You Say You Want a Revolution: Emmanuel Jal Speaks

You Say You Want a Revolution: Emmanuel Jal Speaks

Sudanese rapper and writer Emmanuel Jal is a child of war. The internationally acclaimed hip-hop star is celebrated for his electrifying concerts and albums, songs written about his homeland and his history amongst the violence and horror of civil war. Alongside his musical appearance for the Melbourne Festival, he joins writer and broadcaster Alicia Sometimes for this discussion about peace and reconciliation, his experiences as a child soldier and survivor, and his memoir War Child.

Jal’s life was touched by tragedy early. In the midst of Sudan’s civil war, surrounded by heinous violence, he yearned for education for instead ended up a child soldier. He speaks of being inspired by the strength of his mother amidst the terror he saw being meted out on his entire family.

The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army provided hope for those like Jal who sought security and empowerment, but training to become a soldier often proved brutal. From lashing one’s friends to killing people, Jal describes the process of “brainwashing” recruits to become better fighters, and ruminates on the “lifetime battle” with the ghosts of those upon whom revenge was exacted.

Jal explains the debt of gratitude he owes to Emma McCune, a British aid worker who smuggled him to Kenya in a treacherous journey that included brushes with cannibalism. He describes how she persuaded him to abandon his gun and take up the pen instead, and how he was initially suspicious upon encountering his first flush toilet.

Moving to the topic of music, Jal recalls his first experiences with song, including his group JAEEEM, and the inspiration he drew from US rapper P. Diddy.

Jal also discusses the difference between African and modern rhythms, providing a vocal example of African style. He talks about the difficulties he had adjusting his technique to match the less flowing structure of contemporary pop and hip-hop music.

The artist goes on to explain his objections to the negativity of some American hip-hop and describes finding his affinity with conscious hip-hop, also stating the difficulty for conscious rappers to draw a living wage from their work. He also talks about getting Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan and Richard Branson “rapping” alongside George Clooney and Alicia Keys on the track ‘We Want Peace’, and the valuable support he received from Peter Gabriel.

Elsewhere, Jal argues that “Sudan is where all the NGOs ran out of ideas”. Hope for Sudan now, he says, rests on its leaders realising the importance of leadership skills such as responsibility and accountability.

The musician reflects on dreams and how they change over time, and on the emotional power of music, adding, “Music is the place where I get to see heaven again.”

Jal ends the session with a spoken word performance of ‘Emma McCune’.

Presented in partnership with the Melbourne Festival.


Portrait of Emmanuel Jal

Emmanuel Jal

Emmanuel Jal was born into the life of a child soldier in the war-torn region of Southern Sudan and later emerged as a recording artist, achieving worldwide acclaim for his unique style of hip hop with its message of peace and reconciliation.

Portrait of Alicia Sometimes

Alicia Sometimes

Alicia Sometimes is an Australian writer and broadcaster. She has performed her spoken word and poetry at many venues, festivals and events around the world. Her poems have been in Best Australian Science Writing, Best Australian Poems, Overland, Southerly, Meanjin, the Age, ABC TV's Sunday Arts and more. She is a co-host of the Outer Sanctum podcast (ABC podcasts and radio). 

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