Emmanuel Jal is no ordinary hip-hop artist. He is led by genuine experiences of strife and struggle, while his talent shines through the words of his story. And in his story comes a kind of wisdom and determination that is rarely gained without overcoming tremendous adversity.
A former Sudanese child soldier, Jal has used his songwriting to speak out against the horrors of war and to bring attention to his troubled and overlooked country. He has lived through war, poverty, famine, tragedy, and oppression, but has never faltered in his devotion to education and harnessing the power of music. Jal lives to tell his triumphant story and to inspire the next generation of African youths to rise up against the status quo through education, activism, and art.
Jal was born in the South Sudan three years before the beginning of the Second Sudanese Civil War. At the age of seven, he lost his mother to the violence. His father enlisted in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and joined the fighting. Shortly after his mother’s death, Jal fled his village with several other children. He became a child soldier and fought for five years before his rescue by a British aid worker. He left his life as a child soldier and spent his teen years living in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Education was his salvation and hip-hop his inspiration.
Before even recording his first album, Jal was an active leader in his community. He raised money for refugees and local street children, all the while developing himself as a songwriter and performer. His first album, Gua, served as a fitting introduction to Jal’s patchwork story. He raps in five languages on the album, and combines African beats with many elements of Western hip-hop. Jal quickly began gathering attention outside of Africa and has been steadily on the rise ever since. He performed at Live 8 in 2005, and at Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday concert in London in 2008. He released his sixth album, The Key, in late 2014 to much critical acclaim. He also released his autobiography, entitled War Child: A Child Soldier’s Story, in 2009.
Jal’s focus in bringing aid to his native Sudan also extends outside of his work as an artist. Jal is a spokesman for the Make Poverty History, Control Arms, and the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers campaigns. These groups seek to end the violence and famine that continue to plague many African nations. Jal also contributed numerous songs to Call+Response, a rockumentary that raises awareness for victims of human trafficking and slavery. Jal’s proudest achievement is his Gua Africa foundation, a charity that builds schools, funds scholarships, and provides other aid to victims of war and poverty in Sudan and Kenya. Education is at the forefront of Gua Africa’s mission, and Jal has helped many children to follow in his footsteps. The We Want Peace 2012 campaign worked hand in hand with Gua Africa to spread Jal’s message and to bring aid to a country in desperate need.
He is currently working on Stand for Elephants – a song and video awareness campaign, in collaboration with artists across the African continent, to educate people about the issue and end the slaughtering of Africa’s elephant population.
Jal is living proof of the power of music and education. These are his tools in accomplishing his ultimate goal of seeing peace and prosperity in Sudan. Even after being robbed of his childhood in the bloody battlefields of a civil war, Jal never lost hope that brighter days are ahead. His work is a reminder that there are no limits to what can be achieved by faith, hard work, and a voice that demands to be heard.