Make the personal political by listening to the fascinating Emmanuel Jal, an ex-child soldier turned rap artist profiled in this Cadillac Award-winning TFF '08 documentary. Catch it this week at the Village East Cinemas in New York. Bonus: Enter to win a copy of Jal's CD and a DVD of the film!
GUA Africa is the charity founded by Jal. From a young age, he's been sponsoring the education of other young Africans. At one point he was supporting 8 kids, and, moved by his example, his friends, the documentary producers, and a whole host of others began sponsoring the education of African children as well.
To hear it from Jal, "We support survivors of war. We like putting kids into schools. I believe in education. It enlightens people. They can grab that opportunity and fly. It's a different kind of sponsoring. It's a different kind of relationship with that kid. You have a role in their life. We have a house in Nairobi, and when we go to refugee camps, we send kids to that house. When I went to Leer for War Child, I said that we need a school down there. That's the one that we need funding for. We just sent a team down to South Sudan for it."
When sending a donation to GUA, please specify whether that donation should go towards the school in Leer or specifically towards helping a child. Jal estimates that the costs of sponsoring a child can range from $600-$1000 a year.
It's very easy to acknowledge that the political situation in Darfur and Sudan is messed up, particularly when you're reading about it from the safe distance of a newspaper. The profound trick of C. Karim Chrobog's documentary War Child, which won the Cadillac Award at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, is that by meeting and following Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier turned successful rap artist, the terror and inhumanity of Darfur and Sudan become vividly real in this young man's fascinating, horrifying, tragic, and ultimately inspiring life story.
The Cadillac Award is voted for by the audience of the Festival; as a result, it's a telling prize that points out a truly moving, must-see work that has affected the viewers, and War Child fits firmly within that tradition. (War Child and Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary of similar importance and urgency, were locked in a tight battle.)
With the film set to open this weekend, Tribeca trekked up to the lobby of the Hudson Hotel to meet with Jal, fresh off a flight from London. We found a slim, good-looking ball of energy, eager to talk further about the film, his music, his charity work, and his plans for the future.
Tribeca: How did you get involved in this documentary?
Emmanuel Jal: Chrobog and his team were planning to make a documentary on how hip-hop has affected the world. They turned on CNN and saw me, and then it changed. What scared me was that all their names were Muslim, and I had thought they'll screw up my story. But don't judge a book by its cover. Different people had contacted me before, offering me money and offering to make me famous, and this was the right team.
Tribeca: What was it like watching that footage of you at the refugee camp? [Vintage, heartbreaking footage of an about eight-year-old Jal makes up an important part of the movie.]
EJ: They showed it to me at a surprise screening. It caught my heart. I couldn't believe it. I see myself as a little kid. I was saying I want to go to America, and I did.
Tribeca: What was it like after Emma [McCune, the aid worker who smuggled him away from the soldier's life] passed away?
EJ: It was a big struggle. I couldn't afford going to school and I was kicked out. I had high blood pressure, I had ulcers, my hair was turning grey. I was thirteen. An adult found a grey hair on my head. He cried, "You're young and you think these thoughts and you have a grey hair."
Tribeca: How is it to talk about your life and these struggles? It seems impossible [as an aside, it was difficult to talk in person with Jal about his life as a child soldier—you could see the light go out in his eyes].
EJ: When I see the reaction it makes in people, it makes me want to help more. Especially when people say I want to help with this situation. If I keep quiet about it, what would people do? And I'll still suffer. When I talk about it, people help.
Tribeca: What role has education played in your life?
EJ: Education has made me positive. I came from a background where I hated Muslims and Arabs, because all I'd known is what they'd done to my village, trashing, killing, and raping. When I went to Kenya with Emma I got to read the Koran. Spiritually, it's a book that preaches goodness, positivity, and humanity. By opening my eyes and ears, education has helped me heal quickly.
Tribeca: You were studying engineering?
EJ: I had to drop out of school in the middle of my studies because I couldn't afford it. Music is what I took with me. What music does for me, it's where I put out my pain. It's therapy for me. I get lost [when performing]. What I could not fully give with my vocals, I give with the movement of my body, from dancing.
Tribeca: Can you tell me a little bit about your albums so far?
EJ: I have a gospel album called Gua. Ceasefire is the collaboration between me and [Sudanese Muslim musician] Abdel Gadir Salim. That was big. I had hated Muslims. These people used to kill my people. And now I'm going to sing with them? That's deep. And then there's Warchild, which was a big therapy in my life, a personal testament. If I was just telling the story alone, I wouldn't reach anybody. The Washington Post said that my album "set the bar for hip-hop higher."
Tribeca: What do you think of American hip hop?
EJ: I love the old school. It's got so much weight and the guys in the old school were affecting their community and bringing change. When the work was done, then commercial hip-hop happened. I like Mos Def. I like Talib Kwali. I like Common. I like Will.i.am—he's doing commercial music but still conscious.
Tribeca: The evolution of hip-hop from that Chuck D quote, "it's the black CNN," to where commercial hip-hop is now has to be frustrating.
EJ: We need to make kids understand that it's acting, it's not real. These rappers live in a world that doesn't exist. If a kid is constantly seeing violence, the development of their brain is affected. They have a character or demon possess them... Sorry if I sound like a preacher. When I was in Africa, I listened to Tupac explaining his pain. I could relate to him. I could relate to his story. I thought he was a Kenyan. Where I come from, we raid villages and take their food.
Tribeca: How much does it cost to sponsor a child with GUA [see sidebar for details]?
EJ: It varies from about $600 a year to $1000. It depends on what you want to give them. You haven't adopted them but you're helping them. Emma helped 150 kids. Even if your money's not clean—nobody's clean—but if you do something about it it makes your money clean. My theory is it doesn't matter who you are if you're helping a child. Think about what that kid is going to get. Only the good things that we do will change the world.
Tribeca: You played at Nelson Mandela's birthday celebration this summer. What was that like?
EJ: A life-changing event. I learn a lot from what he does. It's an opportunity, that platform. It went down well and people were inspired by it. Crying, happy, and dancing. I met a lot of people there: Oprah Winfrey, I met Clinton at the toilet, Robert De Niro and his wife, and Will Smith.
Tribeca: What do you think about Barack Obama's election?
EJ: Nobody knows how big this is, it'll bring healing to a lot of black communities. He knows the ghetto. He knows the pain. This is big for Africa. What it'll do to Africa. People are still partying in Africa. It gives me more hope that people will listen to my message. I'm someone who's coming out of Africa, speaking up. I believe in people, I believe people have the power to change things.
Discover: the music of Emmanuel Jal with the video for "War Child."