By the time Emmanuel Jal was 13, he lost his mother and was forced to fight in two civil wars in Ethiopia and his native Sudan for nearly five years.
Decades later, he is now channeling his haunting past into a successful hip-hop career, having shared his story through recording three albums and performing at benefit concerts like Live 8 and Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday Concert.
On Feb. 14, Miami University will be his next stop on his journey from child soldier to rapper and peace activist.
“I look at (my life) as a miracle, I believe it’s a dream,” he said. “From being a child soldier from a war-torn village … to a refugee camp in Kenya to an international hip-hop artist, it’s hard … to me, it has not yet sunk in my brain, I still feel like I’m living in a dream world.”
Sudan’s civil war between Northern Muslims and Southern Christians erupted when Jal was an infant. Although he does not know his birthday, Jal knows that he left home for Ethiopia in 1987 to go to school, or so he thought.
In reality, the school was a front for a child soldier training ground for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the Southern Sudanese rebel force against the Sudanese government.
After five years of witnessing the horror of war and enduring times so desperate he contemplated cannibalism, Jal was picked up by a British aid worker and smuggled into Nairobi, Kenya.
There, he began singing gospel music as an outlet for the pain and guilt he had as a former child soldier. In 2005, he recorded his first album, Gua, or “peace” in Jal’s native Nuer tongue, with the title track becoming a number one hit in Kenya.
Soon Jal turned his focus to hip hop and recorded two more albums. His blend of social activism over tribal beats earned acclaim in Africa and in Great Britain. Last summer at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday benefit concert, Peter Gabriel described Jal as having “the potential of a young Bob Marley.”
Despite his success abroad, Jal’s presence in the United States has been limited to a seven-university tour he did last year. This year, he has a CD, documentary and memoir, all called War Child, now available in the United States. However, unlike most mainstream hip-hop artists that Jal describes as entertainers who “just want to make money,” Jal hopes that his music will serve as a testimony to help spread awareness of the multiple conflicts facing Africa.
“I’m taking it serious,” he said. “My story is a story that will inspire, it does not matter who you are because I believe the human testimony-it doesn’t matter whether they’re black, blue or green … is always shaking people.”
Two students who hope Jal’s story shakes attendees on Feb. 14 are juniors Max Forstag and Megan Casey, who head Miami’s fledgling chapter of STAND, a student-led anti-genocide coalition.
“This is the first big-time event we’ve had,” Forstag said. “We want people to be inspired … it’s important to understand the historical and societal context of why (genocide in Africa is) going on.”
Casey said that STAND discovered Jal through an e-mail listserv. Since then, the organization has teamed up with Miami’s chapters of Save Darfur and the ONE campaign, as well as accepted private funding from organizations like the Robert Hamilton Bishop Debate Society and the Grayson Kirk Lecture Series, among others, to bring Jal to campus.
Forstag said that Jal will lead a lecture about his experiences for the majority of the event, before hitting the mic a capella for one or two songs.
“His music is very unique,” Casey said. “His rap is more spoken word poetry than flow, it takes a lot of influence from gospel.”
Miami’s Save Darfur president, Brooke Hathaway, agreed that Jal is a speaker worth seeing to gain a better perspective of conflict in the world.
“He has an amazing story and he’s really good,” she said. “I don’t know how you see such a story and not be touched.”
Jal also heads his own charity, GUA Africa, which to date has clothed, fed and put 11 survivors of war through school. He said that even a donation as small as $3 can buy a brick to build Emma Academy, a planned education center sprawling 15 acres in South Sudan, named for the aid worker who rescued Jal from war.
“America has a big influence, they can make Africa if they want,” he said. “Not aid, aid will not do anything; build schools, educate the people … even if you’re teaching under the trees that’s fine, teach them to build things, teach the farmers to go back to farming and supply them with equipment, when you feed them aid, aid, aid, you’re crippling a whole nation.”
Emmanuel Jal will begin speaking at 7 p.m. Feb. 14 in Hall Auditorium. Admission is free, with tickets available at the Shriver Center Box Office. Prior to Jal’s appearance, STAND will screen Jal’s documentary, War Child, at 7 p.m. Feb. 12 in room 100 in the Art Building.
Jal emphasized that he enjoys touring universities because students over history have helped shape the world.
“(Students) have a lot of energy … they have an open mind, they are willing to learn because they want to help, they can make things happen,” he said. “In the time of Martin Luther King, in the time of Nelson Mandela when he was in jail and apartheid, it was university people who played their part.”