Emmanuel Jal is a universally known hip-hop artist who spreads messages of peace, love and freedom with his music. He has performed with artists such as Razorlight and Faithless in Europe, toured the United States, performed at Live 8, had a documentary made about his life and was even invited to perform at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebration in London this summer.
But life hasn’t always been easy for Jal. He was born in Sudan in either 1980 or 1981 and became a child soldier in 1987.
Jal experienced a childhood that most would consider a nightmare. He was firing an AK-47 bigger than he was on a regular basis and saw many fellow soldiers killed in front of him. At age 13 he was rescued by a British aid worker who smuggled him into Nairobi and gave him a home. It was then that he started singing, in part to help ease the pain of what he had experienced as a war child. He released his album ‘Gua” in 2005, which received worldwide acclaim and even a number one hit in Kenya with its title track.
We caught up with him via phone for a quick interview before his performance in Strong Auditorium tonight at 7:30 p.m.
What types of messages do you like to send people through your music?
I’m sharing my story. I’m explaining what happened to me, what happened to my village and what happened to my people and country. I was telling my story as a form of therapy and to raise awareness and consciousness of what is going on. I talk about how I was forced into being a child soldier, how I learned to fire an AK-47 and how I finally escaped and made it to America. The album is about my story and politics in Africa.
How old were you when you starting singing?
I started singing roughly during the year 2000. I was just doing it for fun. I used to go to church and see people sing. I found something in music that made me happy and I started dancing and chanting. Music is my passion, but I call it a therapy.
When did you start performing?
I started performing around the same time. I performed in choir, concerts, plays in the church and schools.
Do you ever get stage fright?
[Laughs.] A lot. It’s the same feeling as when you are nervous. Your legs become weak, you’re nervous inside, your legs start shaking like when you fire an AK-47. But when I get on stage, I forget and I get engaged in the music.
What kinds of music do you listen to?
I like people who sing beautifully because I’m a lyrically based person. I listen to music that makes sense. That’s how I plant a seed in myself by listening to positive music. I like listening to hip-hop, reggae, funk and rock. I listen less to R’B, but I like country music.
Do you think your music can initiate a cultural change in America?
I think yes because music has no boundaries. You can’t actually push music on people, they seek the music. Music is like love. For example, if you fall in love with a white woman, you don’t see the color, you see what a beautiful woman she is.
Music is the only universal language. It has the power to penetrate human souls, languages and spirits. Music can influence you. Say you’re sitting on the bed and listening to music, you automatically start tapping your leg to the beat. A musician is neutral. Musicians are emotional leaders. Given a chance, music will find a way to raise consciousness and give more ideas to the public.
What are your favorite places to perform?
Every place is different. In America, the reactions are always amazing. I’m always scared that the American crowds are hard to please, but the shows always go well. As far as for the rest of the world, no part of the world has been bad. Students are always extremely moved by my performances. I share poetry and stories and everyone is inspired in a different way. Many students have come up to me and told me how they take what they have for granted. I have inspired people positively. I can’t complain.
What is the ‘War Child” documentary about?
The documentary is about my story in Sudan and when I finally came to America. The documentary features pictures and live interviews of me as a child. Seeing the reality of hard times in Africa gives it more power.
Kraus is a member of the class of 2009. Venkateswaran is a member of the class of 2011.