There's no answer when the phone rings in Emmanuel Jal's New York City hotel room at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday. He's not asleep though. Jal woke up at 5 a.m. to eat breakfast. He says if you have a light dinner, your hunger wakes you up early the next day. Perhaps that's something he learned after escaping from a child soldier camp. Life wasn't easy growing up in Sudan.
Jal was only 7 when the Sudan People's Liberation Army recruited the child in the midst of a civil war. Jal wanted to join the army; he sought revenge against government soldiers who killed his mother. When SPLA infighting erupted a few years later, Jal and a group of 400 children escaped their camp. Only 16 survived the four-month journey through Africa. Most succumbed to starvation and animal attacks. Jal says he nearly resorted to cannibalism at one point, but was able to survive on a diet of slugs and vultures. By the time a British aid worker, Emma McCune, adopted Jal and brought him to Kenya, he had nearly given up on life. He was 11.
Jal started going to school, but he also developed an interest in music. He found comfort singing in church, and would watch Bob Marley and Tupac Shakur videos on Kenyan TV. Hip-hop eventually became Jal's way to share his story and heal his emotional wounds.
Now in his early 30s, Jal will be in Charlotte on March 29 for a global issues forum at Central Piedmont Community College and a South Sudan benefit concert at Amos' Southend. In his lectures and lyrics, Jal uses his childhood experiences to turn the spotlight on Sudan and other war-torn countries.
"I'm traveling the world asking people to give up something for 30 days, in an effort to raise money for charity," says Jal, who still lives in Kenya. "I would like people to give up one thing — whatever that is, calculate the cost for 30 days and donate it to the cause."
Jal shares his message on his three albums — 2004's Gua, 2005's Ceasefire and 2008's WarChild — as well as a documentary and autobiography, also called WarChild. His lyrical delivery teeters between spoken word and conventional rap. He also has two charity organizations, Gua Africa and We Want Peace. Jal hopes all of his projects will inspire others to help those less fortunate.
"It's educational — social and emotional learning," he says of his music and lectures. "I'm here not because I'm a hero, but because certain people helped me. I'm trying to get people to open up their hearts.
"If you are fortunate enough, you can help to change the world," he continues. "Changing the world doesn't have to be giving money, but maybe your next post on Facebook that inspires someone else. I want to bring a spotlight to areas that need attention. People who fight are people who have nothing."
Jal gets some emotional healing from telling his stories. But one experience he's particularly grateful for was getting opportunities to reconnect with his father and siblings over the last five years. That inspired his yet-to-be-released album, See Me Mama, which includes some love songs.
"It's exhausting to tell my story over and over. I feel my chest tight and congested," Jal says. "When I bring the music element in, it goes away. The adrenaline takes over. Telling my story also has reduced the number of nightmares that I have. Some people just want to hide or bury it. It's better to bring it out and talk about it so human beings can learn from mistakes and from your experiences. The world is shaped by stories."
Jal applauds actor George Clooney for his March 2012 civil disobedience that brought attention to Sudan. Jal says he considers Clooney a hero for using his celebrity status to help various causes. "When the spotlight is on, the enemy knows they are being watched and won't throw bombs," Jal says.
With Jal telling his story in so many formats, he foresees a time when his focus will be his music. "My story will always be on every album I write, to keep me humble. I believe I survived to tell it. I feel like I've reached the point at which I need to stop. I won't talk about it as much because there is so much out there — a book, documentary and album. Maybe it's finally time to focus more on music."
At the CPCC Global Issues Forum. Free. March 29. 11 a.m. Dale F. Halton Theater. www.cpcc.edu.
Raising South Sudan Benefit concert with Dangerous Daze, 42. $8. March 29. 7 p.m. Amos' Southend.