At the age of 16, Saa Andrew spent three days hiding in the woods from the rebel soldiers who'd raided his village in Sierra Leone. "The rebels were going from house to house to destroy," says Andrew. recalling scenes from Sierra Leone's brutal 11-year civil war. "They were raping. They were killing young women. They were killing young boys. They were taking your food from you."
Andrew survived by never resting more than 10 minutes in one place and foraging for berries. "It's something that will never get lost from me," he says. After fleeing to a refugee camp in Gambia, reggae music helped Andrew stay positive and gave him hope for a better future. The musician, who now lives in New Brunswick, will share his peaceful message September 23 at the Rebecca Cohn, raising funds for child soldiers alongside hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jal and local spoken-word artist El Jones.
"Music can be cathartic, it can help to ease the pain," explains Jal. The musician grew up in war-ravaged Southern Sudan, where the Sudan People's Liberation Army forced him to become a soldier at seven years old. Many Sudanese children shared a similar fate during the second Sudanese civil war, which broke out in 1983. The UN estimates that the SPLA has released roughly 20,000 child soldiers, but believes around 900 are still enlisted. After escaping to Kenya, hip-hop helped Jal deal with his experiences as a child soldier. Jal pairs African-inspired beats with cutting social commentary.
Taught to kill Muslims at an early age, Jal hopes to relay a message of global unity through hip-hop. "Music is powerful and can cut across all types of divides," he says.
His music has reached a broad audience: Jal performed at Live 8 and Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday concert and films such as Blood Diamond have included his songs. He raps in a variety of languages, including Arabic, Dinka, Nuer and English.
Jal hopes concertgoers leave Thursday's performance "feeling compelled to act to do something, no matter how big or small, to help children in war zones." Part of the Thursday's proceeds will go to The Child Soldiers Initiative, a Dalhousie-based organization which helps prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers through research, advocacy, training and capacity building. Proceeds will also go to two charities created by Sudanese children of war, Jal's Gua Africa and the Cuey Machar Secondary School Foundation. Both aim to improve the lives of people living in conflict affected regions of Sudan.
Spoken-word artist El Jones hopes Thursday's concert will open a dialogue about how Canadians share responsibility for the prevalence of child soldiers worldwide. She urges people to ask themselves uncomfortable questions: Which Canadian companies benefit from the violence? What role did colonialism play in the creation of the violence? Which items do we use everyday, such as cellphones, containing resources extracted from conflict zones?
Jones will bring the issue of child soldiers closer to home with a new poem on Thursday. She focuses on the Canadian, Omar Khadr, who was detained in Guantanamo Bay when he was only 15 for allegedly throwing a grenade that killed a US soldier.
"Why don't we make the connection," she asks, "that this child is a child soldier?"
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