Emmanuel Jal at TEDGlobal 2009: Running notes from Session 8

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Emmanuel Jal at TEDGlobal 2009, Session 8: July 23, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

Emmanuel Jal, a tall, dreadlocked young man takes the stage and introduces himself as a rapper. It’s unusual to have a rapper at TED, but as Jal tells his story it’s obvious that he’s not your usual rapper.

Jal was born in Sudan, he explains, and he calls himself a child of war. His youth was characterized by violence. As he starts to tell the stories of his childhood, the audience is palpably silent. He says that he watched his aunt raped, his mother was “claimed by the war” and his brothers and sisters scattered everywhere. He does not know where any of them are now. At eight, he became a child soldier because he was angry. He wanted to avenge his family, his mother.

Now, he chants a powerful poem about his time as a child soldier, that begins “My dreams are like torment …” The audience is transfixed.

After the poem, he continues speaking. He says that what kept him going was the music. He never had access to therapy. Music was his therapy. He says that music can can influence the way you live without knowing it. “Music is the only thing that can enter your sound system, then your head, your heart, your soul,” he declares. The power of music is the power of love, he continues. He explains that he found a way to bond to with Arabs after everything, through listening to Arab music.

Then, this well-off rapper explains to the audience that today is his 233rd day where he only eats one meal a day, at dinnertime. He donates his breakfast and lunch to his charity, Gua Africa. Also, he says, no-one in his village can eat breakfast or lunch, and so he won’t either until they can. He says that people have been donating to the cause, sometimes as little as 20 cents, and he appreciates it all.

Jal explains that to him, education is so important that he’s willing to die for it. As a nation, he says, Sudan has been crippled for so many years. If anybody wants to help, he encourages that they give tools not aid. Invest in education, he pleads, so that they can have strong institutions for the new generations. “All those old men who are creating wars in Africa they will die soon,” he declares.

Then, he announces that he is going to perform a song dedicated to Emma McCune, an aid worker who he says, “is the reason I am here.” McCune rescued over 150 child soldiers during her short life, and Jal was one of them. Jal makes the audience stand and instructs them to dance. He gives a highly energetic, rousing performance of the song, thrashing his dreadlocks and chanting with a poignant mixture of joy and reverence for the woman who changed his life. It’s more than enough to bring a person to tears.

Chris Anderson joins him on stage for quick Q&A. Jal explains that McCune smuggled him out at great risk. “I’m going to build a school in honor of her in my village,” he says.