This month the album Help: A Day In The Life, recorded in just 24 hours by a roster of artists including Radiohead and Coldplay, became the biggest-selling download album ever. All the proceeds go to the charity War Child, which assists children affected by violent conflicts all over the world. The musicians involved have rallied to that cause, but only one fully understands the appalling realities of its mission: Emmanuel Jal, onetime child soldier in Sudan and now a fast-rising star of African rap.
Jal's new album, Ceasefire, released in Britain this week, is an appeal for peace, rather than money. And although he's now a powerful spokesman for campaigns like Make Poverty History and the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, it was Jal's music a blend of old and new Africa that got him on the bill at this summer's Live 8 concert. For any other young performer, an appearance at a blockbuster like Live 8 would be a high point. In Jal's case, it's one of the least dramatic events in his life so far.
A child of war, Jal has painfully vivid memories of his earliest years. Yet certain details, like when he was born, got lost on the way. "Normally, I give the date of Jan. 1, 1980. But ask 50,000 child soldiers and they will all tell you Jan. 1," Jal says with a chuckle and a flap of his long, expressive hands. He's remembering his friends, with whom he was sent, aged about 7, to Ethiopia to escape the vicious civil war between Sudan's Christian south, where he was born, and the Muslim north.
In Ethiopia, the boys were given books and English lessons, but when the aid agencies weren't looking, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (spla) gave them AK-47s and uniforms and sent them into battle, first in Ethiopia and then in southern Sudan. Jal, a 9-year-old officer with the passion of a freedom fighter, rarely saw the face of his enemies, who mostly attacked the child fighters with gunships and shells. "Young people are so brave when they go to fight," he says. "Before, you are afraid, but when you shoot you get that strength. What they don't know is, you can die at once."
When the spla's factions turned on each other, Jal and about 400 other boys trekked out in search of safety. Weeks later, when they reached a rival rebel camp in Waat, they numbered fewer than a dozen; the rest had died from fighting, starvation, animal attacks and suicides. It was at this camp that Jal met Emma McCune, a British aid worker who took a shine to the boy, adopted him and smuggled him onto a flight to a new life in Nairobi. Three months later she died in a road accident. (Nicole Kidman is soon to play McCune in a biopic by director Tony Scott.)
Ironically, with no gun to bolster his courage Jal found Nairobi a frightening place. Remembering how, in the worst hours of his desert trek, his prayers to "the God of my Mother" had been answered, he started going to church and joined the gospel choir. He had a vision telling him to use his voice to ease his pain. His inspiration may have been divine but he chose to express himself in the earthy rhythms of American hip-hop. When Jal started rapping in church, the congregation wasn't so sure. But in 2004, when he released his single Gua, on which he raps in Arabic, English, Dinka and his native Nuer, all of Kenya went crazy for it; it stayed at No. 1 there for eight weeks. Although Jal is widely described as a Christian rapper, he dreams of secular peace in Sudan, of a day "When my people will plant seed in their land/ When my people will be free in the land."
That message resonated with Abdel Gadir Salim, a 58-year-old traditional Arab singer and oud (a type of lute) player from northern Sudan whose own fight for freedom that of musical expression under Shari'a law has also been bloody: he was injured by a knife-wielding Islamic militant in 1994. Salim invited Jal to collaborate with him on Ceasefire 10 songs that reach across their religious, cultural and age divides. On Lemon Bara, Salim sings like a poet of "tears that water the drought," while Jal rides the percussion of Aiwa with the rap, "If you got love, you got the victory." Together on Ya Salam, they greet Sudan's fragile new peace as a time to draw breath.
Sung in the many tongues of Africa, wedding ancient rhythms to modern youthful optimism, Ceasefire is a reminder that peace needs open ears as well as open wallets. It helps that it's also one of the freshest and funkiest albums around.