At Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday concert, Peter Gabriel called him an artist "with a potential of a young Bob Marley."
Jal was born in Southern Sudan in the early 1980s. When he was about 7, he was sent to Ethiopia, to be trained to fight in the Sudanese civil war. For nearly five years, he was a child soldier, put into battle carrying an AK-47 that was taller than him. By the time he was 13, Jal was a war veteran and had seen hundreds of fellow boys reduced to taking unspeakable measures as they struggled to survive on the battlefields and in the desert.
After a series of harrowing events, he was rescued by a British aid worker, Emma McCune, who smuggled him into Nairobi to raise him as her own. Tragically, his newly found mother died in a car accident a year later.
To help ease the pain of his past, Jal started singing. In 2005 he released his first album, Gua, with the title track broadcast by BBC across Africa and becoming a No. 1 hit in Kenya. Gua also earned him a spot on Bob Geldof's "Live 8" concert in the UK. His next album, Ceasefire, was recorded in collaboration with established Northern Sudanese singer Abdel Gadir Salim. For the first time, musicians from the north and the south of Sudan came to explore their common ground. Emmanuel Jal's latest album, Warchild, was released in May 2008 and was recognized by the U.S. National Public Radio as one of the top 10 African albums of that year.
Despite his accomplishments in music, Jal's biggest passion is for Gua Africa. Besides building schools, the nonprofit provides scholarships for Sudanese war survivors in refugee camps, and sponsors education for children in the most deprived slum areas in Nairobi. For almost a year now, Jal has been eating one meal a day in his campaign to build a school in Leer, Southern Sudan, where Emma McCune is resting.
Emmanuel Jal's music can be heard in the movie Blood Diamond, the National Geographic documentary God Grew Tired of Us and in three episodes of ER. He has been featured in Time Magazine, USA Today, the Washington Post, Newsweek.com, and on NPR, CNN, Fox, MTV, and the BBC. Jal is a spokesman for Amnesty International and Oxfam, has done work for Save the Children, UNICEF, World Food Programme, Christian Aid and other charities, and has his own charitable foundation, Gua Africa.
A documentary about Jal's life, War Child, premiered to acclaim at the February 2008 Berlin Film Festival and the April 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. His autobiography under the same name was published in the UK and the United States in the early 2009.
Jal has won worldwide acclaim for his unique style of hip hop with its message of peace and reconciliation born out of his experiences as a child soldier.
His music can be heard alongside Coldplay, Gorillaz, and Radiohead on the fundraising "Warchild - Help a Day in the Life" album, and on John Lennon's "Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur" amongst the likes of U2, REM and Lenny Kravitz.
He was hailed by the international media as the highlight of Nelson Mandela's birthday concert in 2008. In February 2009, he rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange, commemorating the U.S. Black History Month.