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From child soldier to hip-​​hop star

Emmanuel Jal struts, shim­mies, and shakes his lithe frame with the flu­idity and assur­ance of a rock and roll star.

His shoulder-​​length locks sway from side to side as he belts out the chorus to “We Want Peace,” an up-​​tempo hip-​​hop number that calls for an end to vio­lence in the Sudan. “I’m calling on the whole wide world,” he howls, as approx­i­mately 100 North­eastern Uni­ver­sity stu­dents clap and move in lock­step with the groove. “Let’s scream and shout, cause we want peace.”

Jal’s music is the medium through which he pro­motes his phi­los­ophy of “jus­tice, equality, and freedom for all.” On Thursday evening in 20 West Vil­lage F, he recounted his story, a har­rowing journey from child sol­dier in the Sudan People’s Lib­er­a­tion Army in the late 1980s to inter­na­tional hip-​​hop star and human­i­tarian of the Internet age.

The two-​​hour event was the latest install­ment of the North­eastern Students4Giving (NS4G) Social Impact Lec­ture Series and was spon­sored by the Arthur K. Watson Char­i­table Trust.

In her opening remarks, Rebecca Riccio, founding pro­gram director of NS4G, called Jal “one of a handful of people in the world whose humanity is so deep that it tran­scends lan­guage, cul­ture, and geography.”

Jal’s story is one of tragic loss, rebirth, and human­i­tar­i­anism, a tale of finding light in the heart of dark­ness. He has shared his plight with thou­sands of people, from pris­oners in Mexico to rapt audi­ences at global con­fer­ences like TED. In 2008, he founded the Lose to Win Chal­lenge, with the goal of raising 1.6 mil­lion pounds to sup­port edu­ca­tion, aware­ness, and pos­i­tive change in Africa and around the world.

“If you lack playing a part in giving back to mother Earth,” he explains, “then you are going to be a very sad person.”

Jal’s sad­ness dates back to the tumult of his sev­enth year. Fol­lowing his mother’s death in the Second Sudanese Civil War, he was recruited by the SPLA and taken from the Southern Sudan vil­lage of Tonj to a mil­i­tary training camp in Ethiopia. When war broke out in the land­locked country, he rejoined the army’s fight against the gov­ern­ment in the Sudanese town of Juba.

He later escaped and embarked on a three-​​month journey to the town of Watt, where a British aid worker named Emma McCune smug­gled him into Kenya and enrolled him in school for the first time. But the voyage to deliv­er­ance proved near fatal. Sup­plies were scarce and food com­prised snails, snakes and vul­tures. Starving, he once told a dying friend that he would be forced to resort to can­ni­balism in order to survive.

Fate inter­vened, according to Jal, a man of strong faith. “I prayed that I would get some­thing to eat, and if I sur­vived I would give God credit,” he says. “A crow came and I ate it from the feathers to the intestines.” Jal lived.

Fol­lowing his lec­ture, he fielded ques­tions posed by stu­dents in the audi­ence, many of whom were struck by his light-​​hearted story-​​telling approach and spastic dance moves. One stu­dent asked Jal how he copes with the pit­falls of fame. “Sin is fun,” he replied, and then added, “How you choose to resist shows what kind of strength you have.”

– by Jason Kornwitz

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