When a Juno-Nominated Musician Lives in a Refugee Camp

Her album was up for a major prize, but recognition doesn't change the reality of being a displaced person

A photograph of a woman with a drawing of a hut behind her.
A stateless refugee from South Sudan, Rahill Simon Jok Gatwitch, who goes by the stage name Nyaruach, recorded her parts of the album, Naath, from Kenya

The 2019 Juno Awards were celebrated in mid-March in London, Ontario. Among the nominees descending on the city for the awards ceremony was South Sudanese Canadian musician and activist Emmanuel Jal. He and his sister Nyaruach (her stage name) were nominated for World Music Album of the Year for their 2018 record Naath. As part of the Juno’s programming, Jal performed at London’s Wolf Performance Hall, but Nyaruach was not there. She was in Kakuma Refugee Camp near Kenya’s northwestern border. Since 2016, she has lived there—one of more than 186,000 refugees and asylum seekers housed in the desert camp. This camp and the ways Nyaruach has been forced to navigate in and around it shaped Naath as much as the singer’s voice did. Nyaruach handles lead vocals on a number of songs across Naath, including “Gatluak,” a bright, swaggering dance track that’s been immensely popular amongst South Sudanese and people living in Kakuma.

But the song wasn’t made in Kakuma. Many of Jal’s vocal tracks on the album were recorded in the basement of his Toronto home, where he operates his studio and record label, Gatwitch Records. Such a process was not an option for his sister. There were no recording facilities in Kakuma at the time, so in order to record her parts for the album, Nyaruach was forced to travel by bus from the camp to Nairobi—a more than fourteen-hour journey through Kenya’s arid north. She recorded her vocals at studios in the capital city before embarking on the long road back. Nyaruach, pregnant during this strenuous recording process, gave birth in Kakuma. The camp was safer than the city—at least in Kakuma, she and her child would be under UNHCR protection.

Unlike her brother in Canada, who received Canadian citizenship last month, Nyaruach is a stateless refugee from South Sudan, immobilized by the fallout from the country’s violence and the personal rebuilding that comes with such upheaval. Her safety and that of her children are the paramount day-to-day concerns. And yet, from this extreme position, from Kakuma, come the triumphs that are Naath: testaments not just to the dexterity and resourcefulness of artistic expression even in the most hostile of conditions but perhaps to the necessity of it. Naath is a document of resilience and preservation of culture but also of the self. Music, for Nyaruach, is not just figurative escapism—it could actually be a way out. Speaking over the phone from Kakuma, she says that she hopes that Naath marks a new chapter. “I’m just feeling like I’m moving forward,” she says brightly.

For Nyaruach, and many thousands of others, Kakuma is the safest place to stay as renewed violence in South Sudan has claimed an estimated 383,000 lives since 2014. A recent peace deal between President Salva Kiir and former rebel leader Riek Machar have sparked hope that combat will cease. After civil war erupted in December 2013, Nyaruach was caught up during a spike in violence in Juba before escaping to Nairobi, but even there, she felt endangered; Kakuma was the safest option for Nyaruach, who relocated to the camp in 2016. The Juno nomination for Naath has been exciting, and it’s even helped propel Nyaruach’s voice to listeners around the world. But she can’t pay her way out of Kakuma with exposure. Acknowledgement and awareness are important, but an award nomination from a Western country does little to materially affect the net of structural challenges in which refugees find themselves.

The journey that ended with Naath was long. The siblings were separated for more than a decade before finally reconnecting in 2004 when Nyaruach, then living in an Ethiopian refugee camp, got in touch after finding his phone number through a third party. Jal lived in the UK before moving to Toronto, while Nyaruach has lived between South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Naath is itself the product of many months of transcontinental preparation, coordination, and execution. “It’s been very difficult to bring this album to fruition,” says Tania Campbell Golding, Jal’s manager. “It’s really hard to get music from this part of the world out into the arena.”

Campbell Golding has worked with Jal since 2011. She says the public generally misunderstands the immobility that refugees deal with: Jal has been living in Canada since 2012 and waited seven years before he could travel freely. Last year, Australia denied his travel-visa application. Nyaruach has applied to travel to perform, too, and every country to which she applied has rejected her application. Between raising two children in the camp and collecting survival necessities, like rations and water, Nyaruach has scarce time to work; she does the odd shift at a phone-charging booth when she can but cannot save enough money to leave. (Nyaruach’s earnings from Naath will be collected by the UK royalty collecting agency PRS for Music; she has authorized Jal’s label, Gatwitch Records, to collect on her behalf. Quarterly payouts, which will follow once the process is finalized, will hopefully provide economic stability and mobility, but in the meantime, Jal and his label are providing funds to help sustain Nyaruach.) The reality of stateless refugees is one characterized by restricted movement. “Everyone says, ‘Why can’t Emmanuel just get her out of the camp?’” Campbell Golding says. “The reality is, you just can’t.”

Faced with geographical and political constraints, Nyaruach and Jal improvised. Jal would record hooks at his Gatwitch home studio and send them to producers Jesse Bukindu and Chris Adwar in Nairobi, who worked up instrumental tracks along with guitarist Isaac Mugunda. Jal would arrange bus transportation for Nyaruach to Nairobi, where he would meet her to work on and record her vocal tracks. Jal praises her voice as a “authentic sound,” shaped by the environment and culture; he adopts a high-pitched tone and rapid, bouncy cadence to try to imitate his sister’s singing. It’s not done for comedic effect but rather in reverence for the singular and inimitable nature of the vocal styling.

Nyaruach’s musical story is a common one in Kakuma, which typically lacks resources to foster the artistic development of its residents. Artists in Kakuma deal with conditions which necessitate what Oliver Y. Shao, a PhD candidate at Indiana University Bloomington, called an “acoustic maneuverability,” which describes the qualities of, and skills required to create, music in tightly controlled environments. Programs like My Start, an art-and-film incubator created by Campbell Golding and her sister, and FilmAid’s Filmmaker Training Program, give youth in Kakuma opportunities to cultivate trade skills and narrative strength—tools that are vital for artistic success. But openings are limited, considering there are 39,960 youth and adolescents in Kakuma, according to a September 2017 UNHCR report. Young people constitute a quarter of the camp’s population, and without sustained avenues to create and disseminate their work, Nyaruach and Jal worry that hopelessness will take root—not just in each person but within their cultures.

Music and its connective rituals can combat suppression. “Young people just want to dance,” says Campbell Golding. “They find their identity by coming together and doing dance routines and looking up to their idols. It’s one way of escaping where they are but also connecting to the outside world.”

Jal and Nyaruach are both dogmatic in their assertions that joy and happiness must be preserved, with music as a greenhouse for cultivating both. They insist on these things because they know the price of losing them. Jal relates a story from when he was a child soldier, travelling with a group of other combatants. “We were drinking our own urine. There was no water,” he says. “People were starving, and people were dying numbers by numbers.” A young boy travelling with them shot himself. Jal, overwhelmed with despair, tried to do the same. “That happened when I lost hope,” he says. Music, for Jal and Nyaruach, is not just recreational—it is a life source. And the stakes are high. “We’re keeping this sound so we can still smile, so we can keep hope alive,” says Jal. “For you to survive, you have to give yourselves happy experiences, joyful experiences, and music does that.”

It’s unsurprising then that Naath is pointed in its joy and abandon, relentlessly committed to its belief in the transformative power of hope. Lead single and album opener “Ti Chuong” is a throbbing, lively, loose shuffle, a South Sudanese party-rock anthem: “Watch me now rocking (ain’t gonna stop) / Going spiritual now (rocking my locks),” goes the English call-and-response chorus. The songs on the record switch between dialects, from Nuer and Arabic to Swahili and English, suggesting a unified voice against toxic factionalism and ethnic violence in South Sudan. To Jal, it was something simpler: a way to capture his entire identity in his music. Naath’s musical arrangements weave nimbly between genres, from South Sudanese vocal flairs to big-band funk to Pitbullesque bombast. It’s not necessarily in step with legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti’s explicitly political Afrobeat genre (nor is it necessarily Afrobeats, a relatively new term contested by some in its own right as a reductive, “concocted misnomer” from the West), but Kuti’s tradition of musical resistance is certainly applicable.

“Gatluak” is arguably the record’s most potent and successful cut, an outrageously catchy dance track led by Nyaruach’s vocals. The Nuer word gatluak is used as a stand-in for men who prove to be a letdown: “You boring man with no plan,” Nyaruach sneers in a meme-worthy moment. To Western listeners, the line might seem routine, but for South Sudanese women, who experience gender-based sexual and physical violence at twice the global average, the song represents a step forward: it’s humorous and light, carefully reclaiming a modicum of power through comedy without being overtly threatening.

A music video for “Gatluak” was shot on location in Kakuma by youth from the camp and a local film production company. The song and video have gone viral in Kakuma and beyond—despite poor connection rates, more than 60 percent of refugees there access the internet—making Nyaruach’s music one of the camp’s most significant cultural exports. Campbell Golding was present for the shoot, and at a special performance of “Gatluak” in the camp. “The women were screaming and yelling and laughing and hugging and dancing,” she recalls. “What [Nyaruach] brings is this kind of release…especially for the South Sudanese women.”

Despite becoming an icon of resistance and power for so many in Kakuma, Nyaruach is still immobile, bound by statelessness and the associated restraints. Being forced from her home doesn’t mean just losing a house. “There are so many things that are not allowed here,” she says. “I don’t have a job here. I have nothing to pay. When we are losing our loved ones, losing home, and losing jobs, these things can make somebody go crazy.” But there is still hope. “I can start doing my music, travelling to different countries, and then I can be like other artists, other musicians,” she says. “And then I can forget about the past.”

Luke Ottenhof
Luke Ottenhof has written for the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, and Pitchfork.