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Emmanuel Jal - The Storyteller

Author: Fat Tony
Monday, 16 June 2008
Emmanuel Jal has led the kind of life that makes most fiction seem tame, and with his latest album Warchild he’s continuing to narrate his own incredible life. 3D’s Fat Tony played avid listener.

You may have heard of Emmanuel Jal by now, and you may not have. Either way you're going to hear a lot more of him. “Can we talk about the music please-”, was the first thing he said to me when I called him in London, only a few hours before he was due on stage. 'What else would 3D World, a music magazine, be calling about-' I hear you ask. Well, Emmanuel is much more than a musician, much more than a rapper, Emmanuel's story is some of the craziest shit you've never heard. It's not like it's an original story, equally heavy lives have been lived by millions of people all round the word, the crazy part is that we get to hear about it; Emmanuel's put it all into an album.

This is the (uber)quick rundown. Born in Sudan, Jal was orphaned at age seven. His mother died, his father joined the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA). He escaped to Ethiopia with the hope of receiving an education, instead he was trained as a soldier and forced into the fighting - Emmanuel became a warchild. He escaped after a few years, was adopted by a British aid worker, and then given an education in Kenya. After becoming famous in Kenya for his singing, he somehow found his way to London. He's just released his third album, it's called Warchild (that was an incredibly long story shortened to barely a paragraph in case you hadn't picked up on it).

“The shows are going well,” Emmanuel agreed after his first few shows performing the new material. “The reaction of the album live is very exciting and people are accepting it so that's a positive reaction. They are like 'woah, we've never heard this kind of music, this is deep, this is hip hop'. Other people have said 'look, we thought hip hop was dead but this is what we need to hear'. The reaction is encouraging.”

Emmanuel is talking of course about the messages contained within his hip hop, as he uses the medium in the way it was always intended to be used, for spreading positive messages throughout communities that aren't privileged enough to have the same lines of communication open that most of us here in Australia enjoy. He's got a thing or two to say to the mainstream US rap superstars, and given his Emmanuel's experience it's not surprising. One of the songs off the new album is called 50 Cent, it's a direct communication to the rapper.

“I am a fan of mainstream hip hop when I see it on TV as entertainment, but a lot of kids don't see it as entertainment,” Jal explains, “they take it as serious and they want to put it into practice. Every song of mine is inspired by an occasion. I don't just go the studio and make up songs.”

Emmanuel sets the scene for the occasion that inspired the 50 Cent track. “My cousin in London, his friends formed their own little gang and started bullying people in school. One day he stabbed a white boy so he was put in jail. For me I was angry I said 'look, you have been given a chance by this country as a refugee, your country is at war. You're supposed to come and educate yourself here, you're not supposed to come here and turn yourself into a gangster. If you really want to fight and be a soldier, go to Sudan and fight'. But that was like blowing into a wind, he can't hear that.”

Emmanuel went to the studio and told his producer the story. Then he asked if he could call 50 Cent on the phone. “I wanted to ask him if he could say something to the kids,” Emmanuel goes on, imagining the words as they come out of Fiddy's mouth. “'I was a gangster, I'm doing this kind of hip hop for fun, don't take it serious. It's not fun to be a gangster. When I was selling drugs and doing all this it's not because I loved doing it, it's because there was nothing that could bring food on my table. You go to school and be somebody'. Emmanuel's producer replied that 50 Cent wouldn't pick up the phone, and the best way to communicate to him was through music. And that's how the track 50 Cent was born.”

“We don't want to push him down we want to honour him for what he has done,” Jal qualifies. “Because he's gone up in life, so honour him for what he has done but point out the problem that you're talking about, so it's like you're talking to him. If you look at the track I'm not actually rapping I'm talking.”

Although the content of Warchild contains some heavy material, it falls well short of being the musical equivalent of watching a holocaust documentary. “I'm entertaining as well. I believe music is innocent. Hip hop is not bad, whoever thinks hip hop is bad they have a problem. The problem is what's in the lyrics. Music is innocent, a note is innocent. But what creates the driving force behind it will be the lyrics.”

Warchild is Emmanuel's third album, and he explains how each has had their specific purposes. There's not too many artists around that can have that much clarity in terms of their artistic output. “The first album I did was my beginning. That was the genesis, and it was gospel, and it was about peace. That's the one that made me famous in Kenya and brought me international attention.” Emmanuel put the album out himself with no record label support. “The second album was called Ceasefire which is about peace in my country. Then this third album, Warchild, is about me. People want to know where I come from, they ask my story. So I'm saying 'OK fine, let me give you my story'. Hopefully it will give me peace and no one will want to bother me.” He says this last part without a hint of jest. “That's why I came up with Warchild. I've done the book, and I've done the documentary, now I've given the story so I can continue with my music,” but just here is where Emmanuel permits himself a little chuckle, not that he's not completely serious, but the irony of speaking those words to a journalist is just too funny to let slide.

WHO: Emmanuel Jal
WHAT: Warchild out now through Stomp