Emmanuel Jal on Life as a Former Child Soldier and Working with Nelly Furtado and Nile Rodgers

Emmanuel Jal on Life as a Former Child Soldier and Working with Nelly Furtado and Nile Rodgers
As an artist with a new album The Key and new film The Good Lie, life for Emmanuel Jal couldn't be any more far removed from his past life as a child solider in Sudan. Now living in Toronto, Jal tells Exclaim! the new album and film are part and parcel of his growth as a person, social activist and artist.

Jal notes that his past life as a AK-47-toting child solider conscripted into the Christian Sudanese Liberation Army continues to haunt him, but making music and maintaining a positive outlook keep him happy and focused.

"There is a limit to how many times you can tell it," he says of his past. "So if I say my story more than three times in a day, that night I'm going to have a lot of nightmares."

With his music, Jal represents a mix of hip-hop, spoken word and EDM elements infused with spirituality and an overall sense of hope for the future. The 13-track album — in stores September 9 on Gatwitch/Universal — includes collaborations with Grammy winners Nile Rodgers (who produced the lead single "My Power") and Nelly Furtado (who appears on the duets "Scars" and "Party").

Working with Furtado helped his artistic growth, he says. "She told me, 'don't lose your Africanness, as it is what makes you unique.'"

In addition, working with the legendary Chic guitarist Rodgers — currently having a career rebirth of sorts, working with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams — was a deeply enriching process. "It was extremely collaborative. When you're writing something, [Nile] allows you to finish and then makes suggestions."

Moving forward is about keeping things positive, acting to create social change and awareness via his latest social enterprise social enterprise the Key Is E, which aims to raise funds to benefit African entrepreneurs with a youth focus, while working to grow as an artist.

"This is what makes me happy. If I go even three days without creating music, my body gets tense. Music is the painkiller or the therapy that I have. It's the place where I get to see heaven."

Being an artist also includes acting — the soft-spoken Jal has a co-starring role in motion picture The Good Lie, which features Reese Witherspoon and hits the Toronto International Film Festival this month. The film, based on the Lost Boys of Sudan, follows the journey of four young Sudanese refugees who win a lottery for relocation to the United States. 

"I had a choice — either fight to be rich and famous or fight to represent the people back home. I asked myself: 'Why am I here?' When I came to the music, if was first to help me. But then I realized [music's power] to put a spotlight on evil so it can perform less."

As previously reported, Jal will be celebrating the album's release with a show at Toronto's Tattoo Rock Parlor on October 9 with special guests. For now, listen to The Key in the player below. Also see all Jal's upcoming dates here.