I met up with Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi at Chaiwali on the corner of 124th Street and Lenox, a few blocks from her adopted home in Harlem.
Our conversation occasionally digressed as we talked about how she met her husband (an American who is a speechwriter for the UN), her love for contemporary dance icon Pina Bausch, and the challenges of being both an artist and a mother to her two-year-old daughter Sjor.
What I was most interested to talk to her about was making political art, and both the necessity and the constraints that come along with making music that stands for something.
In 2008, Mathlouthi’s song “Kelmti Horra (my word is free)” went viral thanks to YouTube and became a kind of anthem for the region during the Arab Spring. In 2015, she performed at the ceremony for the Noble Peace Prize awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet.
She says that some of her most memorable concerts include performances after the revolution in Cairo, Egypt, for Kurdish communities in Turkey and especially in Tunisia (although she is rarely invited to perform in her homeland because of the censorship she has faced there). It’s these audiences that Emel describes as connoisseurs, the most ‘emotional,’ and appreciative of every instrument and every special thing she does with her voice.
Mathlouthi is releasing her second album, Ensen (Human) this week. Citing influences ranging from Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters to Nordic singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør, Emel insists first on her right to be a creative artist and not a political soapbox.
To see her perform and to listen to her music is to appreciate her fine aesthetic sensibility that encompasses everything from how she presents herself on stage, to the string arrangements on her albums, to the photography and layout of her press materials.
Having studied architecture and then graphic design at university, she said she would have loved to study theater or dance but the arts were considered marginal and not something successful students pursued.
For Emel, the consummate artist, it is only by writing the most beautifully melancholic melody that she believes she can capture someone’s heart and perhaps then, and only then, will her social message be heard, softening embittered hearts and minds.
Do you feel limited by the label “the voice of the Tunisian revolution” that you have been given?
Yes. You have to admit it’s been a great way of bringing my music to people’s attention. For the Western ear, there’s no reason for them to get interested by music that is sung in Arabic. But, “oh, this music was banned. This music played a role in a revolution.” And all of a sudden that’s all that people want to talk about. That’s a little bit dangerous.
Do you see disadvantages to making art that is political?
There shouldn’t be any disadvantage in doing political art because first of all it’s art and then it’s political. The attention should be brought to what the art is offering as art… not just [as] a political product.
There are many political artistic movements but they should also be able to speak about things, even if you don’t speak the language or get the message. You should be able to enjoy and be struck by that way of expression. It’s just the media thing that brings the attention. You have to represent something, represent your country, carry your flag. I should pretend I’m gay, I’m lesbian. All of a sudden I would get so much more attention.
I want to be an artist first, and then of course I’m very honored to be respected for my beliefs. But my beliefs are not necessarily my art. My art carries some of my beliefs.
Is the second album less political than the first album, or political in a different way?
The difficult thing is that people are always going to be interested in how political this album is going to be compared to the first one. I’m going to refuse to reply to that question because I don’t know. I just know that it’s me, 100% sincere and it’s just raw. It depends on your definition.
I think that singing a song about homeless people is a statement to say that, as a human being, I don’t understand why we should accept the mistakes of the people who control the country where you live or the laws. Which laws can allow a human being to close his eyes and pretend that another human being is laying on the floor in the cold or the heat?
As human beings we shouldn’t allow ourselves to consider that it’s not our fault or responsibility. I’m not saying that you have to give money to make yourself feel better. We have to still feel the pain of others. That’s the basis of us not going towards dehumanization. That’s my big point. So that’s political. I just hate the word political today more than ever because it’s so dirty. Art has to find a new definition to fight, to be associated with. I think that my art is always going to be concerned. I feel more comfortable adding [that term] to my art than adding the term political.
What do you think grassroots movements in the U.S. like Black Lives Matter can learn from the Arab world?
I think we tried to learn from the protest music of the ’60s and ’70s and the black movements [in the U.S]. All of that was so intense. I’m so happy that Black Lives Matter exists because I’ve always considered myself from the brown side but being black is something different.
Racism exists in France, it exists in Tunisia. Towards blacks, racism is everywhere. The human being is racist. In the states, which is such a modern and developed country, it’s very shocking to see how black people (no matter how wealthy they are by the way) are treated. When you’re arrested you say well yeah, you must have done something. Actually it’s not the same treatment for everyone. It’s very inspiring that this movement exists and I wish I could help somehow.
You’ve been dubbed the ‘voice of the Tunisian revolution.’ What about being the ‘voice of the feminist revolution’?
I never claimed myself [as a] feminist. I’m starting to realize I was stupid actually. For so long I didn’t like feminism. But I was feminist without really realizing it or making a big deal out of it. It’s the time for me to really speak up. The treatment is never the same. When you become a parent you realize how much pressure society puts on the woman and not on the man.
I was watching an interview with Lady Di. She said that they were afraid of her because she was a strong woman. People tend to be scared of strong women because they say ‘where did she get her strength from and what’s she going to do with it?’ And that’s exactly so true. Maybe the fact of becoming a mother, all of a sudden, woke up all of these feelings of injustice buried inside of me.
How can art be a change agent in the Middle East?
Well it’s already been a change agent in the Middle East. It’s bringing a new face, a new reality to the youth. It’s helping them express themselves in a more truthful way, in a more intense way than what they see in their societies. There’s still a long way to go.
There’s not much support for those new, young currents of artistic vision. We need to build more structures to support, to fund, to help artists to circulate freely in the Arab region, to be able to carry their messages, their expression into those different regions and countries and share them with each other, building and create things together. There’s a few structures that are already doing that but there should be much more.
What do you feel you gave up when you left Tunisia?
I don’t think I gave up anything. I felt nostalgic and guilty for having left. That guilt wasn’t something negative, it was pure and deep. And it taught to me to develop a big sense of responsibility. I thought that I had wings and I was able to stand with a weapon, which was my song…. I wanted to use [my music] to help all of the people that I didn’t even know because there wasn’t any way of gathering together and building movements. I had a lot of pain in leaving those people behind, the people I thought I should help.
My first album was very engagé as we say in French, a lot of music activism. Even to mix different sounds together was a form of activism. I wish the world gave attention to my work in 2007 and 2008 when I was really trying to fight…. When I really started writing songs, I needed to write those songs to be at peace with myself and to feel useful. The things that I was interested the most was to create. Being able to create is being able to help others. Just the act of creation itself brings me a lot of life.
Where do you find belonging in NYC?
I feel comfortable here interacting with many people, meeting new people everyday, having interesting encounters. There’s such an openness to be embraced for what you really are. Especially as an artist, it brings so much freedom to your creation, to just be here. You feel like you don’t really have any boundaries to achieve whatever is happening in your brain. I felt that way when I worked on my new album.
Are there any places in NYC that are a refuge for you?
I used to love walking, just wandering the streets in the Lower East Side. I feel a lot of excitement and connections just seeing, watching the buildings and thinking about the movements that used to be there… I like going to Brooklyn and seeing Manhattan from the other side. The city is very open, the ocean, the river. It opens your perspective so much… In a half an hour you’re contemplating that whole big piece in which you were feeling small.
How do you identify culturally?
It has not been an easy path to know exactly about my identity, to touch it, to understand what makes it different from another identity. I just think it’s healthier to consider yourself a part of the world. I had a period where I was really identifying a lot with my country, and the dictatorship that was happening there gave me a linking point to attach to but when all of that exploded I started searching again.
I like to connect to being Mediterranean—my character, my ways of reacting, the fact of feeling cool about a lot of things, too cool sometimes. I like connecting with so many different cultures, I like identifying with South America, Turkey, parts of America, nature, a little bit of everything.
I feel partly French because of the connection with the culture from before I moved there, and then after I moved there because of all of the connections and relationships I had there. So yeah, Tunisian, French, Mediterranean, partly a little bit American, partly African. Some bites of many things actually.
What musical styles do you draw on as an artist?
I don’t know if I’m a pioneer but there’s a big distinction between Tunisian classical music and folklore, which is more of a popular music. But I think it’s wrong to push that [folkloric] music to the margin because it has all of our rhythms. I feel immediately like, ‘ok, this is me.’ This is part of my heritage. You want to dance.
I decided that is what I should do to have something unique about my music. I should mix [that] percussion—there’s a lot of percussionists playing at the same time, the same rhythms. I just feel it’s wonderful to accomplish that. It’s not necessarily trance but it’s rhythmically insane. I wanted to take some of that and mix it into an electronic and experimental sound.
On my new album, Ensen, I recorded a lot of traditional percussion and rhythms and I tried to put them in the box, like in a library where I would chose my colors. So on each song I would say, ‘ok this rhythm should go here’ and we would adjust the sound and we would explore and have fun and see how much we could distort the sound. [It’s] as if you were working with clay and that [clay] is so special and it makes it my [clay], not anybody else’s.
Is spirituality a part of your art?
I think it’s very beautiful to be spiritual. Because there’s nothing left actually but to be spiritual. I find that art is much stronger than religion. It brings you so much depth. It helps you have more distance with things, and at the same time, it helps you embrace a lot of things and interact with real beauty that doesn’t have any social weight—just the pure sense of beauty and aesthetic. So of course you need to be spiritual to do this kind of music because it’s the kind of music that possesses you and helps you build another reality that doesn’t have much connection with the ground.
Tell me about your new album, Ensen. How is it different from your first?
Little by little you create a new reflection of yourself that is even more beautiful than the reflection that you used to see, because the more you grow up, the closer you get to who you really are, the closer you get to things that you really wanted to do but you didn’t understand how, and you weren’t really allowed to.
So somehow you create more space to explore your crazier thoughts and you create more protection to defend your right to explore other sides in you. That’s what this album is mostly about. There is a search for identity. There are songs that are really, really old and songs that are newer. I like to combine both because it helped me encourage myself to dig deeper knowing that I had some sparkles of what I’m doing now back then so that means that I was already going in that direction. It just needs more time, more searching, more experience. [To say:] ‘ok that’s what I meant back then’…. Let me open that bag and see how much sense I can get from that. I was right to trust my songs from the past and [give] them new life.
It’s a trip into my psyche and soul. There’s a lot of abstraction too. I like to defend the right today to speak about different things in the brain and in the body but with a very artistic abstraction. But I have songs that are connected to society, to homelessness to the hypocrisy of the society. I feel like I’m on a good path. It’s exactly how a second album should be for [me]. There [are] a lot of new sounds. We really worked on it as if there were no limits.
‘Ensen’ is out February 24 on Partisan Records. Emel plays Joe’s Pub in NYC this Friday.