Interview With The African Rapper, Ex-Child Soldier, And Reese Witherspoon Co-Star Emmanuel Jal

Emmanuel Jal is a former child soldier, rapper, global activist and actor. He stars alongside Reese Witherspoon in The Good Lie, in theaters October 3rd. He also has a new album out, The Key, featuring tracks with Nelly Furtado and Nile Rodgers. At the Toronto International Film Festival, Jal took a few moments to talk about his music, acting, motivations and inspirations, and to share with the Thought Catalog readers his new video, “Power.”
Che Kothari
Che Kothari

Where did you shoot that video? How did it come together?

The video was shot in Toronto, by Grandson And Son and 118 Animation. The idea behind it was to create a community that is one – a futuristic city with an oppressor that is denying people to meet, even to socialize. As you can see in the video, it’s guys living in the ghetto, they want to make music. But the system doesn’t want them to come together, because the system knows doing music or socializing could end up creating a revolution. So these guys did not get a permit to start their party! That’s why they’re in trouble.

But it’s the young boy in the video who saves them. He uses his power and kindness. The song is about trying to find your power in order to overcome and succeed in life. In this case it was through friendship and peace.

How was it working with [legendary producer] Nile Rodgers?

I met Nile Rodgers when I was introduced to him at the United Nations. He invited me to come for his charity called the We Are Family Foundation – what they do is help build schools, so I came for the fundraiser, and then another time I was given a peace award by them. I knew he was a producer but I did not want to bother him. But one day he just said “Emmanuel I want to make a hit with you.”

So I tell him I’m doing an album now where the proceeds go to an enterprise that will invest in entrepreneurs that have an impact in children’s lives, and it would be great to have you part of it. And he said “let’s do it.” The social enterprise I founded with Paul Lindley [founder of food brand Ella’s Kitchen] and is called ‘The Key is E’.

In the studio, we spent hours talking, and then when we were done we made music. He taught me a few things – he taught me to make music, you need to focus on four things: your flow, your rhythm, your hooks, and your lyrics last. You have to study what’s going on out there, so you don’t end up making music only you and your family will listen to. And he told me to bring my village to my music, and that’s how everything began to roll.

How do you see your history in South Sudan in your music? How do you see your time in London, in Kenya, in Toronto, in the States in your music?

I wasn’t born a musician, I didn’t have idols to look up to. No one told me I could sing. But I adapt into situations quickly, I’ve used music to adapt quickly, to learn as fast as possible and to communicate. I have American influence, I have South Sudan influence, I have Kenyan influence, and now I bring all of these things together.

You just premiered the film at TIFF, The Good Lie with Reese Witherspoon. How was it – are you going to do more films? What was the most interesting part of doing the movie?

Acting is a different form of therapy. It’s a different artform. If you do it for a purpose that you love, it will help you a lot. But if you do it for the money, it will destroy you. So you have to discover your purpose.

It’s amazing how somebody can immerse themself into a character, and become that character. I find it really different than music. How do you go and cry, to imitate someone else’s character? The perfect ones are like chameleons. They enter into all the different forms of somebody. Reese is absolutely amazing.

Did you draw on things – did you have a scene where you have to say, cry, do you think back to things in your life?

I had to get angry, I had to think about the last time I saw my mom, when my village was burning. There’s a scene about the lion, which is a favorite scene for almost everybody who saw the movie. The way I took that scene — the lion being my village being burned down, me becoming a child soldier, looking at the scars from when I got burned. That’s how I took it – it’s in a poetry way. The director told me “take it like poetry”. That’s acting – take it like poetry. And then it wasn’t that difficult, because it was like acting my own life. I’m playing my life.Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Emmanuel Jal’s album The Key is available on iTunes and Amazon with signed copies available at Gatwich Records. Profits from the album will be donated to The Key Is E. The Good Lie is in theaters on October 3rd.

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