One of the rising stars of world music, Emmanuel Jal, visited the Refugee Council’s social evening for unaccompanied child refugees and gave a storming performance of his unique brand of rap. Emmanuel, a former child soldier in Southern Sudan now living in exile in Kenya, took the opportunity to personally endorse the Refugee Council’s Don’t Believe the Type campaign.
While in Britain, Emmanuel has performed at the Live 8 concert in Cornwall, met the Chancellor Gordon Brown, Bob Geldof, Peter Gabriel, and many other dignitaries.
He’s been interviewed by all of the leading newspapers and appeared on Radio 4 and BBC television. He is becoming a global figure. But Emmanuel’s visit to the Refugee Council’s Children’s Panel Social Evening was a memorable experience for him. He was among young people of about his age, many of whom had shared similar experiences. He was instantly at home and started to make friends.
Emmanuel’s story is a remarkable one. Born in Southern Sudan some time in the early 1980s, he tried to escape to Ethiopia, but was abducted by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and forced to fight in the bloody civil war. He learnt military strategy aged just 8 and was taking part in major battles before his tenth birthday. When the SPLA suffered a massive defeat, he joined a trek of several hundred miles to find safety. Hundreds died of starvation, thirst and attacks by wild animals. Some of the defeated boy soldiers even turned to cannibalism.
Arriving in the town of Waat, the headquarters of a rival group of rebels, he was lucky enough to meet Emma McCune, a British aid worker who had famously married the rebels’ commander. Emma insisted 11 year olds were too young to fight and she got Emmanuel out of Sudan and into Kenya. She was tragically killed in a road accident only a few months later and Emmanuel found himself alone again, one of the countless millions displaced by Sudan’s civil war.
Emmanuel continued his education, completed his A levels and would have come to university in Britain if he hadn’t had visa problems. In the meantime, his interest in music developed. His singing career started in gospel choirs, but he moved on to rap and developed a distinctive style. His debut album, Gua, was recorded on shoe string budget, but the title track became a number one hit in Kenya and was included on The Rough Guide to the Music of Sudan. In September, his next album, Ceasefire, will be released.
Emmanuel has become a living symbol of the courage and resilience of children in Africa who are forced into war and into exile. He is now a spokesman for the Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, represents the UN around the world and has been taking part in the Make Poverty History Campaign.