SOUTH SUDAN: The Key - Emmanuel Jal
Updated: Dec 5, 2020
Jal’s repeated calls to action throughout the entire record cut through the incredibly fun and upbeat tunes
All across the world there exists a proud tradition of musicians being unafraid to bring their social and political activism into the lyrics of their songs. When thinking of artists most famed for this in in the UK and the US, names such as Billy Bragg or Bob Dylan might immediately jump to mind. Whilst it is fair to say that their work is most definitely subversive, one could perhaps critique them for being ‘champagne socialists’ as their opinions on social injustice come from a place of relative privilege. Whilst I personally, would disregard this view as nonsense, as I believe anyone is entitled to expressing concerns over inequality, Emmanuel Jal (whose music is incredibly political) comes from quite a unique background that not many who have made it in the music industry can claim to share.
“What I love about this record is that his lyrics are so cutting that they penetrate even when one is caught up in the enjoyment of the music itself. Thus, The Key, as far as I am concerned, has the full package.”
Born just before the start of the Second Sudanese Civil War, at a very young age his mother was killed by soldiers loyal to the government, whilst his father joined the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). This led to Jal’s decision, like many young children born in the region, to seek a better life in Ethiopia. However, Jal became one of thousands of youngsters taken to military training camps and forced to become child soldiers. Whilst a lot of the children were brainwashed, Jal made the decision to risk his life in an arduous three month escape after years of fighting for the SPLA in Ethiopia. He eventually met a British aid worker who then adopted him and smuggled him to Kenya.
By the age of 11, Jal had already lived a life full of trauma and instability that the average adult could not even begin to compute living in an entire lifetime. As a young person in Kenya he would raise money for local street children and refugees. Rather inspirationally, Jal directed most of his energy and his efforts not just towards small acts of kindness like this or the array of charity work in his adult life, but also to spreading a message of peace through his music. His journey, which makes not just the music but the man himself fascinating, is not what separates Jal most from artists (such as the aforementioned Bragg or Dylan) in my opinion. Rather it is his truly uplifting approach to music and that is highly evident in his sixth studio album We Fall.
This album, aside from Jal’s inspiring backstory and lyrics, is full of upbeat music that can only elevate the mood of those listening. He crosses a range of genres that are all equally successful in transmitting positivity. The record includes some phenomenal afrobeat tracks such as Yei, Africa Awei, Taxi Driver and Dusu, which even though not the overall genre of the album, I feel like Jal is in his element here. There are some phenomenal collaboration on those tracks such as the beautiful high-pitched harmonies with Bahamian reggae artist Clinton Outten (Roachie) on Taxi Driver as well as the heartening chorus of Africa Awei in which Jal is joined by the Africa Children’s Choir.
However, the most noticeable collaborations arguably come elsewhere. There are two EDM tracks on the album, the rather catchy Dollar and Party. The latter of which features R&B star Nelly Furtado. The Portuguese-Canadian singer joins Jal in Scars, a song which contains a delightfully soft introduction and flirts between the genres of soul and folk throughout the track. Whilst ultimately this record is a hip-hop album at its core, there are also very funky tracks such as Shalom Salaam and My Power which even features Chic legend Nile Rodgers. Jal’s ability to attract so many wonderful collaborations keeps the album interesting throughout as it is always diverse in style. What I particularly like about his decision to invite so many guests from all over the world is the implicit message of unity that remains throughout due to this act.
Yet, whilst I could endlessly praise Jal for his magnificent composition, especially bearing in mind I am yet to mention even my favourite track, We Fall, or some of his other hip hop tracks like The Key and We Want Peace Reloaded, it is his powerful lyrics that really stand out. Jal touches on a wide-range of social themes in his music, for example just in one song, the aforementioned Dollar, he reflects on corruption, morality, aspiration in Africa, ecology and religion. His lyrical sharpness is truly astounding and cutting, especially when one considers that English is not even his first language, it is all the more impressive. Furthermore, Jal sometimes approaches themes with an atypical lens. Every Child’s Plate avoids using the simplistic and reductive “Africa is poor” lens in its approach to discussing food poverty that many musicians in the past have taken. Instead of just tackling the theme of starvation and hunger in a ‘Band Aid-esque’ fashion, Jal also choses to focus on malnutrition discussing the effects of a poor diet that many children grow up eating:
Giving kids right to start a better life
Living life without this kind of strife
Daily battles against weight gain
Insults, bullies, hurt and the pain
It's mad, dumb, totally insane
I believe we can start again
Every child right food to eat
Poverty, obesity we shall defeat
What I love about this record as that his lyrics are so cutting that they penetrate even when one is caught up in the enjoyment of the music itself. Thus, The Key, as far as I am concerned, has the full package. It features an immensely charismatic artist who evidently cares about the themes he is touching on, unbelievably fun and varied music, as well as smart and astute lyrics throughout. I could happily listen to this album on repeat as it makes me feel so inspired in a way that many records struggle to; if you give it a go, I am sure you might too.