On October 4th, international hip-hop star Emmanuel Jal visited Free Minds members in the DC Jail as our book club’s special guest author. Mr. Jal’s book, War Child, as well as the documentary of the same name, have been a favorite of our members, and they relished the opportunity to meet him.
Born in war-torn Sudan and recruited as a child soldier at an early age, Emmanuel Jal escaped his horrific past and eventually found healing through music, creativity, and artistic expression. As his music gained world-wide attention, Jal wrote about growing up in a world of violence and destruction – and how he was ultimately able to find peace – in his book War Child, which was also adapted into a documentary film by the same title.
Having read and watched both versions of War Child, the Free Minds members at the DC jail were alight with both excitement and nerves when Jal first entered the facility. One member rose to welcome Jal to the group with a speech he’d written and memorized in his cell: “I feel sorry for what you had to go through when you was younger,” he said, “but I know the obstacles made you stronger… I don’t know how I could have took it at that young age, and you were brave. I know you didn’t have to come here today, and I appreciate you coming out.”
Jal performed one of his most famous poems, “Forced to Sin,” and then began to speak about the parallels and differences he saw between his life as a child soldier and the lives of those in his audience, offering advice and insight that he had gained since those days of carrying a gun taller than himself. “Put me in an orange jumpsuit,” he said looking carefully at the youth he sat amongst, “and nobody could tell a difference.”
As the dialogue continued, Jal led a discussion about ways to move beyond hatred, saying “education helped me see everybody as a brother.” Several Free Minds members performed their own writing in an impromptu poetry slam, and Jal reciprocated by demonstrating a traditional Sudanese dance. In his farewell, Jal expressed his hopes for the young men in the audience: “Go home,” he said, “and choose your battles.”
After the event, the Free Minds youth were thoughtful and impressed, with comments ranging from responses to Jal’s ongoing hunger strike, to inspirational self-reflection. As one member said, “meeting him gave me hope and showed me how to be a better person.”
Another summed up his feelings in a poignant thank-you letter:
Thank you for spending your time with us, and sharing your story, because a lot of the things you said I can relate to. Especially when you talked about how your country was so poor, and the lack of education. Also when you had to watch your close friends and family die. I like how you turned your life around and learned to love the people you hate.”
Emmanuel Jal’s visit generated coverage in the Washington Post. Upon seeing the article, Free Minds members at the DC Jail were deeply gratified and excited at the opportunity to be seen as dedicated readers and writers.