Although Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi is renowned for singing poignant melodies about freedom and justice for her homeland, the experimental artist has set her heart on a much bigger plea for her third album: The Earth. Three years in the making, Everywhere We Looked Was Burning was released in September, debuting ten tracks that illustrate the harmonious sounds of nature and the limitless power of humanity if we work together to protect the planet on which we live. Mathlouthi first rose to worldwide fame with her protest song Kelmti Horra (“My Word is Free”), which became the anthem for the Tunisian revolution and Arab Spring almost a decade ago and garnered her an invitation to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in 2015. Now, New York-based Mathlouthi sings almost entirely in English for the first time, continuing to pursue her mission of spreading the vibrant music of the region and her passionate message of hope in unity to the world without being typecasted or exoticized by the West. Vogue Arabia spoke to Mathlouthi six months after the launch of her album to hear about one of the most acclaimed Arab avant-garde artists of this generation’s journey and share an exclusive first look at her latest music video.
How does it feel to be known as “The Voice of the Tunisian Revolution?”
It is a huge honor. To have any kind of association with such an incredible and historic moment is something unique in one’s lifetime, not to mention having the privilege to be respected for my voice, my music, and my contribution to the revolution.
It does, however, have its downsides. While I am deeply proud and honored to have been an important part of the world’s only modern successful revolution, it can feel a bit lonely and limiting because the western world tends to box us—artists from the Arab region—as if we can only be part of the conversation through politics. I am an artist first and foremost, and I continue to grow and evolve and would like the world to see me for who I am with all its diverse sides: A revolutionary yes, a Tunisian yes, but also a composer, a pioneer, a producer, an innovator, and an avant-garde artist. At some point, the music has to be at the center of the interest.
What was life like for you growing up in Tunisia?
I come from a middle-class family, both of my parents were teachers when they worked. My father is also a committed intellectual and my mother comes from a family where agriculture was important, mostly olive oil. Some of my first memories are of my father playing lots of classical music for us in our house on Sundays, or all of us together at the beach near Sousse for vacations.
I am grateful to have been raised in a secular and intellectual atmosphere while also having deep roots in my Tunisian culture and traditions. I am particularly lucky to have been raised with the love of music and literature; I think that’s the best gift we can give our kids. Education was very, very important for my parents, which was good. I just wish that parents in our countries would also encourage their kids’ artistic talents. Mine didn’t, so I had to carve my way through and I quickly developed my artistic passion in my own secret world. At 18, I was known to be THE high school singer and I had a great group of friends and a band, mostly sharing the love of freedom, revolution, and rock’n’roll—so cliché but so true! We all knew we were living under a massive dictatorship where nothing was encouraging us to become free thinkers or creatives; we had to follow the rules and blend in and not talk smart or clever.
So, music helped me a lot through those years. I call them the emptiness years, but music and idealism made me feel so strong and I believed in myself and my own power through art, which made me the person I am today and helped me develop my creative drive. From a young age, I was very conscious of the many challenges Tunisians were facing and wanted to find a way to help from my perspective. So I wrote songs, songs that eventually landed on my first album Kelmi Horra and some even on my second album Ensen.
At what stage in your life did you get into music?
I first started to sing and act at seven and to improvise and create songs at about ten. I was entirely self-taught. I learned by singing Celine Dion when I was a teenager, in the staircase of our home in Tunis, because I liked the sound of the echo. After, when I started university, I started a metal band with a few classmates and we started performing at annual university parties; it was a revolution for me! There, I had the revelation that I was made for being on stage and that would be my fate. When I was 20, my bandmate played me “The Boxer” by Joan Baez and I immediately fell in love. I had a new revelation: I wanted to be like her and touch thousands with just my voice, my music, and my guitar around universal values of human rights. I began to be called by NGOs and sometimes small theatres in Tunis to perform. I started covering Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd but also Fairouz, Cheikh Imam, and Marcel Khalifa. I felt I found my life’s purpose—singing for social justice and freedom, singing to create art and push all genre boundaries. Eventually I started writing my own lyrics and started my songwriting adventure. In Tunisian Arabic and literally Arabic as well. I wanted to do more than interpret the work of others. I wanted to write my own songs and be in charge of my own bands and creative process, and somehow I made it.
How do you think your Tunisian identity has shaped you as a female musician and artist?
It has shaped me very thoroughly. Tunisia is a kind of unique place. We are part of Africa, we are part of the Arab world, we are part of the Mediterranean region. We are so strongly influenced by all of these and I think I bring a sense of all these cultures in my art. Growing up, I listened to old Tunisian tunes from the 30s and classical European music, turned to heavy metal as a teen, then to divas and protest songwriters a bit later; I’m a huge mix!
Being Tunisian also exposed me to the struggles for freedom that we waged and the sweet feeling of having succeeded, followed by all the confusion of not knowing which way to go next. I am proud to share my music as a Tunisian. My fans in Tunisia, and in other Arab countries or countries in the region like Turkey, are so important to me. It is also a joy to sometimes be seen as a voice for Arab diasporas, like when I was given an award for conscientious artistic expression by the Arab American Institute.
But I have to say my Tunisian identity has also allowed me to see some of the strangeness and injustice in the music world. For what I suppose are business reasons, the music market has felt compelled to create categories and the category I am usually put into is something called World Music. I never really understood what that meant, but I am sure there is some old-fashioned prejudice behind it. In the West or North, artists like me are given very few opportunities to participate as equals, and when we try to grow beyond the market’s limited understanding of us, we are often pushed to the side. But I will keep fighting for all of us, and be at peace with my “Tunisianity”— whatever that means—in my voice, my lyrics, my melodies, or my soul.
What do you think it was about your debut album Kelmti Horra that resonated with so many people?
Honestly, I think it is the quality of the songs, the songwriting, the musicality, and the truth and uniqueness of the production and genre. I put everything into that album. It was years and years of work. I funneled all my rage, my emotions, my will for all the years I spent dreaming it and conceiving it. It was also very much an album of its times. In the album, I spoke for freedom, for justice, for dignity, for understanding. It seems strange to say now, but that was enormously risky at that time and I suffered a lot. I think people feel that yearning and that vulnerability, that sense of risk and that commitment to a better tomorrow; I hope it continues to inspire people around the world.
Did becoming a mother have an influence on your songwriting? If so, how?
Probably; it must have reawakened my sense of innocent and free exploration. Watching my daughter play, be herself, react to the world has helped me understand the pureness and joy that is fundamental to all people. She has helped me to create more freely and more fully. I can also say that when I am down, my daughter is an enormous boost that helps me keep going forward. In my new album, she also makes a cameo. She can be heard in the background playing in a song called A Quiet Home. She’s a bundle of joy, energy, and creativity—she amazes every day and I take a lot of inspiration from her!
What was it like to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony and Concert in 2015?
It was awesome—probably my most special experience to date. I was so, so proud to represent Tunisia on those important stages for all the world to see. The ceremony itself was an amazing chance to honor all Tunisians, including the Tunisian Quartet who won the award. And the concert was a much bigger deal than I was expecting; it was watched live around the world by millions. It was a very important stage and a great chance to share Tunisia, to share my voice—the voice of an Arab free woman—and my music—music without borders—with the world. I am eternally grateful for that chance.
Much of your inspiration for songwriting is drawn from nature, why is that?
Yes, especially in recent years as my songwriting has moved a bit away from the political, I have found a lot of joy in contemplating nature in my work. My writing process involves deep immersion in nature and my recent album is a call to humanity to get our act together and to save our planet for future generations. Nature brings me that peace that disconnects me with all the unnecessary noises and distractions of the world; it relaxes me but also gives me back a lot of depth and perspective. I feel the grandness of it that brings me to my knees, vulnerable and renewed. I like to create in that newly offered neutral space.
How did you come to name your new album Everywhere We Looked Was Burning?
It has two meanings. The most obvious is that the world has massive problems, from wars to injustice to the literal burning of the environment in so many places. Since I have always been seen as speaking only to the Tunisian context, this is my effort to show the world that I think it is not only us who has issues. We are all way behind where we should be in terms of human cooperation, setting good priorities for the future, and respecting one another and the earth. In this sense, the burning refers to the devastation which is occurring everywhere.
But it also has a second meaning, which is that humanity still has a flame in its heart, in its eyes. People everywhere, especially young people, are ardently passionate about a better future. This flame cannot be extinguished and will light the way ahead for us all. Everywhere we looked was burning, but maybe we still have a chance to save the future? I like to keep things hopeful and open to a better ending.
Why did you choose to produce an album in English this time?
It is seen as a big change, but the fact is I have always been experimenting and growing so it is natural that I try something new. The album has a couple of songs in Arabic, but most of the songs are in English and it represents my effort to speak as an Arab woman to the rest of the world in terms they can understand. I am reminded of the story of a great Palestinian leader from the old times, the late Haidar Abdel Shafi. He was set to give an important speech to a large international audience and media after an important conference. His team wrote the speech in Arabic, which of course he spoke better than anyone. He said that this time, it was very important for the world to understand what he was saying—to get the message clearly without anything being lost in translation and to hear directly from his heart.
I love Arabic and still perform in the language quite a bit. But I had a moment where I, like this great man, wanted to also be understood by the world. To have the world not only use their imagination or preconception when thinking of us but to also hear from us directly in terms that can move them. I have also sung a lot in English in my beginnings, so to me, it was natural and soothing—to retrieve my first emotions and to discover and explore a new dimension in my vocals.
What would be your message to the modern women of the Middle East?
Be yourself. Believe in yourself, in your inner voice, your strength, your power. Be free like the wind. Be strong. Most of all, let’s be together.
Watch the exclusive first look at Emel Mathlouthi’s new music video for her song M’Errouh (“From the Soul”) below. Written, composed, directed, and produced by Mathlouthi, this track from the album features beats made from the rhythmic sounds of nature including wind, water, and fire. “It is the song of the apocalypse, pointing at the horizon. The song of a tragic exodus of millions of people across the planet, escaping the fatal menace: Capitalism,” explained Mathlouthi. “Nature becomes another character in the story, that at turns transforms into a villain that’s coming after us for revenge, for all the harm we’ve been doing to it.”
Video written, directed and produced by Emel Mathlouthi
Song written and composed by Emel Mathlouthi
Music Production by Emel Mathlouthi Karim Attoumane and Amine Metani