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Emel Mathlouthi: Voice Of The Tunisian Revolution

Emel Mathlouthi
Ghaith Ghoufa
Courtesy of the artist
Emel Mathlouthi

With all that's going on in the Middle East right now, it's easy to forget that the Arab Spring began just two years ago in Tunisia.

Singer Emel Mathlouthi has been called "The Voice of the Tunisian Revolution." A video of one of her songs went viral and became an anthem for protesters in her homeland during the December 2010 uprising. She released her debut album in the U.S. last year.

Mathlouthi grew up listening to an eclectic mix of music — from traditional Tunisian songs to her father's record collection.

"He was listening to vinyl of European classical music and some jazz and blues, old jazz and old blues from America, like Mahalia Jackson and Jack Dupree," Mathlouthi says.

Mathlouthi started performing when she was 15 and joined a band in college. But she says there was no way for a young independent musician, let alone a woman, to get heard in Tunisia.

"Because there were no structures, there was no help from the government for music like I was doing," Mathlouthi says. "I couldn't go on TV, I couldn't go to the radio, so I couldn't reach a larger audience."

Mathlouthi didn't help her chances of getting on government-controlled media when she started writing songs against the regime of then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In 2008, she moved to France and began working on the songs for her first album.

'Songs Are Eternal'

Mathlouthi says she was writing a lot of political songs like "Dhalem" ("Tyrant"), but nothing was happening in Tunisia.

"I was posting my songs on the social media, and I was trying to reach a larger audience, especially in Tunisia, so I can talk to them, and I can give them all my strength," Mathlouthi says. "But I felt, from time to time, like everyone and every artist — I was desperate, and I was saying, so the dictatorship is growing and I am here, like, writing songs, and so what?"

Then, she remembered a poem by the Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish called "There Is on This Land What Is Worth Living."

"I realize that that was the power," Mathlouthi says. "The power is to write songs, because the songs are eternal; the melodies will be here like witnesses. But the dictatorship and the persons will go, and this is why I wrote this song."

In the summer of 2007, at the iconic Place de la Bastille in Paris, where the French Revolution began, Mathlouthi sang "Kelmti Horra" ("My Word Is Free") to an audience of tens of thousands. A video of the performance reached Tunisia and resonated with protesters in the streets.

"She has so much courage to sing that around that time," says MC Rai, a 35-year-old Tunisian singer and composer based in San Francisco. "When the dictators in Tunisia, the old regime, were in the top of their power — and for her to even have the courage to sing that, when she was living still between France and Tunisia — I thought she really was a true artist, because that's what the art is about."

Four years later, Mathlouthi returned to the streets of Tunis to sing "Kelmti Horra" just hours before President Ben Ali fled the country.

'A Love Of Freedom'

The last song on Mathlouthi's album is called "Yezzi" ("Enough"). It begins with a simple folk melody and unfolds into three cinematic images. In the first part, Mathlouthi sampled sounds of the Arab Spring street protests. The second part includes the last speech by the deposed Tunisian president. And the third part begins with an announcement of the resignation of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak.

The chorus says, "Freedom is in the street / Freedom is in the countryside / Not inside your house."

"And I think it still can talk to Arab governments because we are not seeing so much changes, not really," says Mathlouthi. "We made revolutions, but maybe we are welcoming a new dictator, so we don't know."

Still, Mathlouthi has hope for the region. In her song "The Road Is Long," she sings: "My country stands above all tyrants and oppression / and despite the long road ahead / My heart will forever shelter / a love of freedom."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Betto Arcos
Betto Arcos is a freelance music journalist. He writes stories about music from around the world, with an emphasis on Latin America. He has been a contributor to NPR programming since 2009, when he began reviewing music for All Things Considered on the weekends.