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Last Updated: 05/02/2011Music Has No Boundaries: A Conversation With Emmanuel Jal
Musician and peace practitioner Jesaka Saylove speaks with artist, activist, and former child soldier Emmanuel Jal about the music he heard growing up, leaving his gun in Sudan, finding his voice in hip-hop, the power of art, the beauty of peace, the music that continues to inspire him, and the projects he's working on now.
S: Greetings, this is Saylove. Right now with me on the line we have got a very special individual, special caller. We have Emmanuel Jal out of the U.K., how are you doing today?
E: I am doing all right. What about you?
S: I am very bliss today, thank you. So I have a few questions for you.
S: First I wanted to ask if music was major part of your life growing up in Sudan.
E: Ah, not really, but I used to hear music. I could take some interest in the music as a kid. But what my mother used to play in the church, that is what I know. When we went to the village I used to hear people singing, you know, the rainy season, time for planting, time for harvesting, or just normal singing songs, but in the African way of doing it.
S: And what languages were you accustomed to hearing music in at that time?
E: I was listening in Nuer, my mother tongue, mostly, and a bit of Arabic there.
S: Okay and I am wondering approximately what age you were when you were subjected to fighting in the war, and approximately what age you were when you were rescued by Emma McEwen.
E: Well I left my home when I was seven. So I was trained when I was like eight years -- that is what I think.
S: Approximately the age when you were rescued by Emma McEwen?
E: I was like, I don’t know, 12 years old.
S: I want to interject. I didn’t mention in the beginning if there is any question that you don’t feel comfortable answering, of course, just let me know, we can skip right by anything.
E: It is fine, it is fine, just ask what you are comfortable asking.
S: Okay, thank you, I appreciate it. I was wondering what the experience was like for you more so, you know, when you were rescued, when you were taken out of that, those situations you were subjected to previously, what was that experience like for you?
E: It wasn’t easy for me to leave my gun, even though I wanted to go to school, but I had to gamble. So I said okay, well, Emma says she is going to take me to school. What terrified me was the helicopters, the gun ships from the back of the battlefield and I said wow, let me go to the white people land and learn how to fly a plane. So one day I am going to join the army when I go there and then fly a plane and come back to war. I still wanted to continue with the war to get revenge for my family and my country, you know. But escaping was not an easy way because I had to be smuggled into Kenya, I had no document and so me and Emma had to agree on how we were going to do it. First you have to look nice, dress well, smell good and entertain the people. All of the focus was on that. I made my way into the plane crawling along the back.
S: There were a number of others who were rescued with you at the same time.
E: At different times, they are all in different areas, even from there, but I was the only one she chose to fly with.
S: Do you know if any of the other youth have gone on to either create music or other creative ventures or have you networked or worked with any of the other youth?
E: I know one of my friends, one of the survivors is now commander in the SPLA [Sudanese People's Liberation Army] and I know a couple who become doctors or gone to study. There are some that are confused and traumatized, you now. And nothing's really moving with their lives. So I know a couple.
S: Do you see your music as a method for healing either individual or shared trauma?
E: My music is for anybody who is humble enough and ready to give me their ears to listen to what I am doing. Because what I am bringing is, it is I am bringing my neighborhood, my struggle, the pain, what we went through, reality, and true stories to the world. Just like the way American hip hop can conquer the world because they were telling us true stories then at a time like 2Pac, you know, Biggie and Run DMC there, Public Enemy, so I am trying to use the same route to bring my pain out, but in the end I realized it was the therapy because it helped me heal in this kind of hard life I am in.
S: Is there a particular experience perhaps when you were writing, recording or performing that you recall that was particularly healing?
E: You know, I don’t know what music is, but there's something about music, it's one thing that kind of makes everybody smile. It gives you a sense that after all this world, having it, it's nice, it's heaven on earth. You know, If I go to a [theatre] people are being musical. Or when I listen to music and people are dancing, singing, smiling, it makes me happy for that moment and enjoy. Then when I start dancing and using my story in the music, it creates a joy in me. I take it like a painkiller that makes me want to push throughout the day. I don’t know, I don’t know if I'm answering your question.
S: Oh definitely, I was just wondering if there was a particular time that you might remember, but it sounds like there are many.
E: It is hard to make, to reach, to pick one point.
S: Okay. Is there any music other than your own that inspires you or that you find healing?
E: All conscious music, gospel music, any music that is positive.
S: Any examples?
E: I would say, mostly the music that we were listening to a lot was American gospel music or party music -- music that just makes you jump! Because with music, music is the only thing that can speak to your mind, your heart, your soul, and influence you directly without knowing. You see, and one part about music that I know is that it can shake anybody. We used to hate Muslims and Arabs from when I was training. But I didn’t understand when they brought an Arab musician to entertain us, we all danced our head off! You know, even us, we were fighting Afghanis, the Khartoum people, in our parties we put their music on and blast it on speakers and everybody dance! So, music has no boundaries, like love, and that is why they were able to reach me.
S: I was going to ask if there is maybe a particular song or artist that inspires you.
E: Okay I listen to Bob Marley, a lot. He's inspiring, how he came as a genius in his art form. 2Pac, you know. The Fugees, the old school Fugees, not the modern one. Mostly old school music inspires me. The modern music, I just use it to gather skills to be able to improve myself. But most of the music that really had a big impact on me is old school. But to be honest, really, I am inspired by speeches from Martin Luther King, the lifestyle of Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, those are the people whose stories I read. It is what I came to take in and use.
S: Do you see music as instrumental, as something very important for peace building?
E: See, music is one thing that people don’t know, and they tend to ignore. Musicians are, emotionally, they are like prophets. If we could organize them, they can change a whole situation easily. If you could see the way a lot of young people's lives are influenced by musicians, the influence into drinking, drugs, into having sex and violence, could be removed.
Just imagine all of a sudden, now, on the TV station, radio station, one month, they just play peace music, songs about peace, war in Afghanistan, we need peace, you know, all around the world. You will see people's minds will be changed easily. Young people will want peace to happen. That is like the time of John Lennon, you know, the reason they killed John Lennon is because he was powerful and he was changing people's minds into how peace was going to help them. But the problem is that people who benefit in the war don’t really want peace. And so, that is the difficulty. We need the music to make peace happen.
Imagine when you are governing 60,000 people, just from a speech without any musician, it would be boring. But it will be okay, let’s say you are doing a peace concert, Bono is going to appear, you know, and then they will tell you Kayne West will be there. You are going to pull all those people to come and listen to their music.
E: At that point you can deliver whatever very important message that you want to deliver and they can deliver it through a music format. It does happen, look at the way Kanye came out with a song Diamond. All of the sudden people started throwing away their diamonds and people don’t want to buy diamonds. So that is how powerful music is. Music is a tool. I am using it now and I see the impact when I perform. People dance, people cry, people appreciate what I am doing. People get, next time I get an email, oh, I have decided to adopt a kid and put them in school. So different people write to me, okay I am going to join the message to help them do this. So I am getting a different reaction whenever I perform, I appear, you never know what people could do.
S: If music isn’t enough on its own, what other actions and efforts do you perceive as necessary for creating a world culture of peace?
E: Art, you see 'cause music is a form of art, so we cannot speak apart from art -- acting, poetry, anything art, you know, it reaches people without much effort. And you go artistically. If you take someone like Martin Luther King, his speeches are artistic. They have a rhythm. They are poetry. You can bang a beat, you can play instruments behind it, you know, and put climate. So all of those parties, you look at Obama, Obama the way he talks, it's different. If you look at it, it is an art of speaking. Any person who is able to come to their people, they have to use an art form to be able to get people's attention.
S: What projects are you putting out or are you in the process of working on right now?
E: I am actually on a suicide mission now, called Lose to Win. I eat one meal a day until we raise $300,000, which today’s date is number 190. So I have been humbled. I thought I was famous enough and I have found people who really care about my cause. So I said we would rather raise one million dollars from one million people than a one off donation for one person. So we are building a school in honor of Emma in Leer, in south Sudan where Emma has been buried in my home town. So that is one of the main things that I'm pushing on. If someone wants to support me in building the school, they can go to a www.gua-africa.org. Now the thing I am working on is my new album. I am coming to New York to perform on Nelson Mandela’s 466 Fall Concert. I am progressing. There are more things happening. I am going to be speaking at a conference and I have a university tour coming up from that.
S: Well, we are about to wrap up in a minute here. Are there any final words that you would like to share with the listeners?
E: Yeah, I would just say like the best investment what you could ever do is invest in a human being, you know. Show them, give them something to eat when they are hungry and show them how to get it, so the next time they don’t knock at your door, but be able to do the same to another person. What is happening in Africa, now in my country, people just give us food to eat and nobody really want to give us things that can help us or show us how to get those things. But that is crippling us as a nation. So, that is what I have to say.
S: Thank you very much for giving me your time and being part of the project today.
E: I have a book out there called "War Child" and a documentary, so if you guys can promote it, that would be good.
S: I haven't got a chance to check it out yet, but that's on the top of my list of things to do. And, well, thank you and I hope you're going to say, Saylove yeah?
E: Yeah. Yo, when it come to Africa, the world don’t care, some poor people have no clothes to wear, some walk naked and some foot bare! This is Emmanuel Jal and you are listening to Saylove! Peace!
S: Thank you, God blessing!
Emmanuel Jal is a Sudenese artist currently based in UK, for more information check out www.emmanueljal.com. Jesaka Saylove is a peace scholar, hip-hop artist, and radio personality. Check her out at www.saylovemusic.com.
Emmanuel Jal is a Sudenese artist currently based in UK, for more information check out www.emmanueljal.com.
Jesaka Saylove is a peace scholar, hip-hop artist, and radio personality. Check her out at www.saylovemusic.com.