From forming a goth-metal band at university to being dubbed the “voice of the Tunisian revolution,” EMEL MATHLOUTHI has had quite the journey. In 2010, after being banned from official Tunisian airwaves due to her outspoken, unflinching lyrics, Mathlouthi was filmed singing Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free) during a street protest in Tunis. The video quickly went viral and the song became something of an anthem for the Arab Spring. An album of the same name followed in 2012, and received critical acclaim for its unique blend of electronic beats and traditional Tunisian rhythms. Hints of trip-hop, rock and folk are held together by Mathlouthi’s hauntingly beautiful Arabic vocals, and the result is an astonishing debut that sits alongside the great protest music of our time. In 2015, Mathlouthi was asked to perform Kelmti Horra at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo: a near-perfect conclusion to this musical chapter of her life.
If there’s one defining characteristic of her work, it’s that Emel Mathlouthi refuses to be defined by anyone. With her second album Ensen (2017), Mathlouthi built on the electronic beats of her debut and sought to move away from the label protest musician. Despite now residing in New York, and having a growing international fan base, Mathlouthi ensures that her music is still rooted in the Arab world: Ensen means ‘human’ in Arabic, and the lyrics cover global issues and conflicts. She worked with French/Tunisian producer Amine Metani and Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurðsson (Björk, Sigur Rós), recording the album across seven different countries. Barely a year later, she released a reworking of the album, Ensenity (2018).
Maya Jones caught up with Mathlouthi ahead of her performance at this year’s Liverpool Arab Arts Festival (LAAF) to discuss the power of protest music and her seemingly endless creativity. Her performance on the opening weekend at Invisible Wind Factory looks set to be anything but predictable.
How would you describe your musical style, for our readers?
This is hard. I would say cinematic, experimental pop.
Can you talk a little about the link between music and protest?
I think everything is connected. As human beings, we process things all together. Things cannot be separated because it’s all about what we feel. Music connects us to a sort of depth in ourselves and it can heal everything we feel frustrated about. We need art to process all the things that are going wrong around us. So, I think when art is about topics that are important to us, it helps to deal with the issues.
Has being known as “the voice of the Tunisian revolution” ever felt limiting?
Yeh, it is limiting, especially when I’m in a position where I am trying to find a place in the world, and I don’t necessarily want to be defined only from one angle. I feel it is very limiting when it gives the western media an excuse to define me, keep me boxed and draw invisible lines between me and where I want to go. I’m trying to be 100 per cent myself and still be convinced of my values and my deepest convictions about the world. But, at the same time, I need to be considered as a musician, as a music producer and as a voice. So, it’s complicated at times, but I think I’ll get there.
How has moving to New York influenced your music?
It’s definitely helped because it’s given me more of an international platform; I have a completely different view of the world. I feel like I want to go as far as my music can and I’m not limiting myself to one territory any more. At the same time, it’s given me more means to support my creativity and push it as far as possible. Like, I’m not even trying to stop myself or restrain myself. I feel like there is a very liberating feeling that I’ve been experiencing here. It keeps me going.
Do you think you are singing to a different audience now?
My audience has definitely grown and I intend to make it grow more. I want to access all the clubs and gigs that have not been offered to me before.
Can you explain the premise behind Ensen and why you chose to record it in seven different countries?
It wasn’t exactly a choice; I was just looking for the best environment and the best collaborator. Eventually, I ended up working with a few different people. I always like that approach because I like to search as far as possible in order to give the songs more soul, more depth and creativity. [Each] person brings a different feel and a different perspective. I’ve always needed that. I think that every country just brings a different piece of the puzzle; it brings it more light.
You’ve just released a remix album, Ensenity. How was the process of making this different to your other work?
I’m always looking for new, fresher approaches to my music and I’ve always been eager to discover more producers and creative people. This time I decided to give them carte blanche, you know, and let them play around with some of the songs from Ensen. I didn’t want to call it a remix album because it’s not; it’s a rework album. It’s actually a dream for a singer or an artist to see their songs dressed differently. And I’m very fascinated by how you can never stop working on a canvas; you can always discover new paths. It also helps artists to connect with each other, which we don’t necessarily do very often. We’re all trapped in our little universes, so this was a good opportunity for me to connect with other creative people and see how my music can live differently.
And finally, what can we expect from your upcoming performance at Liverpool Arab Arts Festival?
Well, I’m very excited because this will be my first time in Liverpool. I think people should come to the show with not much expectation, because it will be different anyway. Everyone should come and be completely open and ready to be transported into a different adventure: an adventure of the soul and heart.
Ensenity is out now via Partisan Records. Emel Mathlouthi appears in Liverpool as part of Liverpool Arab Arts Festival.