Emmanuel Jal’s early life in Southern Sudan is one that most do not have the capacity to imagine or comprehend. As a child-soldier in his war-torn country of Sudan during the early 1980’s, Emmanuel was forced to witness and participate in soul-warping atrocities. An aid worker by the name of Emma McCune thankfully smuggled Emmanuel into Kenya where his life insurmountably changed.
Now an acclaimed recording artist and peace ambassador, Emmanuel lives in Toronto, Canada. He has released six award-nominated albums and performed at Live 8, Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebration, and the One Concert for the Dalai Lama. Emmanuel also co-starred with Reese Witherspoon in The Good Lie, a film about 4 young Sudanese refugees who win a relocation lottery to the US. The film Warchild, a documentary on his life, won 12 international film festival awards.
Throughout his career, Emmanuel has been the champion of many global charities including Amnesty International, Oxfam, the British Council, and the Child Soldiers Initiative. With the release of his song, “We Want Peace,” Emmanuel has worked with the campaign of the same name to call attention to the need for peace in Sudan. Using the song and his platform, Emmanuel has traveled the globe speaking to young people and sharing his message of political empathy and involvement. Founded in 2009, Gua Africa is Emmanuel’s personal charity that he proudly uses to support those affected by war and poverty in South Sudan. For his unrelenting and passionate commitment to peace-building, Emmanuel has been awarded many international prizes including the 2017 Desmond Tutu Reconciliation Award, and the 2018 Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent.
A conversation with a man like Emmanuel Jal is never long enough; his experiences too vast and wisdom too deep. Nevertheless, join Face the Current on an expansive exchange with citizen-of-the-world, Emmanuel Jal.
I would describe my purpose as spreading the act of kindness; to be a part of solution and to give without expecting anything in return. It’s about us recognizing our life as a work of art that we create to spark the act of conscious awakening. You walk in your purpose. You create your own habits. That love that is inside you and it’s what you give.
Sasha Frate: You are a musician, actor, activist, speaker, health coach, and at the core of it all, an incredible human being. You’re also creating positive, collective, global awakening. How did you awaken to your purpose?
Emmanuel Jal: It’s a simple thing. As a little child, I always wanted to be a part of a solution. It’s been a battle between that longing and a bitterness that I had in my heart; the reasons why I wanted revenge. There are two forces inside me. One has anger that I can’t listen to because it can suffocate me. I would describe that feeling as bitterness because of what happened to me and the traumatic experiences that came with it. It makes me tense and angry, and it makes me want to fight. The other force inside is warm; it relaxes me, makes me smile, gives me peace, and it creates a certain urgency that is different than the other one.
I choose to completely focus on this one. It has taught me many things; I’ll call it purpose. I would describe my purpose as spreading the act of kindness; to be a part of solution and to give without expecting anything in return. I don’t expect anything when I do unto anybody from my heart. There is something called joy and you cannot buy it. My purpose has taught me that now I have a vision. I can get the things I want now because I understand my mission; I understand what I’m great at.
SF: With various outlets like music, acting, and speaking, which of these came first for you?
EJ: Activism was possibly the first. I share my activism with acting so that I can tell my story everywhere I go. It’s my way of passing information. My music came later. Once you know what you want to do, you have your vision and then you can just prioritize. I now have a food company in Toronto called Jal Gua and it’s the food that I eat. I also focus on and want peace, and I go out to spread its message. It’s about us recognizing our life as a work of art that we create to spark the act of conscious awakening. You walk in your purpose. You create your own habits. That love that is inside you and it’s what you give.
That’s my life coaching, which is based on principles that I use to live my life. I host retreats and I also do one-on-one coaching. I use this philosophy with presidents of companies because they can use it to build anything. I help others to learn how to forgive, to find joy, to find peace of mind, and to find purpose. I show them that purpose is the easiest thing they can get.
In music, most musicians don’t have a lot to do; it’s just drinking, hanging out, and smoking weed. I have so much energy. When I’m not on the road, when I’m not speaking, I read books, I work on my business, I do stuff. There are 24 hours in a day and you cannot sing for 10 hours. There are a number of hours available and a lot of musicians don’t wisely use their time.
SF: From the Dalai Lama to Nelson Mandela and many others, you’ve met with many powerfully inspiring leaders around the world. What do you believe are some of the best ways to amplify the voices of these leaders-of-change to the world about the issues that you advocate for or advocate against?
EJ: We take their words and sink them into our lives, trying to work them into our purpose or walk with them in our purpose. It’s there we become very present, peaceful, joyful, and full of light. The way I look at it, everybody’s rushing to make the world a better place, but the first place to start is you. How can you make yourself better? How can you love yourself? The next step from there is looking at those around you: your workplace, family, and friends. It’s not about what you give them, it’s how you relate to them. Do you look down upon them? Do you care about them by offering advice? You can want to make the world a better place but you’re just going to make it worse if you’re not improving yourself.
Some of the animals that are in Africa aren’t anywhere else on Earth; it’s the only environment in which they can live. Anything that happens on the other corner of the world will reach this corner; we’re all connected. We’re just one body. The earth is a living organism and we’re inside it. We’re creating a lot of trouble.
Charles Onne: Do you have any particular leaders who have impacted your life and your work?
EJ: Yes, you mentioned most of them. I have also been inspired by Albert Einstein. He was one of the greatest activists. He formed an NGO (non-governmental organization) to fight for refugees called IRC: International Refugee Committee. One of the things that inspired me with him is that he used to play with children all the time. He would teach them violin and people would say, “Hey, you’re wasting time with these children. You should be in the lab or talking with a politician.” He replied, “I am learning from these children. I like the way they ask questions. Their questions allow me to go and do my research, because it’s through curiosity that we humble ourselves and are able to tune our minds to everything around us.” I try to tune myself to learn from anyone. I’ve been working to quickly learn and absorb from anybody who has something to say. Knowledge is expensive, but wisdom is free. A word from a top leader and a word from a regular person; both resonate with me. I pick them equally. A word from a child? I take it.
SF: What was your basis for founding the We Want Peace organization and can you explain what it’s about? What has it accomplished so far and who has been involved in supporting the organization?
EJ: First it was a song that we used to spotlight South Sudan to prevent a possible genocide from happening. It did exactly that. George Clooney, Kofi Annan, Peter Gabriel, and five US Presidents were involved. There were a lot of celebrities that participated. It is my anthem song that I now use everywhere.
SF: You also founded Gua Africa, a charity that since 2009 has been training and educating South Sudanese refugees to become first-class professionals in medicine, law, and education. Nowadays, there are so many different things to support, from sustainability issues, to pollution issues, and poverty issues. Where is the real challenge as far as getting people to support these changes?
EJ: It’s a challenge. It was through the help of two family members, a mother and daughter, Ruth Gumm and Kate Gumm, who volunteered to support it. They worked for a long time to just volunteer and build a charity. Charities find it difficult to get funding, so it was slow, but we pushed through and now we’re still working to find sponsors for young people to go finish their schooling.
I look at Earth as a living organism and human beings are the greatest threat to all other species. Our existence is actually a threat to the planet. If we were not on this planet, everything would nicely survive. If all the insects were taken out of the plant, then everything will crumble.
We’re killing Earth. For instance, we use pesticides that are killing the bees. I think the biggest problem we have is fear. There’s an urgency about accumulation of wealth and a fear about being poor, so everything becomes business. Even when it comes to solving problems, nobody wants to actually solve the problem; everyone wants a quick trick. The way I look at it, if you want to make this world a better place, the first place to begin is with yourself. We like to think someone else should start it. Our call now is to save the world by not getting angry at others. Find out about them. Give them a hug. Just love and share.
Your heart is the king or the queen, your subconscious mind is the government, your conscious mind is the prime minister, your entire body is the country, and all of the cells in your body are the citizens. You might have a corrupt government, the subconscious, that makes 95% of the decisions every day. You have a prime minister that wants to make your country a very good country, but the subconscious has bad habits and terrible beliefs. Your heart, the king and the queen, has the desire for beauty and all the citizens communicate to the prime minister to establish these dreams. That’s the way I look at my life.
CO: You created a song and score for the film The Last Animals. Who would you say is the intended audience for this film?
EJ: It was meant for those to see it who are already conscious. It’s to remind them about the work, but also to go out and be the voices of the elephants and the rhinos; be the voices for humanity.
CO: The plight of Africa’s wildlife is heartbreaking with the rates at which poaching has been decimating the population of some of the beloved species, such as the white rhino. What do you think the future of Africa looks like without the wildlife that makes it such a unique place?
EJ: The wildlife brings tourism to certain countries. The wildlife shows the beauty of Africa. Some of the animals that are in Africa aren’t anywhere else on Earth; it’s the only environment in which they can live. Animal population decline will actually create more famine. It will create more suffering. It will create tribal wars and conflicts. It’s the long-term thinking that the poachers are not seeing. Anything that happens on the other corner of the world will reach this corner; we’re all connected. We’re just one body. The earth is a living organism and we’re inside it. We’re creating a lot of trouble.
SF: One of the powerful messages you share in the song, “The Last Animals,” is to be the leader, be the change, be the song, be the love revolution. What can you share from your experience of living in two worlds? (One of war as a child-soldier in Sudan and one of being the love and spreading peace.)
EJ: When you are in the environment of war, that’s your only perspective; you don’t know anything else. I thought the world was ending. I asked heaven to rain fire on us. I thought, “That’s it. We’re going to be done.” I had my own limited perspective. I used to think that we were hated and cursed. There were so many things going on in my head. Also, there was loss of family and it made me so bitter. When darkness comes to you and enters into your heart, it consumes you. It doesn’t want to let you go.
Now, I can see both worlds. If I go back to South Sudan with the knowledge and the life that I have, regardless, I’ll still have my light. I have this joy and I have peace of mind. I have that understanding. We have to look at it as having two environments: the environment that you live in and the eternal environment that you create. It’s your belief system.
SF: Would you say that nobody should ever undermine the ability for one individual to create incredible change in the world? How or when do you think people will realize the full potential that we have as individuals and as a collective?
EJ: We will never know the potential of any human being, any child, unless they are given opportunity. I was given this opportunity and put in school by Emma McCune. Also, I had a desire to make this world a better place. Look at how much it has provided for me and the impact that it has globally created. Emma brought light into my life. Each one of us has the power to give a hand to another person and push them forward, without expecting anything. That kind of support has no attachment to it. It comes genuinely from the heart. You don’t feel a debt.
The way I look at it at and how I transformed my life is simple: you must have a dream. Then change your environment. An environment could be a psychological state or it could be the environment you are in. There’s a man by the name of Dr. Bruce Lipton who is great.
EJ: Amazing! I was teaching people how they can program themselves and I didn’t have a scientific background. One day I asked myself, “How can I back what I’m saying with science?” I’m dealing with programming yourself in the subconscious. I always tell people your heart is the king or the queen, your subconscious mind is the government, your conscious mind is the prime minister, your entire body is the country, and all of the cells in your body are the citizens. You might have a corrupt government, the subconscious, that makes 95% of the decisions every day. You have a prime minister that wants to make your country a very good country, but the subconscious has bad habits and terrible beliefs. Your heart, the king and the queen, has the desire for beauty and all the citizens communicate to the prime minister to establish these dreams. That’s the way I look at my life.
If you want to transform yourself internally, there’s something called the creative faculty of your mind. This is where you create everything. You hold your visions there. When you have a dream, that place stays active. It can allow you to overcome so many things, including trauma. You can focus your energy. Your heart holds purpose, because it keeps channeling positive energy. Train your mind how to do it; it will do the job.
Your environment holds a lot of power. You can share your environment and lend habits to the people around you. When I learned about Dr. Bruce Lipton, I saw an experiment he did where he had a petri dish to which he added stem cells. After some time, they multiplied. He put some of those cells into another dish that contained a different environment. Those cells grew into muscle.
He repeated this using different petri dish environments and had different outcomes. When he had a result of sick cells due to a bad environment, the question could have been, “What medicine do we give the cells?” Dr. Lipton said, “Let’s try them in the original environment.” When the cells were placed in the original dish environment, they healed. He explained that it’s similar with people; your psychology, your beliefs, can alter your biology.
That dream that you have requires a good energy in order to create new beliefs for you to move forward. You have to better your environment. Surround yourself with positive people and you have a chance of building that dream. As a kid, I had a dream. The dream provided me with the energy to be noticed by Emma McCune. She picked me as a child-soldier and put me in school. It was a different environment and here I am, making a global impact.
SF: With My Life is Art, you’ve got the health coaching and retreats. You’ve even created your own superfood powder, the Jal Gua. You propose as a collective we can start conscious awakening. While most might focus on one outlet to advocate for change, you’ve taken a very holistic approach to include this aspect of wellbeing. Why did you create this service and product offering? How do you see it playing a role in conscious awakening?
EJ: With My Life is Art, there’s one principle called love. I always say love is the art of generating positive emotion. Love can manage your mental state and your physical state. How do we generate these emotions like love? We can generate them in three ways: physically, mentally, spiritually. How do we physically generate emotions? We can exercise, dance, and do sports. It’s also about what we eat. I have a fermented porridge smoothie every day and I put Jal Gua in it. We can exercise as much as we want but if you are not taking in the right nutrients, your body won’t respond. I use food to keep up my positive energy. Food is medicine.
Spiritual emotional generation can mean going to church, praying, doing yoga, or working on breathing techniques. Spiritual generation of emotions keeps you upbeat. Mental emotional generation is about controlling the content that comes into your head. How do you mentally generate emotion? Your sense of smell plays a big role in this. What you smell can be used to generate energy. If you want to generate a calming energy to help a child sleep, you could use lavender essential oil. You have the power to choose what you see, smell, and hear. Our brains are built to collect negativity but it’s up to us to collect positivity. That’s the principle of love.
CO: Is there anything that’s up-and-coming for you or anything that people could participate in?
EJ: Anyone can support Gua Africa with a donation or child sponsorship. If someone wants to catch up on what I’m doing, I’m hosting a retreat in Bali from December 8th to the 15th. People can go to www.mylifeisart.org to learn more.
Peace be with you.