Emel Mathlouthi or “The Voice of the Tunisian Revolution” as many call her, is a powerful musician from Tunisia. Besides the captivating sound of her voice, her songs contain political and social messages. The city she now calls her “home” is New York. I got the chance to talk with this inspiring and brave musician about her music career, projects, and upcoming album.
Emel started singing when she was a child. As a young college student back in Tunisia in 2004, she started writing songs about issues such as freedom, justice, and revolution. When I asked her how the experience was as a woman musician in Tunisia, she talked about the excitement of “being in the shade” as a musician: “It was very exciting because being in the shade helps you to get more creative. There were no restrictions or limits. We were coming together with my friends and mixing electronic music with traditional Arab and North African sounds. So it was prolific artistically. And as a woman, I didn’t really think about it, but maybe it was hard to be a female leader and having men in the band [laughing]. But I didn’t really think about it because I was really passionate about music and what I was doing. I was starving for creation.”
The sounds that Emel has been creating in her songs cannot possibly be described as traditional or common in the Arab music world despite having a central focus on Arabic and the authenticity in it. Using more electro and rock bases in an Arabic song was something unique for the Arab music scene. “I was trying to make a revolution in the [Arab] music itself,” she explained. When I asked her about the political context of her songs, she referred to her inspirations: Yasser Jradi, whom she describes as one of her biggest influences, Marcel Khalife, and Joan Baez to name a few: “They gave me hope, power, and strength. Through music, they put me in a world that made me feel better and believe in what I was already thinking.”
Making Music under the Ben Ali Regime and the Tunisian Revolution
When we talk about Tunisia and its artistic scene, we need to keep in mind that until 2011, the country was under the oppressive regime of Ben Ali, which tried to silence the voices of creative people. Just like many other musicians in the country, Emel’s songs could not be heard of at any TV channel or radio station. That is a tough situation for a young musician who has messages to send through her songs. When I asked her if she had ever thought about giving up because of the oppressive regime, her answer was a strong “no.” Instead, she moved to France in 2007 in order to have a future for her music. She admits, “The music industry is really hard. So maybe there had been a time that I thought to give up [laughing].” Ultimately, she explained, the oppressive regime actually gave her more strength to continue what she was already doing.
Tunisian Revolution began with Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself alight. During that time, Emel was playing a few gigs in the country and she was probably the first musician to talk about the Revolution on the stage. She also participated in the demonstrations. Her song, “Kelmti Horra” (My Word is Free) went viral online and became the anthem of the revolution, not only in Tunisia, but later in Egypt as well.
“Music has an endless power. Song is a very important tool to talk about what’s happening in the world because music is an invisible force that can bring everybody together. It touches any soul at any moment. Especially in Tunisia and Arab Spring, music was a drop of pureness in the ocean of bad things,” she said about the effect of her song during the resistance.
Eastern Sounds Meet Western Sounds: “Kelmti Horra”
Emel released her debut “Kelmti Horra” in 2012. The sound of the album is a mixture of Western and Eastern music, ranging from electro to traditional elements that meet Emel’s effortlessly captivating voice and strong singing style: “That album was inspired by trip-hop, actually. When I started making the album, I recorded some of my songs acoustically. I uploaded them on my computer and put some electronic beats on them to see if the combination works. I liked the result. It was something new in Arab music. It is also important to pay attention to the accidental music. In every part of life, I think, the most interesting thing is to combine different elements and mixing them together. People still can’t believe that mixtures can happen so naturally. I am coming from Tunisia, but what I was listening to when I was growing up was not Arabic music, but instead, music from North and Latin America, and also rock, metal, electro… Later, I combined all those elements with Arabic sounds. This is what makes my experience in music richer.”
No Land’s Song and the Iran Experience
Emel also features in the Iranian documentary film, No Land’s Song, which has been screened in different countries by Human Rights Watch. The film is about the project of the Iranian composer, Sara Najafi, who wants to have a concert featuring only female musicians, which has been banned in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Emel described her experiences traveling to Iran, working with Iranian musicians, and singing in Persian: “It was a great experience, but frustrating at the same time. I thought female musicians were not allowed to sing in Iran at all. But they can actually, only with one condition: singing as a back vocal for a male musician, which I think is even worse. I had the same experience when we had our concert there. There had to be men with us on the stage. I was so disappointed because I wanted to sing in Persian by myself.” She hopes that the film can reach as many people as possible, mainly women, all around the world and that Iranian women will be allowed to sing without the obligation of having men on the stage again.
Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony and Concert
Back in December, she performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo, Norway. “The ceremony was probably one of the biggest moments in my life. It was not because that the king and queen were there, but it was about the fact that my performance was going to be broadcasted on TV and the Tunisians were going to watch it,” she said.
Besides the ceremony, Emel also performed with an orchestra at the concert of the Nobel Peace Prize, where there was a huge crowd of audience: “It was like my dream came true. Because when I wrote the song [Kelmti Horra], I always imagined having an orchestra that includes cellos and violins playing it.”
“Your Home is where your Heart is.”
It has been almost ten years since Emel left Tunisia, but she visits the country time to time. Being away from the place where one was born and raised might lead a person feel like an outsider in their country. For Emel, it is both: “I feel a little bit outsider. But I’m always Tunisian, of course; it is where I was born, grew up and where my parents are from. But I’m also curious about discovering the world. I think you also adopt many other places. It is said that ‘your home is where your heart is.’ Especially my first years outside of Tunisia were nostalgic. But I liked that because it produced my first album and the intense feelings in it.”
Upcoming Album and the Crowdfunding Campaign
Emel has been working on her upcoming album, which will be out in September. I was expecting to hear that this recording process was easier than it was for her debut when I asked her about it: “I thought working on the new album was going to be easier, too. But I had a problem finding a producer who was going to make a difference. It was hard for me to find someone because I think I am ‘different.’ I went to the electro music producers thinking that they were going to make something in my music that does not have a connection with my singing, which I’m more interested in. But that didn’t work. I was in trouble finding someone who has a broader vision and who can bring unique and original sounds.” But happily to hear that, she finally met Valgeir Sigurðsson, the Icelandic composer and producer, who was also a longtime collaborator of Björk. He worked on the whole album, produced two tracks and participated in six others. “He brought his own sounds into the music that I made,” she concluded.
Finding producers was not the only obstacle facing Emel. She also could not find a record label that was willing to release her new album: “We are starting a crowdfunding campaign because I was really disappointed by the conservatism of record labels. I approached some of them, especially the indie and electro labels, but I usually ‘don’t fit’ they say because I sing in Arabic. It’s true, though. Besides Omar Souleyman, I don’t know anyone who sings in Arabic and is a part of this scene. My goal is now to found my own record label and release my album on my own with the help of the crowdfunding. So this is my big project now,” she said.
*Click here to open the campaign’s website in order to contribute.
“Little Human” who Deal with the Unfair World
The track, “Ensen Dhaif” (Little Human), from the upcoming album was exclusively available on Pitchfork for a short period of time, and it was chosen as the best new track by Pitchfork. Emel describes the song as a reaction to what we have been told and taught: “Life is so unfair—a small percentage takes advantage of us. So many things are fixed in life. When we fail to do something, people tell us to try and work harder. This song is a reaction to those statements and fixed things. I just want to open up people’s eyes and show them that no, it is not fair. We need to give less to the capitalist world and spend more time with meaningful values in our lives, such as our families.”
Emel Mathlouthi is such a brave and inspiring woman whose messages go beyond borders through her creativity, meaningful music, and unique voice. Her story is an inspiration for young aspiring artists who feel they are trapped in their world, and she has something to say to them: “They should continue pursuing what they are doing. I know it is hard to be brave, but I think there is no other choice. The situation might be tougher in places like Saudi Arabia or Iran, but they need to find a way to pursue their art and music because we need artists who can speak out more than ever now.”
Note: Emel is currently on tour and will be the opening act for Oslo World Music Festival in November.
*This interview was originally published in the newspaper, Evrensel.