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Sudanese Child Soldier Trades Guns for Beats

MediaGlobal | July 15, 2008

CREDIT: Paul Williams (CC).

By Emily Geminder—It could almost be the archetypal rap song's story, with its brushes with gunfire and shades of oppression, its long odyssey from violence to redemption. But Emmanuel Jal is no typical rap star. At the age of seven, after witnessing his mother's death and the rape of his aunt by opposition forces, he was conscripted into the Sudan People's Liberation Army. He carried an AK-47 that was roughly his height.

Four years later, a hardened eleven-year-old soldier who had watched many of his friends succumb to bullets or starvation, Jal escaped. He was smuggled into Kenya by Emma McCune, the British aid worker who became briefly famous when she married the SPLA commander Riek Machar. She died in a car crash six months after bringing Jal to Kenya.

It was there, in Nairobi, that Jal first collided with Western hip hop. "I thought it was Kenyan," recalled Jal, speaking to MediaGlobal from London, where he now resides. In Nairobi, where the faces of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls blinked back from ghetto walls and dangled from rear view mirrors, the eleven-year-old Jal spoke no English but found he understood the visceral scream of hip hop.

"I was interested in people like Tupac, people talking about their communities," Jal said. "I would listen to these different rappers talk about how they had no money and robbed a bank. That's how they would make a living, and then they would go to prison. I really started to relate to it, in a way, because as a child soldier, I would go raid villages, and I was tempted to do horrible things."

The exact moment of the birth of hip hop is subject to debate, but most trace its inception back to a moment in 1973, when teenage Afrika Bambaataa turned his speakers toward the window and sent music tearing through his Bronx housing project. Along with Kool DJ Herc and Grandmaster Flash, he set the stage for DJ "battles"—the dance and rhyming competitions that gave birth to hip hop and channeled the outrage of a generation. At its core were messages of race and identity, marginalization and voice—subjects Jal knows well.

The title track of his new album "War Child" features the unremitting refrain, "I believe I've survived to tell my story, to touch lives." Listening, you begin to see Jal's testimony as a kind of relentless compulsion to speak.

But then, maybe it should come as no surprise that resonance of a movement born of racial strife on the streets of New York would wind up in the mouth of a former Sudanese soldier. Because while the term hip hop may have come into the mainstream when the Sugarhill Gang broke onto the radio in 1979, many contend that its roots run much deeper.

The story begins in Africa, where traditional storytellers known as griots have been narrating lives from one generation to the next for thousands of years, using spoken word rhythms—sometimes known as "speech-song"—to spin their tales. Ethnomusicologists trace free-styling techniques back to the call-and-response and improvisation traditions long embedded in musical cultures across the continent.

Speech-song, like any good narrator, followed its people: It traveled in slave ships and made its way to America and the West Indies, where it cropped up in the soulful chords of spirituals, skid through jazz riffs, and jived through the narrative patterns of the blues. And then there was hip hop.

"I liked it because it reminded me of how people used to talk poetry and rap in my village when I was small," Jal recalled of his first encounter with the stuff. "People used to go and do rap competitions. In the village, it was used for chatting girls or it was used as a dissing game. People from different villages would meet and one of them would say, 'Your sister's breasts are so large, when she's milking the cow, she has to tie them around her neck.' And the team would laugh, and then the next person would say something else, trying to see who could make the most people laugh. If you could make both sides laugh, then you'd win."

In a sense, the musical groundwork had long been laid for the emergence of hip hop as not just an American scene but a global phenomenon, resonating through the slums of Nairobi and the markets of Senegal like a persistently looping beat. In movements of marginalized youth across the globe, hip hop stubbornly finds its way in.

But Jal takes pains not to glorify the horrors he lived through, and he calls out rappers who, as he sees it, use their music to perpetuate a culture of violence. In one song, he tells rapper 50 Cent he is being "played by the man." Jal's message is first and foremost a message of peace. "I'm not coming out of all of this vomiting, spitting fire or poison, you see. Because I could have come out, 'Kill them, blah blah blah.' But all kinds of people can relate to my story, and it can impact people."

Jal's 2005 album Ceasefire transcended political and religious chasms by merging his own free-styling with the intricate folk harmonies of Abdel Gadir Salim, a North Sudanese Muslim. Jal's raps dart deftly between Gadir Salim's oud chords, despite the fact that the musicians never actually met. Due to visa complications and the ongoing conflict, Gadir Salim and Jal recorded their music separately. They exchanged tracks via mail.

On his latest album, Warchild, Jal raps in four different languages—English, Arabic, Swahili, and his native Nuer—and scales an emotional arpeggio, from gritty autobiographical detail to triumphant choruses praising those who helped him along the way. On "Forced to Sin," he recounts the daily horror of war: "Lived with an AK-47 by my side / slept with one eye open wide / run, duck, play dead and hide." His song "Baakiwara" employs a rich tapestry of vocals to tell the story of "another war"—the difficulties of living a post-conflict life in an unfamiliar culture.

Emmanuel Jal's official "Warchild" video.

Jal also uses his music to condemn the international community's inaction in conflicts such as Sudan. "If genocide was being committed in France, would the U.N. wait?" he asked. "It would be another world war or something. But because it's happening in Africa, it's, 'Oh, what a sad thing.' But I thought the U.N. was created to protect humans. Are Africans not human beings?"

If anything can inject a sense of urgency into the world's response, perhaps it will be Jal's unflinching testimony of warfare. In giving texture to the realities of the life of a child soldier—realities such as suicide missions and cannibalism—Jal aims to create something to which people relate and, consequently, respond. Part of the problem, he says, is that, when it comes to Africa, people are immune to numbers. "If 10 thousand black people die, no one really cares. If 100 thousand die, whatever. But 500 thousand: 'Oh my God, people are dying! Let's go now.'"

"That's why I'm doing my music and I'm taking it to the people," Jal continued. "Because I believe in people, and people can make a difference."

Indeed, to watch Jal perform is to witness an electric exchange between people and singer. For a man who can seem numbed in conversation, his voice halting and occasionally withdrawn, Jal is suddenly sprung to life on the stage. He appears set alight by the energy of the crowd, as though his own voice has been propelled back to him from its midst.

Several weeks ago, at a massive concert to honor Nelson Mandela and raise money for AIDS, Jal appeared on stage to an introduction by Peter Gabriel, who called him an artist with "the potential of a young Bob Marley." Singing his song "Emma," dedicated to the woman who saved him and some 150 other child soldiers, Jal called out to all those who incite change. Half-dancing, half-tumbling across the stage, his limbs shuddered and shook, faintly possessed with sound. The crowd of thousands pulsed to his words, and Jal looked like a man at peace telling his story.

These days, when Jal is not performing, he is kept busy with his foundation Gua, meaning peace in Nuer, building schools and health clinics across Sudan and Kenya. Gua works with community organizations, governmental institutions, and international bodies to create sustainable development through education. Currently, Gua is also partnering with the U.N. World Food Program to distribute food and medical supplies to children and teachers in southern Sudan, many of whom are caught in the conflict.

Today, children are direct participants in war in seventeen countries, among them Sudan. Two months ago, 89 child soldiers, aged 11 to 17, were arrested after an attack by Darfur rebels on the capital city of Khartoum. The U.N. envoy for human rights in Sudan is urging the government to release and reintegrate the children back into society. "We have recommended to the government that they should be treated as victims of war, not as combatants," Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan Sima Samar said on Thursday.

This week, Jal will speak at the U.N. headquarters in New York alongside the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs and the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. Once again, he will sound his cry for action.

He will also perform.

But Jal, who once called music "the only thing that can speak to your soul without your permission," never loses sight of his real audience.

He said, "In South Africa, when the university students started rioting on the streets, 'Free Mandela! Free Mandela!' that's when the government started saying, 'Oh, oh, oh—Mandela has to be freed.' I don't believe in the government. I believe in the people—the normal people on the street, the students. When they get to know it, they will act, and they will change."

© 2008 MediaGlobal news service at the United Nations.

Read More: Culture, Communication, Education, Gender, Health, Human Rights, Poverty, Security, War, Sudan, United Kingdom, Africa, Europe

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