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Tunisian Musician Emel’s Groundbreaking New Album Brings Together an All-Female Team

With the release of her all-female album this month, Tunisia’s Emel is changing the game


Dress, Nihan Peker; Shoes, Manc. Photo: Gökay Çatak

“I am a soldier, I am a fighter, I am a bullet,” the woman sings, eyes unyieldingly on the camera. She is Emel Mathlouthi, Tunisian American musician, songwriter, and producer, and this is her latest single, “Nar.” In the video, Emel, as she is professionally known, is surrounded by an army of women, chanting their anthem of strength and authority. Not for nothing does “nar” mean “fire” in Arabic. The women are unapologetic, powerful, and captivating, dancing in bold, oversized, sculptural outfits. They are here to take up space.

Emel’s protest song “Kelmti Horra” (“My Word is Free”) rose to prominence during the Arab Spring, with her 2012 debut album, also called Kelmti Horra, hailed by the international music press as “a powerful new voice” and “a world diva with a difference.” The album features a blend of traditional Tunisian sounds, electronic elements, and rock influences, with lyrics about freedom and empowerment. Following the success of Kelmti Horra, Emel continued to release music that explores themes of identity, activism, and the human experience. Her subsequent albums, including Ensen (2017) and Everywhere We Looked Was Burning (2019), further showcased her unique blend of musical styles and lyrical depth.

With her distinctive mixing of genres and languages, it was clear that a spark had been lit – and more than 10 years later, that flame burns brighter still. Her latest album, MRA, drops this month as a feat of ground- breaking production. That is because Emel – true to character – put together an all-female team. Every collaborator on the album is a woman, from the producers, featured artists, musicians, technicians, photographers, and beyond. “I’ve been working almost exclusively with men, and I felt that I couldn’t call myself a successful feminist, or I couldn’t be proud of myself, just putting myself at the front. I had to reorganize my own kitchen and get more women in there. And that’s how this all started,” she explains.


Dress, Kojak Studio; Shoes, Manc. Photo: Gökay Çatak

A potent force in music, Emel is no stranger to shaking things up. In person she is eloquent, outspoken, and compelling, and she bristles against the expectations that some may have for Arab artists, in particular women. She’s never conformed to these lazy stereotypes and this latest release is no exception. “For every album, I have a new concept, a new idea, and this time I wanted to explore a new me that’s trying new forms of songwriting,” she says. “As an Arab artist, we tend to be put in an ‘exotic’ box, or a ‘political’ box, especially in the west. I’ve always wanted to fight against that. I have all these layers to my artistic personality and what I want to achieve.”

While the idea of making an album with an all-female team was a brilliant one, the execution was difficult, Emel says. That’s because the industry is still very much male-dominated so she had to search unconventional avenues to find the talent she knew was out there. “If you’re a female producer, an engineer, or a technician, there’s not much recognition,” she shares. “Women aren’t offered those opportunities. I started looking for producers and it was exciting and scary at the same time – I wasn’t sure if I was going to find the right people for me.” She dove into Instagram and also Spotify playlists, specifically looking for a producer that could play an instrument, make music and sounds with software, and also have an ear and an understanding of composition. “Eventually, I ended up finding an interesting set of women,” she smiles. “Every one of us comes from a different musical background and culture.” Like producer Hannah V, born in Germany to South Indian parents and now living in London. Or South African Angel-Ho, an award-winning performance artist. And 20-year-old producer Lyzza, who was born in Brazil but lives in Amsterdam and is “amazingly skilful, technically and artistically,” Emel enthuses. “She’s mixing all these influences and pushing me to try different things. I felt trusted and supported, really uplifted and encouraged. And that’s what I cherish the most about collaborating with all these women: we all felt that we were creating space for each other. And then I met more women and I ended up working with more people than I thought I would, because I love this!” More than just creating her own project, Emel wanted to showcase the power of women working collaboratively. “Every woman who is doing something to showcase other women is important for all of us,” she says. “That was my core idea, to show the world that we can get together. We’re not just rivals. We have to trust each other and we have to create spaces for each other, because unfortunately, most of the time men create spaces for men. They just hire each other.” The layered and complex project took on and off three years from conception to completion, with Emel explaining that she wanted to capture a dual response in people by making entertaining, catchy music (“I want the songs to hit you right away!”) while also stimulating expression and emotion (“I want the body and the brain to connect in an instant process”). She certainly achieves that with the single “Nar,” which also features Mali’s first female Mandinka rapper, Ami Yerewolo. The visuals were also important to Emel, and she understands the power of fashion, having worked with Azzedine Alaïa (“From there, you can never go back to something normal!”). “It was important to me to emphasize the fashion movement that’s going on in the region,” Emel says. “I have a lot of admiration for what’s going on, and I’m glad that they added this beautiful touch to my work.” Egyptian designer Mohanad Kojak from Kojak Studio created some of the striking looks in the video. The singer loves his unique style: “It’s very sculptural, it’s very free, it’s very empowering,” she declares.


Dress, Lara Arı; Shoes, Manc. Photo: Gökay Çatak

Emel has never shied away from themes of social justice, identity, and freedom in her music, citing her family’s influence. Born in Tunis, her music is deeply influenced by her Tunisian heritage. The only artist in her family, she began her musical journey at a young age, drawing inspiration from both traditional sounds and western genres. Her distinctive voice, characterized by its haunting and emotive quality, quickly captivated audiences both in Tunisia and abroad, and she’s performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and the Glastonbury Festival in the UK. She has also bravely and defiantly got on stage in Palestine and Iran, despite threats from the authorities. “Performing in Palestine last summer, which is so hard to get into, meant the world to me because you meet people who just want to live life like everybody else. They just want to go to a concert and be happy… Their resilience was inspiring. Despite everything they’ve been through, they really teach you about life. It marked a turning point for me.” The artist currently lives in New York, a choice, she says, made because she wanted to live freely, as she chooses. “Growing up under a dictatorship, I wanted to be free and do what I like. It was hard for me to do anything that I wanted to do, to express myself. I moved to Europe and then New York, where I could be embraced for who I am and where I could also embrace myself.”

While she might be living far away from her family, their influence spans time and space. “I was raised to stand up for myself, to stand up for justice, to have empathy,” she shares. “My intellectual father ensured we had access to amazing literature and classical recordings… I came up into the world ready to empathize with other oppressed people.” She cites her mother as “the first woman in my life” and shares that while they may not agree on everything, she values her strength. “When you’re born as a woman, you have to be strong. You don’t have any other choice if you want to do some things in life, even if those things are just to be independent. I admire my mother so much for that because it wasn’t easy for her, coming from a conservative family. She taught me to be strong and to not give up your spot. Do what you want to do.”

Style: Ayşe Ece Altun 
Hair: Mutlu Ahmet Sinan 
Makeup: Ceren Eröz 
Ceren Kaçıkoç 
Photography assistant: Çağdaş Sezgin 
Production assistant: İpek Çolakoğlu 
Special thanks: Ciragan Palace Kempinski

Originally published in the April 2024 issue of Vogue Arabia

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