Emmanuel Jal: Keeper of the Key

Last night I went to see Emmanuel Jal performing at the Forge arts centre in Camden. As gigs go, it was an exciting performance in a space which at times seemed too small to contain all the energy that was raring to burst out. Support came from members of his backing band who have their own solo careers: vocalists Tanika Charles and Clinton ‘Roachie’ Outten, and Afrobeats artist and multi-instrumentalist Silvastone. Emmanuel’s own set consisted mostly of songs from his latest album, the Key.

Emmanuel and band soundchecking
Emmanuel and band soundchecking

I’ve known Emmanuel for quite some time; over 10 years, now I think of it. I was one of the first journalists here to help relay the heartbreaking yet uplifting account of his escape from life as a child soldier to the world (that would be in 2003, if my memory serves me well). I was at Westminster with my notebook and camera when he and several other Sudanese people and their supporters staged a ‘die-in’ as a protest against the war in Sudan. We bumped into each other again the first time he played Greenbelt, and at an African music festival in Trafalgar Square. But all that was a long time ago, so it was good to catch up with him again.

Before Emmanuel took to the stage, he and I retreated to a nearby restaurant where I threw a few questions at him…

Interviewing Emmanuel
Interviewing Emmanuel

So much has happened in your life since we last met up. Give us a rundown, please…
Yes, a lot of things have happened. The We Want Peace movement is still going, where I go to schools and share my experiences. I believe that when you share your experiences and stories, it’s like putting on a spotlight in a dark place. When you put a light on in a dark place, evil will perform less.

I’m also still doing charity work with Gua Africa – the charity that I founded, helping families and individuals overcome the effects of war and poverty. I’ve just been in a film called the Good Lie with Reese Witherspoon. And I now have five albums out; the latest one is called the Key.

The Key isn’t just an album. What else is there to the concept?
It all came about when I met Paul Lindley in South Africa. Paul’s the founder of Ella’s Kitchen, a company that makes baby food here in the UK. We started talking about food – but from that I came to realise that Paul cared about children, as I do. And so he suggested an idea: Why couldn’t we make an album about children’s rights? And so we started brainstorming ideas.

Later on, these ideas gave birth to an enterprise. And that was when we formed The Key is E. It’s going to fund small business owners who have a direct impact on children’s lives. It’s going to focus mostly on Africa. The Key is E will be a platform to connect people who want to invest in Africa; connecting the diaspora to local people with ideas, or any other investors who want to go to Africa.

I’ve been doing tours where all the proceeds from the tickets at the door go to the enterprise. All the proceeds from the album go to it too. As for the album, we had lots of people involved. Nile Rodgers did a song called ‘My Power’. Nelly Furtado’s on two songs, and then we have two songs from the album featured on a film soundtrack.

 

 

emmanuellive2emmanuellive1You’ve also started your own record label. What acts have you signed so far?
The label’s called Gatwich Records and it’s based in Canada. In terms of artists, at the moment there’s just me and my sister Nyaruach. But we’re looking to sign others. What we’re going to try to do is focus more on management. It’s not easy to make money from CD sales, so we’re trying to bring 360 deals in.

How did you find the writing process when you did your autobiography War Child?
It was a difficult thing to come out and tell the story. One of the most difficult things is, when you tell the story, who’s going to believe you? And because there’s a political side to it, you could get attacked. People will accuse you of lying.

The main questions are: who’s going to believe you, why are you doing it, what’s going to happen and will it create change? Those four Ws all have to be answered first. After I’d answered them, I just took the risk and wrote the book. But yes – telling it personally was difficult.

What’s this new film you’re in, and how are you finding the acting experience now that you have two films under your belt?
The Good Lie is about the ‘lost boys’ of South Sudan who escaped, and how they survived. Some became child soldiers, and they finally made their way to the US. Reese Witherspoon’s in it, and I brought the musical and cultural aspect to it, together with other South Sudanese, we helped make it accurate. The writers did a fantastic job; the director was awesome. It’s an amazing project – and it was fantastic to have Reese Witherspoon humble herself and help put the message out.

The hardest acting experience for me was Africa United – the first film role I was ever given. It was hard because I was being told to act! But then, the role was that of a child soldier, so that made it easy. I was a soldier before, so I acted as if I was going to kill. Sometimes soldiers act when they’re threatening you.

One of your collaborators on this new album is Nile Rodgers. I’ve been a Chic fan for, like, forever; how did you get to link up with him?
When you’re walking your path and you keep on doing your work positively, you’ll meet a lot of positive people on the way. And that’s how I met Nile. I met him at a UN concert. From there, we kept in touch. He invited me to a We Are Family Foundation event; I supported him; he liked what I was doing – and so we ended up doing a song together.

Nile’s an amazing person. He’s like a mentor to many people. Whenever you meet Nile, he will always give you the support you need.

How are things in South Sudan at the moment?
Right now, South Sudan is in a difficult situation. I feel betrayed when I think about the situation, where the people we trusted – the people who fought for our freedom – pocketed our freedom. The war that’s happening in South Sudan now started as a disagreement between people in the same party. The president was questioned by some of the other party members, who said “we have corruption going on; we need to have accountability towards the people we’re leading and towards our party”. They said they needed to be transparent and put institutions in place that would protect all of us. Some of them also said they would like to be able to run for the presidency. That made the president angry – and he fired the entire cabinet.

When that happened, people started to speak out, and the president started putting them under house arrest. He broke the constitution and dissolved the electoral system. His biggest threat was his vice-president, so what he did was arm members of his own ethnic group within the city and made them the presidential guard. That was what led to the conflict. Later, he accused the cabinet that he’d fired of trying to stage a coup. His plan was to silence any opposition. When that failed, those who escaped discovered later that their families had been killed. A lot of young people got angry when this happened, and they thought it was a tribal war. Some of them attacked the government’s barracks; some carried out revenge attacks on people from the other tribes.

According to community research, about 20,000 Nuer people were killed in Juba. We’re talking innocent civilians here – women and children in their homes. My house was burnt down. Sixty people from my family got killed – including my brother and stepmother.

What saved the situation was the widow of Dr John Garang. She spoke on the radio and said, “Look – what happened in Juba is not good.” Her speech on the radio was what prevented the conflict from becoming a tribal one. I give her credit, because without her intervention, genocide could well have happened. A lot of innocent people would have died.

The situation is terrible. We have approximately two million displaced people; thousands killed… Our country spent a billion dollars on arms, while the UN is looking for 1.3 billion to fund the refugees that need food. But now I think both sides are beginning to come to their senses. I hope they find a peaceful solution, and that all those involved in these killings are held accountable.

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Film review: ‘the Quickener’

The time has comeBirmingham, Saturday 21 September, 8.10pm: My train home leaves in an hour, and I’ve decided to spend my last few minutes in our second city doing a brief review of the film I’ve just been to see in the Midlands Arts Centre. I find myself fired up, having spent an afternoon in a cinema full of very talented, slightly Bohemian people. They included Joel Wilson, director of the short film The Quickener (whose premiere is taking place here) and various members of the cast and crew.

Joel Wilson, the director
Joel Wilson, the director

The Quickener is one of those films that would leave people scratching their heads and muttering “Yeah… right” if you tried to explain it to them. It’s set in Medieval times, but the entire dialogue is done in a hip hop style. That’s right – Medieval hip hop. With a poor artisan couple on the run from a loan shark who speaks something akin to Parseltongue (for which he needs one of his heavies to act as his translator), corrupt officials, a power-hungry gangster and a friendly hermit, this is really an urban street movie with chain mail. And bubonic plague…

Osbert, a struggling artisan. Very good at sculpting scary statues. A bit broke.
Osbert, a struggling artisan. Very good at sculpting scary statues. A bit broke.

Joel got the idea for the film from another project he’d been

Tipharah, Osbert's missus. You don't want to mess with her when she has a sword in her hand...
Tipharah, Osbert’s missus. You don’t want to mess with her when she has a sword in her hand…

asked to work on. He’d written an epic poem about a gargoyle being decommissioned, so to speak, having lived on a church wall for about 600 years. Writing about the gargoyle’s last day on the wall, he wondered, What would its first day have been like? Cue a fantasy tale about a poor sculptor and his wife – who, having been commissioned to make the gargoyle, then being told on completion of the job (and a huge debt incurred in the process) their services were no longer required, and that they wouldn’t be getting paid for the job they’d done. It’s only half an hour long, but it’s a very fascinating half hour, full of passion, tension and quite a few dead bodies.

"Hiss, hiss, hiss" (translation: "We'll cut off your fingers")
“Hiss, hiss, hiss” (translation: “We’ll cut off your fingers”)

In a taxi with Baloji

balojialbumcoverLast November, the Congolese rapper Baloji paid London a flying visit for a gig at the Village Underground in Shoreditch.

It was a hip hop gig, all right; the swagger and all the other elements that make up a good hip hop act were all present and correct. But it was so much more besides. It was oldies night for African music fans of a certain age; it was a political rally… and it a good old party, with a charismatic host and a very tight band.

I was due to interview Baloji the next day, just before he hopped on a Eurostar train back to Belgium where he lives. Unfortunately, certain wires got crossed somewhere along the line in the booking process, and I ended up having to do the interview in the taxi that took him from his hotel in Whitechapel to St Pancras station where he was catching the train. With London lunchtime traffic, the ride took just under 20 minutes – just about enough time for him to give me the run-down on his music, his acting aspirations, his concerns about his country and his hopes for the future.

Here, for your listening pleasure, are some edited highlights of that interview – plus snippets of tracks from Baloji’s album Kinshasa Succursale. Enjoy.

In a cab with Baloji by George Luke on Mixcloud

Film review: “Nefarious – Merchant of Souls”

With a title like that, you’d be forgiven for expecting this film to be some LOTR/Game of Thrones-style fantasy flick (more so when I tell you that it’s part 1 of a trilogy). In actual fact, Nefarious is a hard-hitting documentary exposing the dark side of the sex trade.

The Nefarious film trilogy is produced by Exodus Cry – one of a number of organisations that have cropped up in recent years with the aim of tackling human trafficking and raising awareness about it. This first episode takes us to see the Eastern European gangs who shift women across the continent and into places such as Amsterdam’s red light district. From there, we head to the Far East, where we see men who travel across continents to buy girls as young as 10… and then hear the shocking news that many of the girls in the brothels have been put up for sale by their own parents.

After Eastern Europe and the Far East, our next stop is the USA itself – and it was at this point that for me the film seemed to veer off-topic – or rather, to settle in on the subject it was really interested in. The stories we heard from ex-prostitutes interviewed in the film were no less harrowing than the ones we heard from trafficked European women and Asian girls. But to describe them as being “trafficked” in the same way that the first batch of girls/women that we met had been just didn’t work for me. When we were in Eastern Europe and Cambodia/Thailand, we saw organised gangs of people making a concerted effort to round up women and girls for sale. In Las Vegas (and London), we saw a handful of individuals who had been abused earlier in life and had drifted into prostitution more or less of their own accord years later. I’m not saying that one route in is any better or worse than another, just that they’re not exactly the same.

Also, having been told that I was coming to see a film about human trafficking, it bothered me a bit that all we ever saw about trafficking was the sexual side of it. I did raise this issue with someone from Exodus Cry after the film, and her reply was that they had deliberately chosen sex trafficking as their primary focus, but were planning to expand their vision and to start looking into trafficking for labour purposes. I hope they do; it’s great that trafficking is on people’s minds, but it does sometimes feel as if all the focus is on sex and no-one is speaking up for the slaves hidden away sewing our designer clothes, assembling our electronic toys and harvesting our coffee and chocolate.

Anyway, back to Nefarious. As I said before, prostitution is where the film’s heart really is. We’re told of the psychological damage it takes to make a young woman prostitute material. The ex-prostitutes interviewed tell us of their scariest experiences “on the job” and the low spots their lives hit before a turnaround came. We go to Sweden and see how effective their policy of criminalising prostitutes’ customers has been (by this time, I’d forgotten the little Cambodian girls, and instead found myself gaining a new appreciation for Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels). This being a film made by a Christian organisation, the obligatory Christian testimonies are in there, along with the equally obligatory reference to William Wilberforce in the form of a rallying call to become an “incurable fanatic” in the fight against the sex trade.

And that was Volume 1 of the Nefarious trilogy; harrowing and heartbreaking, but ultimately full of hope. Although I still think it doesn’t fully do human trafficking justice as a subject, I would happily recommend it to friends of mine who work with prostitutes.

My Name is Braima

“Party like it’s 1999.”

Hmm, sounds like a plan. Yeah, I know everybody says that, but trust me – I for one will be glad to see the back of this year. And this decade. In fact, the whole century can jump off a bridge. Like I had to in order to save my life. Only without the surviving bit at the end of it.

Sorry – didn’t see you there. Been a bit preoccupied with my own thoughts. A bit too much for a 16-year-old, I’m told. But then, being a war orphan kind of forces you to grow up faster than one would like to. And then something big comes along and hits you, and you realise that you’ve only partly grown up…

But I digress again. Where are my manners? Hello – my name is Braima. Braima Sesay. Braima William Sesay. Please don’t ask how I ended up with William for a middle name; it’s kinda embarrassing. Let’s just say it involves a future King of England and leave it at that, shall we? You can probably tell from my accent that I’m not originally from round here. Actually, I’m not even sure what my accent sounds like now. There’s a bit of London in there, because this is now my home. The odd palabra might slip in, because I’ve kind of been adopted by some friendly Colombians. Long story – but as no-one can afford to bail me out right now, I think I’ve got enough time on my hands in here to share it with you…

So let’s rewind back a year or two – and go back to a little village just outside Makeni. That’s in Sierra Leone. You know, where Ryan Giggs’ granddad came from. In Africa. You didn’t know that? Actually, half of Sierra Leone’s population supports Man U, and I’m sure not all of them know that either. Sorry, floating off point again. Me – two years into secondary school; loving English a lot but loving Chinese films even more. I regularly kekked – sorry, I’m in England now; I mean I regularly bunked off school to go and see them. It was just what you did. If you had to choose between simple equations and Jackie Chan, who would you go for? Seriously!

I got my love of Chinese films from my father, I think. Well, I guess I must have. We never talked about them at first, but when he found out I was a fan, that was it. We had something we could bond over. Which was good because he’s from the other half of Sierra Leone’s population (the half that supports Arsenal). My dad worked in a bank. I think he would have liked me to do that too, but I’ve always wanted to be an engineer. Maybe I still will. My dad loved his palm wine; he loved his friends; he loved my mum, and he loved the BBC World Service. And like me, he loved Chinese films. I discovered my dad shared my love of Chinese films the day my mum caught me going to one when I should have been in school. Of course, kekking – sorry, force of habit. Bunking off – is a gamble. And I lost big time the first time I did it. I had to choose the day my mum decided to do a mid-week food shop in the market just next to the cinema! Woman dragged me home by my left ear. I do miss her…

When she wasn’t using my left earlobe as a pulling handle, my mum was the best. I suppose she was still the best even when she was – I mean, I shouldn’t have allowed myself to get caught, should I have? Fatmata, her name was. Shorter than me. So much so, that her arm hurt her more than my ear hurt me that day she dragged me home from the cinema. It wasn’t so much me walking with my head down as her walking with her arm up. It goes without saying that the first words she said to me after letting go of my ear were “Wait until your father gets home.” And I did, expecting a fate worse than death. I felt like a cockroach as I stood in the middle of our parlour while mum recounted the afternoon’s proceedings to my dad. Then she left the two of us alone in the parlour and went off to attend to some other business. Me and Dad alone in the parlour. “Tense” doesn’t even begin to describe it…

But to my surprise, the expected beatdown never came. Instead, my dad sat me down and asked me, “So who’s your favourite Chinese film actor?” I would have pinched myself – but as I could still feel the extended ear pinch inflicted on me by my mum, I knew I couldn’t be dreaming. Dad and I talked for ages about the Chinese films we’d seen; he told me about the old-school masters from the films he saw when he was my age: Wang Yu, Carter Wong, Sonny Chiba… and the master of them all – Bruce Lee. That day, he promised that we would both watch all Bruce Lee’s films together. And then – more out of husbandly duty than anything else – he said, “and don’t do that again.”

I’m not sure how my mum would have reacted if she knew that he hadn’t beaten me as she’d hoped he would. But I’m not mad at her. I can’t be; she’s my mum. Was my mum. She was lovely. You haven’t eaten ‘casada leaf’ until you’ve eaten it cooked by my mum. And she always cooked it in a pot the size of a bathtub because of the open door policy she and my dad had going on. Anyone could come in and eat. And somehow there was always enough, and even though times were hard the pot was never empty.

When I meet God – if I do – he’s going to have to explain why the nastiest things always happen to the best people. With a diagram. Actually, on second thoughts, I’ve seen enough graphic nastiness to last a lifetime, so I’ll pass on the diagram. But I definitely do want to ask him what kind of loving deity allows one’s home country to be overrun by vicious rebels who ransack whole villages, make people choose how much of their limbs they want chopped off, and then force children to watch their parents being murdered and their mothers being raped – just before carting them off to be stuffed full of drugs and sent off to inflict the same sort of nastiness on other innocent people.

That’s my story – well, part of it. The ‘rebels’ stuck a load of us kids in the back of a Land Rover – me and some of my friends from school and boys who were my neighbours. I have no idea where they were planning to take us to, but by the time we got to Lunsar, I knew I had to escape. So I waited until the Land Rover got to this rickety old bridge. And when it was halfway over the bridge, I jumped.

What happened next is kind of a blur now. Well, actually it isn’t – but I’ve decided that I’m going to write a book about my life when I do get out of here, so I can’t give away all the juicy bits just yet! But to summarise, I lived on the goodwill of strangers as I trekked all the way out of sierra Leone to Guinea, where I ended up in a refugee camp. Then by some very good fortune – or so I thought at the time – I managed to make contact with an uncle of mine in London. I came over here and lived with him for a while – and that brought a whole heap of its own problems. Long story short, Uncle threw me out of his house. And then so did another uncle. And another one. And another one. And just when I’d run out of uncles with homes for me to be ejected from, I bump into this kind, friendly Colombian man and his son. Their family gave me a home and I started to get back on my feet. Found a job in a fast-food restaurant. Got some college applications in. Bought a Man U shirt from a stall in East Street Market. Discovered it wasn’t genuine. Also discovered that Millwall fans don’t like it when you walk down Ilderton Road wearing a Man U shirt, real or fake. Rescued by an angel. Then I caught my total toe-rag of a manager unawares in the middle of making a very troubling phone call. Next thing I know, I’m being accused of having my finger in the till and I’m given the sack. And then Toe Rag Manager winds up dead, and the Police think I killed him.

Of course I didn’t do it. I wasn’t even in the country when it happened – oops, I’ve already said too much. I could tell you where I was when the murder took place, but if I did that, I might as well just go ahead and phone the men in white coats myself, and give them all the measurements they’d need for my padded cell. Yes, it is that unbelievable. But it’s all true.

So I reckon I’ll be in here for a while, unless some miracle happens…

Boy, that was some expensive underwear…

(but it was in a good cause)

Last night I became the owner (note that I didn’t say “the proud owner”) of a piece of Hollywood memorabilia.

Some guys pay tens of thousands for a Batmobile, or for an Italian Job Mini Cooper. Others shell out equally ludicrous sums for the privilege of having Captain Kirk’s chair (or some other piece of furniture from the USS Enterprise) in their front room. Me – I paid a little over a hundred quid for… Borat’s ‘Mankini’ (signed by the man himself, I hasten to add).

No, I won’t be wearing it (and trust me, I have had loads of requests). And no, I didn’t particularly want it either. But rather than looking at this as a crazy impulse purchase, I prefer to see it as a donation to charity – which, actually, is what it was. I bought it at ‘Bidding for Hope’ – a charity auction in aid of the UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre.

The auction was organised by Dina Lazarus, a former workmate of mine. When I started at my current job, I was initially covering for Dina while she was off sick, having cancer treatment. When her sick leave ended, we both shared the job for a while. She decided she wanted to do something for the hospital where she’d had her treatment, and organised the auction with help from a few other people in the office.

Quite a few other showbizzy things went under the hammer at Foyles Gallery last night, including a day on the set of New Tricks, and Rod Stewart’s platinum disc for his Tonight I’m Yours album. For film buffs, there were a couple of autographed film posters: one of Black Swan (signed by Natalie Portman) and one of Never Let Me Go (signed by Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and the author of the book, Kazuo Ishiguro). For the more sporty bidders, there was a Nike tennis cap signed by John McEnroe, and a Tottenham shirt signed by the entire team. A £425 voucher for creative writing classes at the Faber Academy went for just under £300. If you’d rather be written about in a book than write one, you could have placed a bid to have the ‘chick lit’ author Freya North include you as a character in her next novel. I was tempted, but very quickly outbid – as opposed to when Lot #14 went under the hammer, and everybody mysteriously stopped bidding after the third bid…  (which is how I ended up with you-know-what)

But hey, it was for a good cause. And even as I write, Mr. Baron Cohen is in LA somewhere, autographing the lime green undergarment which will soon be on its way to me. Altogether the auction raised £11,750 – £8,200 in sales of the auctioned items, and the rest in donations. Another small financial victory in the ongoing battle to kick cancer’s butt. Now, that can hardly be a bad thing…

…and no, I will NOT be posting any pictures of me wearing it. I’ve already said that a million times since last night…

POSTSCRIPT

Saturday 29 June 2013, 4.22pm

On Monday morning, we received the sad news that Dina passed away on Sunday. A handful of us from work attended the funeral on Tuesday afternoon.

In the last few months of her life, Dina would occasionally pop into the office. Now if you look at the comments at the end of this blog post, you’ll see that an old friend of Dina’s came across this post by chance (nearly two years after I wrote it!) and asked me to help her get back in touch with her again, which I did. The last time I saw Dina alive was the last time she popped into the office. She told me how this lady was an old friend of hers, and thanked me for helping her get back in touch with her. And those were the last words she said to me.

Rest easy, Dina. I only knew you for a short time, but that was long enough to see that you were a really loving, caring person.

Review: “The Man Who Committed Thought”

You’d have to be seriously brave (or just mental) to try to set all Africa’s issues straight in two hours. But that’s basically what Patrice Naimbana sets out to do in the one man show which won him an Edinburgh Fringe First award (on tonight in London’s Cockpit Theatre, as part of the Pentecost Festival).

The Man Who Committed Thought is utterly compelling. Playing multiple characters (a poor man whose cow is stolen from him; the corrupt politician responsible for stealing the poor man’s cow and more; the rebel who seizes power and the honest but flawed lawyer referred to in the show’s title, to whom the poor man turns in his quest for justice), Patrice talks us through the troubled history of a fictional African nation called Lion Mountain.

Well, I say fictional. The handful of Sierra Leoneans in the Cockpit Theatre knew all too well whose stories were being told here. The rest of the audience weren’t left out, either; the beauty of Patrice’s series of monologues is the way he keeps it topical and fresh by absorbing so much of what’s current and relevant to wherever he might be performing. so tonight there are references to everything from Bin Laden to Britain’s Got Talent.

Underneath all that, there are bigger questions being asked. Naimbana challenges his audience to look at all the grey there is in issues of social justice. There is a tension at the heart of the show; between the righteous anger at the Europeans who brought “Gonorrhoea and Jesus” to Africa (to quote Fela Kuti) and a respectful acceptance of the message of good news to the poor and dispossessed that that Jesus preached. Patrice packs enough humour into the show to ensure that it never gets preachy or sounds like an “angry brother” having a rant.

After the show, Patrice spent another half hour answering questions from the audience, during which time he told us about his father – a lawyer who took on many poor people’s cases for no pay, and whose stories were the inspiration for the show’s lead character. That was every bit as engaging as the show itself, and continued in the bar afterwards.