When Emmanuel Jal first tried to get a record deal, he was met with a reaction all too familiar to many socially-conscious musicians.
“I had record labels wanting me to change my style, they wanted me to be more ‘hard,’” he says. “I was being told, ‘You’re soft, you’re not like a real soldier.’”
The executives dispensing that advice had no idea how wrong they were—Jal has been fighting all his life. He grew up in what is now the independent nation of South Sudan, a region that lost roughly one-fifth of its population in a civil war that split the country in two and continues to reverberate today. And at the age of seven, after his mother was killed by government forces, he was sent to a training camp to become a child soldier.
Jal’s story represents one of the more heart-wrenching and improbable paths to a happy and fulfilling life, let alone international fame as a musician. Now 32, he has just released his fifth studio album, See Me Mama, on his own Universal-distributed label. Combined with a healthy dose of live performances, a memoir and a documentary about his life, music has given him not only a voice but a financially viable career that enables Jal to take care of himself and others.
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