EMMANUEL JAL: PHOENIX FROM THE ASHES
The possessor of one of the most extraordinary life-stories you`re likely to hear, rapper/songwriter Emmanuel Jal has this month incorporated his extraordinary lifetime experiences with music through his latest album 'Warchild'.
Born in war-torn Sudan in the early Eighties (he doesn`t know exactly when), a young Emmanuel was forcibly taken from his family home in 1987 at either six or seven years old to fight with the anti-government SPLA (Sudan People`s Liberation Army) in his country`s bloody civil war. A “child warrior” for nearly five years - during which time, after intense brainwashing, he was put into battle carrying an AK-47 that was taller than he was - by the age of 13 he`d already become a veteran of two civil wars, seeing hundreds of his fellow child soldiers reduced to taking unspeakable measures as they struggled to survive on the killing-fields of Southern Sudan. However, after courageously deserting the rebel line, in 1993 he was thankfully rescued by British aid worker Emma McCune who smuggled him into Nairobi to raise as her own, before sadly dying herself in a car accident just months later.
Nevertheless, as a homeless young teenager growing up in the slums of Nairobi, Emmanuel set out to ease the pain of the horrifying abuse he`d been subjected to during his childhood years through music. Becoming a Christian and influenced by both gospel and hip hop, in 2005 he eventually released his debut album `Gua` which spawned a Number One hit in Kenya as well a earning him a slot on Bob Geldorf`s `Live 8` concert in the UK.
Largely produced by the UK-based Roachie and described as “a personal diary of Emmanuel`s extraordinary experiences that combines hip hop with world music rhythms”, 'Warchild' sees Jal`s poised, commanding tone frequently slipping into spoken-word behind the pulse of often-funky, African rhythms on tracks which betray the horrors through which he was forced to live ('Warchild'; 'Forced To Sin') alongside his take on modern-rap`s materialistic/gangsta mentality (`50 Cent`; `No Bling`).
Meeting up with `B&S` for a lunchtime drink in his Finsbury Park local, a now-London-based, 28-year-old Emmanuel (whose soft-spoken tones and calm aura seem a world away from his volatile, apparently-murderous past) speaks intensely to `B&S` about his `Warchild` album (currently accompanied by a full-length documentary on his life plus a forthcoming autobiography) and how he feels about the possibility of his headline-grabbing life-story arguably eclipsing his actual musical skills.
The background to his latest album 'Warchild'
“When I first listened to hip hop I realised it was actually guys telling stories about their neighbourhood and what happened to them in their childhood. So I just thought `Let me testify about MY life`. You know, I can`t boast about bling or that I`m a gangsta. But I do feel I`ve survived for a reason - to tell my story and to touch lives. When I look back on my life, I realise had no childhood. I was taken from my home aged seven; a year later I had an AK-47 in my hand. When you`re in the battlefields fighting, you duck, you run, you hide… That was the kind of life I had. So I was trying to make people see how it was for me as a child. Like `Forced To Sin` is one of the deepest tracks. Where I`m sharing with the world how difficult the whole experience was. I tell people graphically how at one point I was tempted to eat the rotting flesh of my comrade, though he had been my best friend. But then I`m also saying what I stand for NOW. I`m still seeing people dying in wars in my homeland and in Darfur, and not enough is getting DONE about it. So, with musicians being today`s emotional media, I felt that sharing my story with people could bring attention to that, as well as inspiring people and making them appreciate what they have.”
The standout track `50 Cent`, where he pleads with the superstar rapper to become a better role-model for his young fans
“My cousin came to England and joined a group called G-Unit. Next thing he was involved in knife-crime, he stabbed a white boy - and you can guess the rest. So, when I discovered the INFLUENCE behind all this was the MUSIC he was listening to, I went to the studio with a lotta frustration. Then, when I got there, I discovered my producer`s son had just been arrested in The Bahamas for a drive-by shooting. So I was like `Can I call 50 Cent and talk to him on the phone?`. My producer was like `No, who are you to call 50 Cent? The best way for you to talk to him is through the MUSIC!`. So that`s why the song `50 Cent` came about. Because, though I as an adult listen to gangsta rap just to laugh - I think they`re geniuses in that they have the creativity to convince people they`re actually LIVING this kind of lifestyle - my worry is the KIDS. I mean, every young boy wants to be tough, and they think of these gangsta rappers as their role-models. So they wanna put that stuff into practice themselves. So I`m like `Look 50, we are raising a GENERATION here!`!”
His early years in Sudan and how his music has helped him overcome the bad experiences
“As a very young boy I remember my dad as a policeman; I remember my grandmother used to make alcohol and sell it; and I remember my mum as a teacher. I also remember how we used to run around with bombs dropping everywhere. You know, there wasn`t a peaceful MOMENT, and that`s when I started getting used to death. Seeing my mum cry all the time - at funeral after funeral after funeral - was very depressing. Then, as for my actual time as a child soldier, I feel my music has helped me a lot to overcome the horrific memories. I feel the best therapy for anyone who`s been in a bad situation is to TALK about it. I`ve made a RECORD about my story; I`ve written a BOOK about it; I`ve done a DOCUMENTARY… I`ve become so busy that there`s no room any more for me to start sitting and regretting. And what`s happened is the dreams I have about it are not as bad as they used to be. So, while I`ll never totally suppress them - just yesterday I dreamt I`d gone to war and I was captured with my hands tied together - they`re definitely not as effective and tormenting as they have been.”
Whether Emmanuel`s life-story is eclipsing his art
“When I was in Kenya, people loved me for my MUSIC. When I came here, and they discovered my background, because it shocks people everybody immediately just started digging into my STORY. So yes, it is frustrating when I do interviews and all they wanna talk about is the STORY and not the MUSIC. But then I have to look at it the other way and say well, if it means there`s gonna be more of an interest in my country and what`s going on there, it`s worth it. The essence of my story is that I am someone who`s gone from being a child soldier to a rapper. So, on that score alone, people will still be drawn to my MUSIC. I recently did an interview with a hip hop chronicle online, who said my album was the best this year. Because it takes us back to how hip hop began in America, when the music had a proper message and it was conscious, strong and raw. Also `The Washington Post` recently wrote an article saying `The Roots and Emmanuel Jal have set the bar high for hip hop in 2008`. So it is encouraging that there are people who are appreciating the music as well as the politics. And I do definitely feel the interviews, like this one, are now generally becoming more musical. As opposed to just going straight into depressing questions like `Have you killed somebody?`.”
The album 'Warchild' is out now through Sonic360/ADA GlobalI
Words PETE LEWIS