Discarded in a box as an infant and left in a park in Iraq to fend for himself, with no birth certificate, no passport, and no identity, Emmanuel Kelly shouldn’t even be alive.
Found by a nun, he was taken to a Mother Teresa orphanage where he met Ahmed, also born with severely underdeveloped limbs due to the chemical warfare in their community. The boys, who consider themselves brothers, were raised together in war-torn Iraq for the first seven years of their lives.
Having witnessed the worse of humanity, hearing explosions and seeing executions first hand, Kelly's life miraculously changed in 2000 when he and his brother were brought to Australia for life-changing operations by humanitarian Moria Kelly, who eventually adopted the two boys. Over the next 16 years, he underwent eight life-altering surgeries, and overcame enormous physical and mental obstacles, including learning to walk, how to dress and feed himself, and how to drive a vehicle.
But Kelly also found a prodigious voice. First noticed in an emotional X-Factor performance, he also sang March 23 on Univision’s Teleton 2018, performing with Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who’s become a mentor. The 24-hour special seeks to raise money for disadvantaged and differently-abled children, as well as cancer research.
“When I was in Iraq, I would sing, and I would use, I guess, the gift that was given to me as a tool to escape from the war and escape from the bombs and the gunshots and the executions that were happening around, escape from the fear,” Kelly told Billboard in en exclusive backstage interview at Teleton.
“Then I came to Australia, when I was about 10 or 11, my mother, who is incredible, took me to an event one day, and I performed in front of maybe 1,000 people. When I finished singing [the song ‘I Am Australian’], everyone stood up and they clapped and they cheered and they were all really kind of engaging with what I had done and inspired. Some were laughing, some were smiling, some were crying -- it was all over the place. And in that moment, I realized this is my gift. This is what I need to do for the rest of my life.”
Now, Kelly has set out to achieve his dream of becoming the "first differently-abled pop star.” After performing John Lennon’s “Imagine” on X Factor, Kelly has performed in front of audiences of up to 100,000 people across the world, including venues like Sydney Opera House in Australia and MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas.
Having Martin’s support, he says, has been key.
“Chris has been mentoring me over the last six months, helping me and guiding me in this kind of tremulous industry, in this kind of crazy industry that we’re in; guiding me in finding the right people to support me or be around me, but at the same time, he’s also been helping me with the album,” he says, referring the his debut set, which he’s currently working on.
“He’s been supporting me in many ways, primarily helping me with the lyrics, you know. If I have something that I haven’t written correctly, I feel like it needs a second look, he will come in and say, 'You know, I think you should change this. I think you can make it better there.' Or 'Dig deeper, Emmanuel, you can think beyond what you’re thinking.'"
Kelly self-released a first single “Hello” in Australia, and is hoping to debut his album, My Sky, in early 2019.
“The reason I called it My Sky is because it kind of is about my journey in a way. It talks about how the sky is mine. It’s mine for the taking,” Kelly says.
The songs already produced include “Edis,” which deals with death, says Kelly. “It’s about struggle. It’s about no matter what life has to present to you, you’re never alone. There’s always someone that you love, a loved one, or there’s always someone that you care about, a brother, a sister, a girlfriend, a lover, a mother, a father -- there’s always someone there, and even if those people are not there, there’s a pet, there’s a dog, there’s a cat, there’s God -- if you believe in God -- there’s the universe. You’re never alone. You’re always surrounded with something, an energy source of some kind.”
“I’ve gone from Iraq and being in a box in a park to seeing executions in war to now being here in the U.S. where I get to perform for people and working on an album, and Chris Martin’s my mentor, and life is great.”