The day before "The Good Lie," his breakout Hollywood film, celebrated its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sudanese child soldier-turned-rapper-turned-actor Emmanuel Jal casually walked into the opulent and star-stuffed Shangri-La Hotel with a box of CDs under his arm.
All around him, the Hollywood machine that dominates the first few days of TIFF and manages to sweep large chunks of the starry-eyed city off its feet is in full gear. Frazzled PR people and film reps buzz around him, doing their best to keep him and his "Good Lie" costars on a strict schedule of premiers, interviews, and parties.
There's some discussion about whether Jal can wear his Nelson Mandela t-shirt (i'’s particularly meaningful given that the rapper played Madiba’s 90th birthday concert) to an evening reception for the film company or if he’ll need to change into something more formal. In the midst of this madness, someone from the film temporarily misplaces the key card to Jal's room.
“Where is the key?” the rep asks.
“Here!” Jal laughs, and hands the man one of the CDs. It’s a copy of his brand new album and charity enterprise, "The Key," which dropped on Tuesday. He also has the room key, as it turns out.
Emmanuel Jal is good under pressure. You could even say that he flourishes under it.
After escaping his youth as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Jal discovered hip-hop on the streets of Kenya and started listening to American artists like Tupac, MC Hammer, and The Lost Boyz. He wasn't sure that he liked rap at first, but he liked hearing the artists' anger. And, more than anything, he liked the music's ability to be "the CNN of the people," a way to tell stories that weren't getting mainstream attention.
Particularly inspired by P. Diddy's “Jesus Is My Best Friend," Jal, who was working as a youth leader at the time, decided that he should take up hip-hop as a means to help give the kids he was working with a sense of direction and share his anti-war message with them.
He really didn't know what he was doing.
"I said 'So all I have to do is talk over a beat?’” Jal recalls. "And so I went that day and wrote a whole song. I wrote long verses, no proper structure, the chorus was not well done. The song was six, seven minutes long.”
Jal went into the studio the next day and tried to impersonate Diddy’s American accent.
“The producers kicked me out,” he laughs.
Undeterred, he formed a group with a couple of friends and tried to record at another studio. The producer there was just as unimpressed. “He said ‘Get out. You guys can't rap.'"
Jal kept working at it, though, and eventually met a producer who taught him about things like bars and structure. He released his first album, Gua, in 2004 and the title track became something of an international hit and earned him a spot on the Live 8 bill in Cornwall. Despite his success, though, Jal still didn’t think he’d figured out the whole music thing.
During his Live 8 performance, things fell apart. And then they finally clicked.
"I got introduced by Peter Gabriel and... I forgot my words," he smiles. “So I had to freestyle. I ended up praying for everyone in the crowd in my mother tongue. They didn't know what I was saying! My legs were shaking and so I created a dance where I shake my legs and move around."
The audience liked what they heard and saw, and Jal started to develop more confidence in himself and his own music. He stopped trying to sound like Mase and DMX, and started to finally sound like himself and tell even more of his own story. He wrote about his time as a child soldier, which lead to an album called "War Child."
That led to a documentary called "War Child," which took the film festival circuit by storm in 2008. He released an autobiography of the same name in 2009. In 2010, he made his debut as an actor in a film called "Africa United." More albums followed in 2010 and 2012.
While Jal, who is now based in Toronto, was working on "The Key" with high-profile collaborators like Nile Rogers and Nelly Furtado, the producers of "The Good Lie" approached him. They were making a film based on the Lost Boys of Sudan, starring Reese Witherspoon as an American who helps a group of refugees find jobs in the States, and wondered if Jal could recommend any Sudanese actors for the film.
Jal recommended himself.
"My management kept telling them 'Emmanuel can act!' So they came and tried me and I failed several times. But the director [Philippe Falardeau] kept looking at me and saying 'Look, there’s something about this guy and I feel we can give him another chance.'"
Falardeau invited Jal to LA for an audition with Witherspoon. Reading with the actress, Jal suddenly felt like he was back on that Live 8 stage.
“What I found was really amazing was how Reese was auditioning. She wasn't following the script! She was just talking her head off. So I observed her and from there, I freestyled, too. And when I freestyled, I was in the moment and they said "Yeah! This is how we want it!'"
Jal was cast as Paul. He also ended up contributing two songs from "The Key," including his haunting and powerful duet with Nelly Furtado, "Scars," to the film's soundtrack.
The musician and actor is excited about what all of this means for his career, but he's even more thrilled about what these projects are doing to help bring awareness and support to his causes. Proceeds from "The Key" will be invested in entrepreneurs with business who help youth because he wants to empower the people who fight for human rights. He also believes that "The Good Lie" will bring new awareness to the plight of the Sudanese people.
"This is conscious awakening. This is global awakening. The amount of people who are going to watch it is many and the attention will be in South Sudan."