African rapper Emmanuel Jal survived years as a boy soldier, where he learned to kill or be killed. He's now channeled his remarkable life story into his music, the former Lost Boy tells Jim Carroll in advance of his appearance at the Dún Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures
HE STILL gets nightmares. Even now, even after all these years, Emmanuel Jal still wakes up in the middle of the night.
"Bombs going off. Helicopters shooting at me. Other boys dying around me. Getting chased by wild animals. My gun jamming in the middle of a battle."
The images don't have the same effect they once did when they shake the former Sudanese boy-soldier from his slumber. "Now, I wake up and realise that all happened in the past. Everything has changed. I'm now in London." Jal looks around him and smiles. Truly, everything has changed.
It's the hottest day of the year in London and Jal has just finished afternoon tea in the Savoy hotel. On the table there are plates of sandwiches and cakes and a large silver pot of tea. In the background a tuxedo-clad pianist plinks away.
You could not imagine a world more removed from the terror and fear of the Sudanese civil war. Jal was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a 13-year-old marching with the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and fighting a war he didn't understand.
These days, Jal fights his battles in recording studios. Having escaped from Sudan to Kenya, he found refuge in rhymes. He's now a rapper with a brace of fine albums already under his oxter and a growing reputation since he played a storming set at Live8's Africa Calling event last summer.
Jal has spent the last year living in Kilburn, working on a new album, a much anticipated follow-up to Ceasefire, his bewitching collaboration with fellow Sudanese musician Abdel Gadir Salim.
He will continue to tell his story on the new album. "I've done a lot of tracks about the confusion I've felt myself in moving from Africa to London and how everything has changed so quickly. Then, I was hopeless. Now, I'm hopeful. Before, I existed all my life on aid. Now, I'm buying food for myself."
Jal was four years old when war broke out in southern Sudan. His father joined the SPLA and the youngster spent years moving with his mother from village to village to escape the fighting. Sent to a UN refugee camp in Ethiopia, Jal was one of thousands of impressionable schoolkids recruited by the SPLA. By the age of eight he knew what to do with an AK47. By the age of 10 he was running through minefields to get at the enemy. By 13, Jal had seen many of his fellow soldiers turn to cannibalism to survive.
When the SPLA split, Jal and many of his fellow young fighters made their way across the Sudanese bush in search of better conditions. About 400 started out. Three months later, Jal and 11 others reached a military compound in Waat and safety. His first war was over.
He understands why he and his fellow youths made such good fighters.
"When a child sees strangers come into his village to kill and burn, he will seek revenge because these people have hurt the people he loves. He will fight. A child is more faithful than an adult. Once a child makes his mind up, he will not betray you. Life is very clear-cut in a child's mind. When I see Lebanese children on the TV, I can understand the hatred they have for the Israelis."
In Waat, the teenage Jal met Emma McCune, a British woman married to a Sudanese warlord and working for a Canadian children's aid agency. She took Jal under her wing and smuggled him to Kenya on an UN flight. McCune later died in a car-crash, leaving Jal alone again. "She meant the world to me. She saved me - she was like my mother."
Film-makers Tony and Ridley Scott are currently planning a biopic based on the life of the colourful McCune, to star Nicole Kidman. "I hope they will be faithful to what she was like," says Jal softly. "Her story needs to be told right."
It was in Nairobi that Jal heard hip-hop for the first time. "I thought the rappers I was hearing were from Kenya. It took me a while to realise that Tupac, Ice Cube and Nas were American." Jal didn't have a musical background, but he heard something in hip-hop which appealed to him.
"I really liked the way people carried their message. I could hear the bitterness and anger and pain in their music. That interested me and I thought hip-hop was probably the easiest and best way for me to get across my story."
When he started rapping, however, his technique and flow left a lot to be desired. "I had no skills and no one was interested in me because I didn't sound right. I didn't sound like the rappers on the TV or radio. I didn't have the right beats. I had the anger and bitterness, but I didn't have anything else."
But it was exactly because Jal didn't have anything else that he persevered.
"When you've survived a war and you've had a gun pointed at you several times, music means a lot. I really had nothing to live for. I was a hopeless case. All the people who had meant something to me had died. I had seen poverty every day of my life. I was tired of living on aid."
Jal didn't use his Sudanese war experiences to get attention. "I didn't tell people my story when I was starting out. I hated myself and what I had gone through. I battled on a pure musical level. I wanted people to accept me just on the basis of my music, so my songs were about the realities around me and about giving thanks to God."
His story finally emerged when he had a hit in Kenya. "The BBC began to talk about me and people wanted to know more about me and where I was from. That's when I began to talk about being a refugee from Sudan, and I think a lot of people in Kenya were shocked when they found out what I had gone through."
The move to London has brought new challenges, he says. "One thing which has happened to me a lot here is getting stopped by the police. Why? What have I done? I fly to a different city and I'm taken out of the queue to be searched or detained. Why?"
He sighs wearily. "It's a different kind of frustration and I can see how it affects people. The poverty in London is more depressing. In Africa, people are not depressed even when they are hungry. Here, the system is so congested that people feel as if they're behind walls. People will do anything to survive and to make money. It's a different war."
Jal is constantly observing what's going on in this new world. Living in London, he says, means he is learning more about life with every passing day. And it's given him a new perspective on what he went through in Sudan.
"See, I was bitter once," he says. "I wanted to kill as many men as possible when I was a child and was trained as a soldier. I wanted to kill Muslims and Arabs. I was so angry because our villages had been burnt down and our cattle slaughtered and our neighbours butchered.
"Getting to Kenya was a blessing because I realised I was just one of thousands who had suffered in this way. I learned how to forgive. Someone like Nelson Mandela inspired me. He spent years in jail and when he came out, he didn't go back to war, he started working for peace and understanding. I want to do that with my music."
Emmanuel Jal plays Coastline, Dún Laoghaire on August 27th as part of the Festival of World Cultures