Peace nomad Emmanuel Jal pushes conscious rap

Former child soldier endlessly tours, turning pain into positivity

Since fleeing his turbulent beginnings as a child soldier in Sudan’s decades-long civil war, Emmanuel Jal has risen on the international stage through his thought-provoking music and tireless advocacy work. Laced in African beats, hip-hop, and reggae, Jal uses music to transform the pain of his past into positivity for the future. His “We Want Peace” campaign and accompanying tracks by the same name have landed celebrity endorsements from the likes of Alicia Keys, DMC, Ringo Starr, former president Jimmy Carter, members of Das Racist, O.A.R., and others. For more than a year Jal has lived a nomadic life, spreading his message of peace around the globe while learning the ropes of being a “modern-day prophet” from the Dalai Lama and anyone else with knowledge to lend.

How did you get involved with peace advocacy and music?

It’s my history that has put me into this platform. I’m using hip-hop as a way of speaking and writing down the history of events that happened in my country and bring my experience of what war has done — 2.8 million people died. All my aunties died in that war, including my mom. We had a government that wanted to wipe out everybody, so the pain of the past is the energy I’m trying to convert into positivity through hip-hop. Advocacy came first. When I left my village people asked, “Where are you from?” and “What happened?” So I started telling the story, and have been telling it since I was 7 years old.

Why use music to help spread your message?

If you look at conscious hip-hop — how hip-hop began — it was therapy. It was a way for the community to speak out. Hip-hop being associated with violence is the one side that’s been marketed and that many people are aware of. Most conscious hip-hop isn’t being shown. Any person living in a violent place wouldn’t dream of more violence. They’d always dream about peace and children going to school. Someone who has not lived through violence only assumes to be violent. They just want to be heroes and create stories.

How has your perspective changed since your last album and what inspired you to create See Me Mama?

Warchild was about telling the story and writing about events. This album is about celebration.

How does American culture differ from the other places you’ve visited around the world?

Music culture is always the same. The music that you hear shows how the culture is, really. Artists are like modern-day prophets: They are emotional leaders, they lead people, when people are upset they make them happy, they entertain them. People see one’s self.

All of human kind’s lifestyles are the same. If you listen to the lyrics from music in any culture you may actually be shocked. Some lyrics are almost exactly the same in translation. Almost the same in love songs, or violence, or boasting yourself as a great person.

What do you hope people take away from your music and lectures?

What I’m bringing is what I’ve learned from different people inspiring me to be positive. I just try to make something a little different to inspire. So I’m going to perform, share my experience through the music, entertain, and be a blessing.

I try to get myself out of my box of belief. I’m a Christian, but as I try to mingle with other people I try to be a human being, you know? I try to respect every other person’s religion just like Dalai Lama was saying, when we met yesterday. For him to try to make a difference in the world he has to put his Buddhism aside and step out as a human being, so he can sit together with a Muslim, a Christian, and just be human beings.