Award-winning hip hop artist, activist, author, and former lost boy Jal Jok, better known as Emmanuel Jal, was born around 1980 into a destiny of pain.
When he was seven years old, Sudanese soldiers killed his mother—the first of many of his family to die at government hands. After his father joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army or SPLA, Jal sought refuge in Ethiopia along with thousands of other children, and ended up enslaved by the SPLA as a child soldier—the so-called “lost boys.”
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Jal eventually escaped to the town of Waat where he met a British aid worker named Emma McCune who was married to SPLA commander, and future South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar. After adopting Jal, McCune took him to Kenya for education, but she herself died in a vehicle accident only months later, and he soon found himself living in the slums of Nairobi.
It was there that Jal discovered hip hop and devoted his life to political art, particularly to engaging the struggles of South Sudan, and became an international star. He’s released six albums including Gua, Ceasefire, Warchild, Emmanuel Jal’s 4th Studio Album, See Me Mama, and The Key. He’s the author of the autobiography War Child, has appeared in a biographical documentary of the same name, and has acted in the feature film Africa United, as well as in the controversial movie The Good Lie, directed by Ron Howard and starring Reese Witherspoon; 54 Sudanese refugees have sued the film’s producers for exploiting them.
Jal has performed at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebration in London and at the One Concert for the Dalai Lama. He’s spoken before the United Nations, the US Congress, and the Carter Centre. He founded a charity, Gua Africa, that provides scholarships for Sudanese war survivors and Nairobi slum children.
Jal currently lives in Toronto, but by his own description is “always on the road.” He was in Edmonton as part of an Alberta-wide tour that the John Humphrey Centre organised for Jal to share his experiences in “social-emotional learning.” We spoke at the John Humphrey Centre in Edmonton on March 20, 2015. Our topics included:
- Jal’s philosophy on “benevolently stereotyping” strangers
- His approach to being a settler on First Nation land
- Why, in his opinion, the optimism that led to the creation of South Sudan has decayed into misery under the presidency of Salva Kiir Mayardit, the vice-presidency of Riek Machar, and the influence of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni
- The responsibility of the United States for the chaos inside its client state South Sudan, and
- The effects of US Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush and former Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi on the people of South Sudan.
For clarity’s sake, note that Jal uses the acronym SPLA to refer to the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, which fought the Omar al Bashir government based in Khartoum, before South Sudan seceded with the city of Juba as its capitol.
I began our discussion by asking Jal what his life is like in Toronto, given the widespread racial profiling by police there, including the infamous “carding” system in which police, apparently as a matter of policy, stop all African men to demand identification.
Emmanuel Jal's homepage
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My acclaimed novel The Alchemists of Kush is about two Sudanese lost boys. Click here for reviews, videos, text, and audio about the book.