Award-winning hip hop artist, activist, author, and former lost boy Jal Jok, better known as Emmanuel Jal, was born around 1980 in Sudan and experienced trauma early. When he was seven years old, soldiers killed his mother—the first of many of his family to die at government hands. After his father joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army or SPLA, Jal sought refuge in Ethiopia along with thousands of other children, and ended up enslaved by the SPLA as a child soldier—the so-called “lost boys.”
Jal eventually escaped to the town of Waat where he met a British aid worker named Emma McCune who was married to SPLA commander, and future South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar. After adopting Jal, McCune took him to Kenya for education, but she herself died in a vehicle accident only months later, and he soon found himself living in the slums of Nairobi.
It was there that Jal discovered hip hop and devoted his life to political art, particularly to engaging the struggles of South Sudan, and became an international star. He’s released six albums including Gua, Ceasefire, Warchild, Emmanuel Jal’s 4th Studio Album, See Me Mama, and The Key. He’s the author of the autobiography War Child, has appeared in a biographical documentary of the same name, and has acted in the feature film Africa United, as well as in the controversial movie The Good Lie, directed by Ron Howard and starring Reese Witherspoon; 54 Sudanese refugees have sued the film’s producers for exploiting them.
For clarity’s sake, note that Jal uses the acronym SPLA to refer to the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, which fought the Omar al Bashir government based in Khartoum, before South Sudan seceded with the city of Juba as its capitol.
I began our discussion by asking Jal what his life is like in Toronto, given the widespread racial profiling by police there, including the infamous “carding” system in which police, apparently as a matter of policy, stop all African men to demand identification.