Emel Mathlouthi’s voice is a clarion call for humanity to regain its humanity. The Tunisian singer was born in the country’s capital, Tunis, in 1984, at the end of the two-month bread riots.
The riots were sparked when bread prices shot up in response to the International Monetary Fund’s imposition of austerity measures on the country (similar to what the IMF is currently imposing on Egypt). The government brutally quashed the riots. Once the dust had settled, at least 100 people were dead, nearly 1,000 injured, and the regime of President Habib Bourguiba began to crumble. Three years later, General Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, denouncing Bourguiba as incompetent, ousted the president in a coup d’état. Ben Ali assumed the presidency in 1987.
Twenty-four years later in 2011, when Ben Ali was still president, Emel Mathlouthi found herself standing amidst a dense crowd of protestors on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, singing a song called “Kelmti Horra” (“My Word is Free”). It was the middle of the Tunisian Revolution and the dawn of what would become known as the Arab Spring. Tunisians, suffering from unemployment, corruption, and political repression, rose up in fury against Ben Ali’s one-party government. After about a month of massive protests that left hundreds killed by the state, the president was ousted.
The video of Mathlouthi singing her protest song on the street went viral. “Kelmti Horra” became a revolutionary anthem and Mathlouthi earned the title of the “Voice of the Arab Spring.” When the post-revolution Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for rebuilding Tunisia’s democracy, Mathlouthi sang “Kelmti Horra” at the award ceremony in Oslo.
In “Kelmti Horra,” Mathlouthi sings, “We are free and our word is free … We are free peoples who have no fear … I am the voice of those who do not give in … Today I will need all of your voices/So, all sing it with me/For freedom of expression/My Word is Free.”
Since the Tunisian Revolution, Mathlouthi has continued singing to protest injustice, but she also wants to move beyond 2011. The 36-year old, now living in New York City with her American husband and young daughter, has since released two albums and has toured the world with her inimitable sound. While she appreciates the recognition for her role in the revolution, she also feels boxed in by it. Media tends to focus only on that.
She does not believe it is her responsibility only to sing revolutionary protest songs. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, she said, “I’m a musician, I’m an artist, and I want to explore beauty in my music.”
Currently, she is working on more experimental, textural music, inspired by poets like Rainier Maria Rilke. Nevertheless, she cannot deny her roots: “I can’t help it,” she told the Herald, “I have this revolutionary heritage and soul in me that are ganna be there, in one way or another.”
The American and European music media seem to be unsure about how to talk about Mathlouthi. Even though her recordings are strongly in the camp of hard-edged and darkly atmospheric electronic music, Western media and promoters lump her into the exasperatingly Western-centric category of “world music.” She sings in Arabic and occasionally uses Arabic musical tonalities or samples of Arabic instruments, but her music cannot be confined by labels like “Tunisian” or “Arabic.”
She told the Herald that, growing up, “I had a complete aversion to everything that was Arabic. For me that has such powerful connection with dictatorship, with traditions, with mind control…. I wanted to be free … [a]nd I found that mostly in rock music.” Being raised by an academic father who was oppressed by the state for his honesty, she leaned towards loud, expressive music in English – bands like Nirvana and Metallica – to show her dissent. “For me,” she said, “it was the only way of existing, the only way of surviving … [to] explore the pain that was around, through music.”
Throughout her youth, she associated with dissident artists who were trying to resist the repression of the Ben Ali regime. After building her musical base in American hard rock, she began to move into the more overtly political realm, taking her cue from protest musicians like Joan Baez and the Egyptian singer Sheikh Imam. Her songs, originally layered and figurative in their critique, began to take on a candidly revolutionary bent. Her unabashed dissent was part of what pushed to her to leave Tunisia for Paris in 2007, where she cultivated her craft. By 2011, an anthem of rebellion like “Kelmti Horra” was her most defining and powerful work and was already well known by the Tunisian protesters, even though it was banned from the national airwaves.
The next year, she released her first album, also called Kelmti Horra. In 2017, she released her second, Ensen, which means “Human.” Both are haunting, fierce pieces of art that go far beyond protest. Ensen dives deeper into more personal realities of the human experience. It’s heavy and epic, at times verging on atmospheric punk or metal. The songs recall Massive Attack’s industrial, electronic trip-hop, Björk’s wild atmospheric experimentation, Jeff Buckley’s yearning emotion, and Leonard Cohen’s shadowy depths. Indeed, all of these artists have inspired Mathlouthi, and she often covers Buckley, Björk, and Cohen.
Whether she is singing in impassioned solidarity with the abused and oppressed people of the world or the internal struggles of being a human, Emel Mathlouthi’s magic captivates and empowers. Her voice can heal a person, or perhpas, given the right circumstances, even a nation.