Refugee to rapper: an interview with Emanuel Jal

Emmanuel Jal's rise from refugee status to world-renowed rapper is an inspiration to African children. In this exclusive interview with WFP's Jennifer Mizgata, the former child soldier from southern Sudan explains why education holds the key to unlocking the potential of the world's poor and hungry people.

Emmanuel Jal, one of the hottest rappers to come out of Africa, is a former child soldier from southern Sudan who uses his talent and fame to give a voice to the hungry poor, especially the children, in Africa.


When I make music, I keep in mind some hungry tots … that’s what makes my music, my music. I put my hunger into my music.

Emmanuel Jal

Jal’s childhood was shaped by conflict in his homeland that propelled him and thousands of other young boys on a long and dangerous journey through war, pestilence and famine in Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. The heart-wrenching saga of “The Lost Boys” – a name borrowed from the Peter Pan story – has since been featured in books, films and news media, while its spirit – and pain - are expressed through Jal’s music.


In this exclusive interview with WFP’s Jennifer Mizgata, Jal explains why he believes education is the key to transforming people and societies.

Much of your advocacy work focuses on southern Sudan, which you recently visited for the first time since a peace accord was signed in 2005, ending decades of war. What does your homeland need to develop?

In Sudan, there is high illiteracy (Editor's note: the United Nations human development report estimates 60 percent literacy in Sudan). We are very much behind. Southern Sudan is a post-conflict zone and needs rehabilitation.

The reason Africa is behind is because it is not educated. The corruption and the wars in Africa, they come because people are not educated. The only way to fight poverty is through education - so people know what they have. Education is enlightenment, triggering creativity.

You recently visited WFP sites in both southern Sudan and Kenya. What left the biggest impression?

I was away from southern Sudan for some 20 years, and when I returned I was amazed to see all those people, seeing all those bags of food there … these people (aid workers) are dedicated. It’s not easy to pay them back. It’s encouraging, but depressing too. How long are we going to be fed on aid? Realising people have been sending food all these years made me step back and say “Wow.”

Now, when I make music, I keep in mind some hungry tots … that’s what makes my music, my music. I put my hunger into my music.

The World Food Programme worked extensively through southern Sudan and refugee camps in neighboring countries throughout the long civil war. Do you have any memories of WFP from when you were a kid?

When I was in refugee camp in Ethiopia, I was able to take some classes. It was not easy; we were so many thousands of kids in the camp. WFP and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) brought food, but at first we didn’t know how to cook it. Later, they showed us how to cook… The best thing one can do is invest in human life, physically or spiritually. Physically, to feed them, teach them how, and spiritually, to give them faith.

You've been working with Gua Africa (see sidebox on background) for some time now, but it seems like things are really taking off. Can you tell me more about it?

In my country, people are hungry for knowledge. You see them under the trees, learning. GUA Africa will focus first on building schools. WFP will help us build them with a Food For Work programme. We have the land. I recently visited and toured the 40 acres of land with community leaders. We are also starting a polytechnical school, where people can learn agricultural and mechanical skills. We also will teach more creative things and community development.


Emanuel Jal standing with stacks of bags from WFP
Last January, Emanuel Jal visited the Lokichoggio logistics hub in Kenya, a vital centre for sending food assistance into southern Sudan, where Jal once served as a child solder.

We are creating partnerships with many people. For example, there is a woman who wants to come teach how to make bread, so then they can make their own bread at the school every day. There are teachers from Oxford (University) who are interested. We’re just lacking the funds.


We want to find sponsors for each child, maybe US$500 per kid, and use the money to hire highly skilled teachers. We could put a hotel by one of the schools and the sponsors could come on holiday and see the kids they’re sponsoring. It’d be a great holiday place, they could come see the lions, sleep in a nice place and the hotel would have an income. It could be a business, but 20 percent of the funding should go back to the school, and to higher education. In five years, we want the school to be independent from Gua.

Then we’ll start other projects, maybe a university in the same place, showing the project to other villages to continue our work.

How do you personally work to make change and have a positive impact?

I used to visit schools, but then I realised that was just a drop in the ocean. Now I sponsor eight kids in Kenya, so they can go to high school. A percentage of the money that goes to GUA, goes to sponsoring kids in school. I know that if I sell millions of CDs, I can go back home and I can make change.

What do you see as the role of music in creating change?

Music is powerful. Music is like love: it’s the only thing that can enter your mind without your permission. It plays a part in uniting people. Everyone wants to dance. It’s universal.

I was reunited with my family through my music. My sister heard me on the BBC and for the first time, she knew I was alive. It took some time to meet up, she travelled to Kenya. Music can change things. I use it to fight stress, transform my anger. I take that energy and put it into music.

On creating music: Do you write your own songs? How has your past influenced your music?


My heart goes out to the ex-child soldiers. They have no skills. That’s the difference between where I am now and where I was then.


I write my own songs and I co-write a lot. I have ideas for the music and the beats and then I go to the studio and they put that together for me. Personally, making music has helped me overcome my traumas; it’s healing. I started talking about my past in the past few years … It’s through the music that I deal with my past, using it to sacrifice my pride.


I speak on behalf of other child soldiers who have no voice, explaining the truth. My heart goes out to the ex-child soldiers. They have no skills; the only thing that they knew was to go fight. They haven’t been trained to do anything else. That’s the difference between where I am now and where I was then.

Who are your mentors?

Emma [McCune, a humanitarian worker] was my angel. She fed me, took me to school, paid my school fees. She was doing it from the heart. She invested in me by putting me into a British school. That’s why I’m effective. Now, I get a lot of support from people in the [music] industry. Peter Gabriel is a great mentor and friend. He goes around, asks a lot of his friends to pay attention and really listen to me.

I’m still learning a lot. My mind is still empty. I’m listening to everything and not tired of learning.

Looking ahead, what do you hope to see happen in your country - for young people there and in the rest of Africa?

We need to make positive history- to learn how to run the economy and businesses. Now, anyone with a university degree becomes famous in Africa. People think that anyone who is educated can be president, even if the degree is in food, or if the person is a doctor. I speak English, and people have asked me to be governor. It’s not like that: not everyone is made for politics. I want to stick with my music.

With those who become successful, I ask them to give back. We are educating people and looking for businesses to sponsor programmes. Our next ideas are to start microfinance programs. There are many ways to raise awareness and make change.