It’s a profoundly moving day in Williamsburg when I chat with Emel Mathlouthi. She’s had a great day, starting at the march for March For Our Lives in NYC and will end it later performing at the Met’s ‘Women’s Voices’ concert. In a quiet space before her show, she greets me on the phone with a subdued optimism.
“Marches are one of those moments that really connect us,” she says. “The most important thing to do is keep fighting because there is no other choice. To keep active, to keep hope. I think despite all of our disappoints and desperation, there is still hope in there. Sometimes hope can be a traitor, but I think that’s the only motor we need. We owe ourselves that. We owe ourselves to be alive. There is so much beauty in us and nature that we need to keep preserved.”
Emel never felt that she was destined to take it as it is, from an early age she had a conscious and empathic feeling for others. Wanting to make meaningful art that conceptualized the fire within. She had the opportunity from a young age to escape the dogma of her environment and felt inspired to be herself. Between her father’s Marxist background and her open upbringing, she was encouraged to use her voice and her empathy.
Emel muses, “The most powerful thing in a human being is to be able to feel, to be able to create. As much as humans use creation to make hatred and selfishness and the end of the day the young generations don’t feel like that is the future we are looking for. That’s when we start seeing movements against, sexual violence, against gang violence. Against everything that is toxic to us. We can’t pretend to be on our own path and everything is connected.”
She rose to fame after a video of her performing her song “Kemti Horra (My Word Is Free)” during a Tunisian street protest went viral online during the Arab Spring.
“I feel very grateful to have been recognized as a voice, most specifically what I was really proud of and really grateful towards was that our movement counted as an important voice in a change that moved the whole planet. I think it added a historic frame to my artistic career that I will always be grateful for. It made me not just like any other singer, I see a lot of respect from people.”
Her music was at one point banned from Tunisian radio airwaves and earned her the title “voice of the Tunisian revolution.” In 2015 she was asked to perform “Kemti Horra (My Word Is Free)” at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony because of its significance during the uprising. The artist wants her message to spread far, and wide, outside of any borders.
“Despite the fact we are no longer under dictatorship I still feel that my repertoire doesn’t always translate in the media. Even though I have a following and a lot of recognition I feel like sometimes people don’t know more than one to two songs from my catalog.”
In order to bring more acceptance to the Western and Arab world, Emel says is art is the most immediate thing that can bring us together.
“We have to do a lot of education. There is a reason behind the ignorance, not because people don’t go to school but because they don’t have open minds. They have a certain way of protesting things, that is the way they are taught and what the media is telling them and what they see. We need to cultivate those regions and have those places have more interesting things happen, more than a just CVS and a church. I want to see more culture centers growing everywhere. Those are the places that open your dreams and your impulses and help you grow as a better person. I think everyone growing should be able to do theater, play an instrument, to read poetry, to dream out loud and express ourselves so we don’t grow up without frustrations.”
Preach it, sister. The insanity is all around us and thankfully Emel is here to help us sort through it all. In her music video directorial debut, she gives us just that.
Photo / Rock Raven
story / Koko Ntuen
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