emmanuel Jal: From Child Soldier to Rising Star

Emmanuel Jal

By age 13, Emmanuel Jal had fought in two civil wars. Now he's working to banish the demons — with music, activism, a film and a forthcoming book. Scott Gries/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Gries/Getty Images

Rapper Emmanuel Jal was carrying an AK-47 rifle at 8 years old, as a child soldier conscripted into the Sudan People's Liberation Army. Now he's a rising international music star, with a new album titled Warchild.

Jal was taken from his family at age 7 and sent to fight in Ethiopia and southern Sudan. After nearly five years in the army, he was smuggled into Kenya with the help of a British aid worker, Emma McCune, who later adopted him. Since then, he has lived in Kenya and the United Kingdom.

Jal tells Terry Gross that part of the SPLA regimen was designed to deaden child soldiers' feelings.

"You see the training that we were given, it kind of kills feelings," he says. "You just obey commands, and that's all. It's like we are kind of like robots, in a way."

He told Britain's Independent newspaper this year that some of those emotional baffles remain, saying that a reunion with his father after years left him unmoved.

"I wanted to feel a connection with him, but my heart is cold," Jal told The Independent. "A cold heart is my protection mechanism. I don't really feel anything for anyone."

On his 2005 album, Ceasefire, Jal raps in four languages: Arabic, English, Swahili and Nuer. His music has been featured on television and in film, including the soundtrack for the movie Blood Diamond. He's also featured in a documentary, War Child, that chronicles his life.

This interview first aired on Oct. 10, 2005.

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