Tunisian singer Emel releases her fourth solo album, The Tunis Diaries, today. A stirring acoustic repertoire that takes her quest for freedom even further as she revisits home. Originally printed in the November 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia.
Tunisian singer Emel is on the move again and it’s not necessarily to tour, even though she has just released her fourth album, The Tunis Diaries. Having spent the last six years living in New York, she has made the decision to move to Paris so that her young daughter can attend school full-time. In the middle of the move, however, she spent the Covid-19-imposed lockdown in Tunis, which saw her reconnect with her past and birth her new, double album. “I hadn’t spent time in my childhood home in Tunis in a very long time. I reconnected deeply with my hometown, even though I couldn’t go out,” she says. “One of the things I love most about my home city is the colors of the sky; the sound of the birds, and the view of the rooftops with the cascading whites of the houses with the green of the pines, the bougainvillea, the sea, and the mountains.”
If Tunis is where Emel first started singing—at the top of her staircase where she found some reverb—it’s also the place where she felt the first restrictions on her liberty. “Growing up in Tunisia, our house wasn’t very traditional; regardless, girls had certain expectations that boys didn’t. It started with simple things, like going out and being trusted by my family to make the right decisions.” She furthers that growing under a dictatorship enforced a feeling of complete lack of freedom and opportunities. “I have always been grounded and had my priorities straight. I wanted to explore everything; I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t to be trusted and that shaped my personality.” As early as she can remember, Emel wanted to be involved with the arts and leaned towards acting, dancing, and singing. Her initial music was inspired by pop singers like Céline Dion. “I was writing stupid love songs and singing in English and French. At the time, I was in a metal band and then I turned to folk and protest music and guitar. I didn’t want to sing in Arabic, because it reflected a dictatorship for me. The way it was taught or performed was rigid and I wanted to break all the rules.”
Emel with the late Tunisian designer Azzedine Alaïa in Paris. Instagram.com/emelmathlouthi
In college, Emel started to find confidence in her own path and native tongue, “Mashael Khalifa and Oumaima Khalif’s songs were a trigger. I found my language in my own expression,” she says. Emel wrote her single Kelmti Horra (My Word is Free) in 2004. Her haunting vocals went viral during the Arab Spring and Emel became known as the Voice of the Tunisian Revolution. “It meant even more to me because I was performing mostly for audiences in Europe. People didn’t understand the music and all of a sudden, I felt that I had an even bigger mission to succeed and present the music that is very humane.”
During confinement, Emel performed via Facebook and Instagram Lives, and collaborated with Royal Albert Hall, Amnesty, and Arte TV. “I rediscovered the pleasure and passion of performing without the luxury of other musicians, just a simple, classical guitar and a voice,” she says. Her fourth album comprises a few original songs—Ma Lkit, Fi Kolli Yawmen, and Everywhere We Looked was Burning—with most pulled from her last three records and sung acoustic along with covers of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World and Nirvana, among others.
“It’s been a rocky road to understand who I really am and why I’m taking the decisions I do. Now, I’m trying to be proud of my achievements,” she says, confessing that she is a naturally anxious person who never feels like she is doing enough but who is also very decisive. One priority is the strengthening of her connections to other women in the music industry. She reveals that she is already working on a new album, and hopes that it will be exclusively produced by women. I’ve been the only woman for a long time and it’s not because there are no women, but we need to unveil them and the darkness that surrounds them,” says Emel, who goes by her first name only in a conscious effort to disconnect from a patriarchal society.
The musician, who, in 2015 performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, states of her commitment to the equality of all strata of community, “I don’t feel that I should have more privileges than the person who sleeps on the street. My parents were broke when I came into the world and they thought that if they named me Emel, which means many hopes—life would be better for them.” May freedom continue where Emel’s begins. The Tunis Diaries by Emel via Partisan Records
Watch Vogue Arabia’s Instagram Live Concert with Emel today at 5.30 pm Dubai / 3.30 pm Paris time