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Ex-child soldier raps about hellish life

  • Story Highlights
  • Former child soldier in Sudan becomes rap star
  • "Rap music is amazing," says Emmanuel Jal
  • Jal was one of 12 survivors out of 400 child soldiers who left
  • "I survived for a reason"
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By Jill Dougherty
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When he was a little boy in Sudan, singer Emmanuel Jal's mother was killed. Soldiers raped his sister. At the age of 9, filled with longings for revenge, he became a child soldier.

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Emmanuel Jal was a child soldier in Sudan. Here, he talks about rapping.

"I had a lot of hatred, I had a lot of bitterness," he says.

But despite his beyond-brutal background, the dreadlocked Jal is gentle, almost shy. He's tall and skinny with a blinding smile.

As one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan, he has traveled a road of pain many people cannot imagine, survived against all odds and come back to become an artist, rapping about those experiences.

He recently took his tour to the Washington club, Ibiza. As his group ran through a sound check, he said rap has provided him an outlet to deal with his boyhood suffering. He has transformed it.

"Rap music is amazing, it's beautiful," he says. "But the problem is the lyrics. The person who writes the lyrics, that's the problem." Video Watch a child soldier's song »

That night, a spotlight fell on the stage where Jal rapped. The darkened hall was full of young, successful-looking Washingtonians. It was a fascinating scene and one couldn't help but wonder: How can this audience possibly understand where he's coming from?

"My dreams are like torment,
My every moment.
Voices of my brain
Of friends that were slain,
Friends who died by my side of starvation
In the burning jungle and the desert plain.
But Jesus heard my cry
I was tempted to eat the rotten flesh of my comrade."

Jal was born in southern Sudan. He thinks the year was 1980. He's not sure of the exact date. The region was engulfed in a civil war as rebels from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) began fighting for independence and control of the country's oil.

His father became a rebel. His mother was killed. He says government soldiers raped his sister three times. Jal ended up in a United Nations refugee camp.

But SPLA rebels recruited the boys, and Jal became a child soldier. He slept with an AK-47.

He was filled with rage. "That's why I agreed to be trained as a child soldier. Wanting to [get] revenge because I've witnessed my mom beaten in my face. I've witnessed my auntie getting raped. I've seen my village burned down. And that's so much bitterness, wanting to know who's this person doing all these things."

He eventually became one of the so-called "Lost Boys" of Sudan -- 400 boys who left the rebel forces and tried to hike to safety. It took months. Many of the boys drowned and were eaten by crocodiles. He says his friend died and that he, starving, was almost reduced to cannibalism.

Of the 400 boys, only 12 survived, he says. Jal was rescued by a young British aid worker named Emma McCune. She smuggled him into Kenya aboard an aid flight.

McCune, who died in 1993 in a car crash, was like a mother to him. On the recent night he performed in Washington, he opened the concert with a song in her memory.

"I believe I survived for a reason," he sings, "to touch lives."

In Kenya, Jal went to school. As a child soldier, he says, "My desire was to kill as many Arabs as possible, as many Muslims as possible. But things change."

But in Kenya he saw Muslims and Christians living together. He made Muslim friends. He began singing and found his voice in rap. "I allowed myself, opened my heart to learn many things, then it helped me to overcome the bitterness, so I managed to forgive."

He started concerts for homeless children in Nairobi. He put out a single paid for by supporters. Another song, "Gua", which means "power" in Arabic, streaked to the top of the charts in Kenya. He sings in five languages: English, Swahili, Arabic, Dinka and Nuer.

He recorded an album with Sudanese Muslim musician and singer Abdel Gadir Salim. His popularity spread to Europe.

"Music," he says, "it's the only thing that can enter your system, your mind, your heart, without your permission. And it's something that's a food for people's souls, and it heals."

On this night, Jal stood on stage, closed his eyes, and once more he became a 9-year-old boy toting an AK-47:

"The music I used to hear was bombs and guns,
So many people die that I don't even cry no more.
I ask God the question: What am I here for?
Why are my people poor?
I ate snails, roaches rats, frogs -- anything that had life.
I know it's a shame,
But who's to blame?"

At the corners of the stage were woven baskets with signs attached saying, "Support Gua Africa so kids can be kids, not soldiers." Gua Africa is Jal's foundation, formed to raise money to build schools in Africa. His family still lives in Sudan and in Kenya.

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Sometimes, Jal says, he's shocked to think he's come this far: A rap star, living in London. His life story the subject of a documentary. A recording contract with an independent Los Angeles-based label.

His face turns serious: "If there's a situation and it didn't kill you at that moment and you managed to stand and overcome it," he says, "then it's going to be a blessing to you." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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