Emmanuel Jal's magnetic personality has captured the camera's attention for more than 20 years...
"Just about anybody you talk to in Southern Sudan, they have a mind-boggling story to tell. And had you lived through a quarter of it, you would be on your analyst's couch - weekly, for the rest of your life. They have lived through hell." - Ben Parker, Former UN Spokesman for Sudan, interviewed in War Child
In the fall of 2005, I was paging through the Arts section of my Sunday New York Times when this article by Will Hermes grabbed my attention. It was a profile about an aspiring rapper and former child soldier named Emmanuel Jal, hailing not from the tough streets of a marginalized American city, but from the unimaginably horrifying war zone of southern Sudan. Being both an armchair activist on the crisis in Darfur and a fan of socially conscious hip-hop, I found Jal's story shocking, depressing, and absolutely fascinating.
The article referenced his upcoming debut album, “Ceasefire”, which I immediately ordered from Amazon.com. Several days later I received a plastic disc that took me to a world full of eclectic sounds, languages, beats, harmonies, melodies, and instruments; a place where you wanted to simultaneously dance, cheer, and cry (his hit single "Gua" still breaks me up to this day). I shared Jal's story and music with friends and family, but nobody latched on with as much enthusiasm as me. (I almost jumped out of my seat when Jal's song "Baai" pumped through the theater speakers during Blood Diamond, and then again, recently, in What Are We Doing Here?.)
Undeterred, I dove deeper into the story of Sudan (outside of Darfur, about which I was already "aware"), watching documentaries about the Lost Boys, reading books (including the popular "What Is the What?" and the maligned "A Long Way Gone"), and attending lectures and screenings. The story became even more fascinating as I connected the dots and began to understand why the situation in Africa's largest country is so difficult to address on so many different levels. Deborah Scroggins' 2003 book, "Emma's War", was particularly helpful and, as a bonus, positively riveting (a Tony Scott-directed, Nicole Kidman-starring film adaptation has thankfully been delayed due to a request from the subject's family).
The book tells the story of Emma McCune, a British aid worker from an upper-class family who, in her early 20's, went to Sudan and eventually ended up marrying one of the highest-ranking Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) commanders, Riek Machar, who is currently the Vice President of the autonomous region of Southern Sudan. In 1993, at the age of 29, a pregnant McCune was killed in a car accident in Nairobi, though not before she took a former child soldier named Emmanuel Jal under her wing and enrolled him in a local school (like I said, the connections are fascinating). Jal soon began to attract attention for his musical and rhyming talents, and his rising popularity in Nairobi eventually led to the release of "Ceasefire", worldwide tours, and international acclaim.
All of this eventually led me to C. Karim Chrobog's documentary, War Child, which I haven't yet discussed because of the context required to understand the full story it tells. For most people, War Child will be their first introduction to Emmanuel Jal, so I've simply attempted to provide some background information that, while addressed in the film, also explains my personal interest in it. War Child won the Audience Choice award at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, and its producers were kind enough to send me a screener recently since the film never received a wide theatrical release.
Opening with footage from Jal's visit to the Kakuma Refugee Camp where he spent part of his childhood, War Child gives a very brief historical overview of the devastating war in Sudan that took Jal's family from him - his father joined the SPLA, his mother was killed. Along with hundreds of other young boys, Jal walked to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where they were trained as soldiers by the SPLA and essentially brainwashed into seeking revenge for what had happened to their families.
One of the most incredible moments in War Child comes during this time, when we actually see footage of a young Jal living in the training camp. The U.N. and National Geographic were sent to monitor the conditions there, and as a born leader, Jal was the peer-selected spokesperson for the group. He couldn't disclose the fact that they were being trained as soldiers, so most of the interviews are light questions about hope for the future. "I want a day that I can just live, so I can build my house where there aren't any problems that can destroy it," says Jal as he sits in his hut.
It's a potent, poignant moment, not only because we know that 20 years later he has achieved that dream, but also because we know that thousands of young child soldiers are still in the same situation today. So many people still living this nightmare, but even in Sudan, as John Prendergast of The Enough Project bluntly states in a conversation with Jal, "counter-terrorism trumps everything" as far as the West is concerned. Because the regime in Sudan is one of our strongest allies in the War on Terror, we'll just have to let the atrocities continue - so long as it's their terror, and not our terror.
Interspersed throughout the film we see clips of Jal in the present day, performing in concert, visiting schools, meeting with legislators, and eventually returning to Sudan for the first time in 15 years. He's a charming, handsome adult with a thousand-watt smile, and if you saw him strolling on the National Mall in an Abercrombie & Fitch hoodie (an outrageous irony that leaves me speechless), you'd have no idea what he's seen and experienced in his life. Speaking in front of a group of legislative staffers, he admits he doesn't actually know when he was born, but guesses he is in his mid to late 20's. An awkward, rueful silence falls until he jokes, "If you have a friend, tell her I'm available."
Because of this charm, and perhaps in spite of it, his story moves many in his audiences to tears. It may seem as if people are simply drawn to Jal's music out of pity or a bleeding heart sympathy, but anyone who listens to what he's saying will appreciate it for his positive message. Instead of dwelling on the tragedies of his past, for example, he delicately answers a group of American students asking he killed anyone in Sudan by performing a song and inviting them up to dance with him. "It's honest, it's no bitches, no blings, no hos - I hope people leave here and talk about it," says one new fan after a performance by Jal.
I'll admit that listening to his music requires patience and the understanding that he's usually not speaking in his native language (at least not on "WARchild"). As such, his wordplay and verbal dexterity in English isn't as impressive as other critically acclaimed artists, but what he lacks in panache he more than makes up for in purpose. While "Ceasefire" was a genuine, gentle plea for peace, Jal's latest album (also titled "WARchild") is a beaming, buoyant declaration of identity. Alternating bright, hopeful beats ("Baaki Wara") with tragic remembrances of his fallen friends ("Forced to Sin"), Jal also gets political this time, paying tribute to Hurricane Katrina victims on "Ninth Ward" ("America the Great became American the Clowned/While Americans drowned), and even calling out 50 Cent for his glorification of street violence and the effect it has on young boys.
Though catchy, these last two songs don't feel nearly as honest as his anguish on "Vagina": "It's unfair/when it comes to Africa, the world don't care...Pimps and thieves in Italian cars, suits/stop raping Africa like she's your prostitute...So Mr. Oil, Diamond and Gold miner/stop treating Mama Africa like a vagina." It's envelope-pushing, to be sure, but certainly convicting considering what Jal has been through. For that matter, just as powerful are Jal's impassioned, determined lyrics in songs like "Many Rivers to Cross" and "Stronger", where he declares, "I pledge allegiance to my motherland/That I'll do everything possible to make her stand."
"I believe I've survived/For a reason/To tell my story, to touch lives" - lyrics to "Warchild"
If you get the sense that I'm reviewing Jal's album more than Chrobog's film, it's because the power of the music is the essence of War Child, as well as the reason Emmanuel Jal became a subject of a film in the first place. I wouldn't recommend War Child as a primer for those hoping to learn about the background of the conflict in Sudan, but as an introduction to the life of this particular "war child", Emmanuel Jal, it's both illuminating and indelible.
Witnessing Jal visit his family for the first time in 15 years, you can't help but think about that kind of separation that exists in so many war-torn regions. Families completely shattered in an instant, not knowing if they will ever see each other again, and often never finding out. It's an idea that is unimaginable to me, and the fact that it happens with such frequency to this day is horrifying. But Jal takes it in stride, celebrating the safety of his sister and cherishing the adoration from his elderly grandmother, while also trying to reconcile the distance he still feels from his father. What makes this family reunion particularly moving is that Chrobog puts it toward the end of the film, when Jal also visits Emma's grave in Sudan. After hearing, reading, and now watching his story over the last few years, his visit back to his home country makes the people and places that shaped him much more real to his fans.
And this authenticity, credibility, substance - isn't it a welcome sight? There are no politicians, Hollywood celebrities, models, or pop stars (even Bono, bless his heart). In War Child, there is only Emmanuel Jal: a resilient voice of Africa, a dedicated voice for Africa.
Visit the official War Child website
Visit the War Child MySpace page
Check for (and request) an upcoming screening of War Child near you
Visit Emmanuel Jal's official website
Donate to Emmanuel Jal's Gua Africa and help him build Emma Academy
Read "Emma's War" by Deborah Scroggins
Buy the DVD or download a licensed copy of War Child
Buy Emmanual Jal's albums and book on Amazon.com:
"War Child: A Child Soldier's Story" (Published Feb. 2009)
Support other organizations working to end the use of child soldiers, including:
Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers
Human Rights Watch
The Enough Project
Amnesty International USA