In winter 2015, artist Emel Mathlouthi calmly stepped on the stage in the city of Oslo at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, amid the astonishment of the audience and the waiting of Tunisians.
With her first “couplet”, the audience’s engagement increased. She sang, delighting everyone, “I am the free people who never fear / I am the secrets that will never die / I am the voice of those who would not give in / I am the meaning amid the chaos / I am the right of the oppressed”
Her performance garnered warm applause from the audience and praise from the international press. This song, according to Emel, is like “an ever-glowing flame, and no matter how many years pass, it remains there.”
No matter how much she tries not to sing it at her concerts, people still ask for it. This song was a turning point in her artistic life, and in her opinion, it embodies the true meaning of art.
In 1982, at the age of fifteen, Emel took her first artistic steps. She founded a heavy metal band, being a huge fan of this type of music, but she also listens to songs by Sheikh Emam, Fairuz and Umm Kulthum, as well as Beethoven’s music, and music from India, Iran and various European countries. She also reads Naguib Mahfouz, Dostoevsky, and others. She believes an artist should listen to everything.
In 2004, she separated from the band and began writing political songs. Her famous song “Ya Tounes Ya Meskina” (Poor Tunisia) brought her to the finals of the Monte Carlo Radio Award for Arabic Music, an award to encourage new talents in the field of music and singing in several Arab countries.
In her song, she called for revolution, sending a harsh political message: “They say they only fear God / When I grew up, and in front of the world I opened my eyes / I found that they feared everything but God / Fear is in their bones / They live in silence / They were taught that at school / In the heads it was well implanted.”
A star, and a sensation, Emel Mathlouthi introduced a new Arabic music genre, associated with the power and hope of Arab Spring. Emel’s musical shows are spectacular and inspiring, to the point Tunisia banned her music.
Two years later, the Tunisian government banned her songs from radio and television broadcasting, which prompted her to move to France. Despite the ban, videos of her performances spread in France all over the Internet, which increased her popularity, seeing as “the forbidden fruit is the sweetest.”
In her opinion, the decision to ban her from singing in Tunisia was “a very sensitive issue, and the biggest price she paid.” She believes she is still paying the price to this day, especially since she is unable to communicate permanently with her Tunisian audience. “My soul is in Tunisia, the place where I was born and grew up. It is a very sensitive issue, and I feel like it is one of the many prices I have paid,” she says.
“I hate the word ‘elitist’ in particular. The words ‘music’ and ‘elitist’ do not mix with each other in the same context, especially since the music we believe in and the one we work on is very instinctive music, with spontaneity and emotions.”
After the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia began in December 2010, and in its context that led to the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Emel attracted widespread public attention, as her songs became anthems of the revolution, especially the song “Kalimati Hurra” (My Word is Free), which is a mixture of of electronic beats and traditional tones. She performed it among the revolutionaries on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, in the “Revolution Square”.
Entering into politics did not scare her. She sees that an artist should be “free and free”. Sovereignty and ruling, in her opinion, belong to the people, and what was broken in the past should not be mended, especially since people no longer accept bad choices.
She believes that “We inherited great things during the past ten years, which pushes us to continue to strive and struggle,” and that “the dictatorship that has ended must not return.” She further calls on women to revolt against themselves.
She continues her artistic ascent, dedicating her art to political causes. “We still have to feel the pain of others, this is what prevents us from succumbing to dehumanization, this is my main point," she says, noting that her art will always be concerned with public issues and people’s problems and concerns, especially as she believes that the artist has a role in developing people’s opinions and ideas, and that he must stimulate the mind of the audience, make them dream, grow their imagination, increase their aspirations, and make them “see things that they have not seen before.”
“Art is a consciousness machine.” It is Emel’s philosophy about what she offers. In her opinion, the artist is the only one who has the ability to talk about people’s concerns and problems, with a theater, light and people’s confidence, which at the same time entails responsibility, and therefore “the artist must be free so that he can give something real.” She says, “For me, I am 100% free. Many things take away my freedom. But I am truly free.”
Emel, whose name means hope, carried her humanitarian message in her songs, through art. In her song “Ensan Daeef” (Weak Human), she talks about the pressure and oppression that people are subjected to on this planet in general. In “Kaddesh”, she speaks of the cruelty of man on man.
The song closest to her heart is “Fi Kul Yom” (Everyday). She feels that her lyrics are composed with huge effort, they came out strong, and as a lyricist she is happy with them. She recalls saying her lyrics in front of the Palestinian poet Samih Al-Qasim, and says, “Isn’t bitterness inevitable, isn’t bitterness inevitable for us?” Al-Qasim replied, “No, bitterness is not inevitable for us. Despite violence and bad events, there remains a glimmer of hope and optimism.”
“It is important that the Arab world has free art or revolutionary art in every sense of the word, and at all levels: in beat, in form, in melody, and in lyrics.”
She says in the song “Every day”: “Everyday, spring abandons a heart, and a bird in the sky dies. Every day, life robs us new hope, we cry joy, we cry joy, we cry joy every day, every day. Every day, man buries a thought, and a soul disappears into the cave of life, in the cave of life, every day, every day. This is the reality of living, this is the reality of living, so why do we go on? Why do we go on? Isn’t bitterness inevitable? Isn’t bitterness inevitable for us? Every day, life reveals a secret and guide us with a light that breaks through the clouds, breaks through the clouds. Every day, every day the sun rises, the sun.”
The various messages that Mathlouthi carries in her songs shocked a part of the Arab audience. Some did not accept it as a new type of art, which was a challenge for her, and she sees that the challenge still exists at times, especially since some say to her, “Your music is not elitist.” In response, she says, “I hate the word ‘elitist’ in particular. The words ‘music’ and ‘elitist’ do not mix with each other in the same context, especially since the music we believe in and the one we work on is very instinctive music, with spontaneity and emotions.”
The difficulties that Emel faced at the beginning of her artistic career kept her from her ambition to be known in Tunisia and the Middle East, believing that her talent was more popular in the West. But that changed during the Arab Spring, as that period gave her hope.
She recalls going to the annual El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt, where traditional art is present. “The audience was different. They were all actors, and I was not much involved in that world, as I was independent. I felt that I received great respect from the artists at the festival, I felt that they loved me for my style, because I am different, and this is the goal of my life: To make a difference,” she says.
However, every direction comes with a price. The price of Emel’s independence is that she finds it very difficult to choose her songs. Throughout her career, she did not like to go up on stage and sing a song that she did not believe in, love or match her way of thinking. She believes that the artist must be honest with himself and with his audience because there is a trust given to him, and he must be worthy of that trust and more.
She feels that Arab youth today have more acceptance of the type of music she offers than any other group, and that things are starting to change in the Arab world, but most of our popular art is still of the same type, whether on radio, television, or festivals.
Despite the above, there is new music in the Arab region: “To sing electronic, play the guitar and talk to the audience in Arabic is something special that moves people and makes them very excited, but it is a little difficult and requires more work.”
Emel Mathlouthi insists it’s important that the Arab world has free art or revolutionary art in every sense of the word, and at all levels: in beat, in form, in melody, and in lyrics.” This is what she herself aspires to with her music.
Emel insists that it is important that we have in the Arab world free art or revolutionary art in every sense of the word, and at all levels: in beat, in form, in melody, and in lyrics.” This is what she herself aspires to.
She tries to interact with the societal environment that resembles her, and feels that the artist should be present in all his surrounding places, not only as an artist, but as part of his society, especially since art comes by nature or instinct. The human relationship with art, poetry, music, and dance is an instinctive need, so she rejoices when art is integrated into social or political action. “There must be a complementary relationship between art and life as a whole,” she says.
“In the Arab world, as a result of dictatorship, we prefer the traditional to the new and innovative, which calls for renewal and development. But in the end, an idea is like the glow of a star that cannot be extinguished,” she says, as everything starts with a simple idea and then this idea changes the general reality.
About her future projects, Emel says her next album will be completely different, as it will be feminist and carry her support for women’s issues, and everyone participating in it will be women, meaning that it will include female lyricist, composers and producers.
In the meeting that brought together Emel and Raseef22 on the sidelines of her participation in the closing ceremony of the iValues competition-2021, a project launched for the first time by the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom with the aim of “Rethinking politics in the MENA region” in the Jordanian capital, Amman, Emel, the artist, mother and rebel against injustice, sends a message of love and respect to the Arab public who supported her at many times, and hopes for a future that flourishes with freedom, art and creativity in our Arab region, away from wars, destruction and disasters.