The beautiful voice of the revolution
I am a star in the dark,
I am a thorn in the oppressor’s throat,
I am the wind, fueled by the fire,
I am the soul of those who do not forget,
I am the voice of those who do not die. – Emel Mathlouthi
When shop vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid on 17 December 2010, he also lit the spark of an uprising that spread throughout Tunisia – and the remainder of the Arab world. More than five years on, it is clear that the consequences of what came to be known as The Arab Spring have been complex, and that the road ahead is still long. Still, the uprisings forged a strong movement of young people willing to fight against oppression and corruption, for freedom and openness. This movement is linked to musicians responsible for some of the most mesmerising and touching music that the Arab world has to offer today.
Despite her mere 34 years of age, Emel Mathlouthi already has a long record of writing political songs. In 2006, after winning a national music contest, her songs were banned from being aired on national TV and radio because the authorities found them to be subversive. She moved to Paris in 2008, where she continued to develop musically whilst her banned music gained popularity in her homeland through digital sound and video clips.
When Mohamed Bouazizi’s self immolation initiated protests all over Tunisia, eventually leading to the toppling of president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Emel’s reputation grew when she performed for thousands of demonstrators on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis. She also recorded a gripping cover of Joan Baez’ “Here’s to You” in Arabic, dedicating it to the memory of Bouazizi. For many Tunisians, Emel’s music became the soundtrack to the revolution. Her graceful character reminds of the classical Arab divas, such as the legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz. Still, her voice carries a powerful tinge reminiscent of Western protest singers of the 1960s. She admits to be inspired by Baez as well as Bob Dylan, but also keeps close to the great Egyptian protest singer Sheikh Imam. As the Arab spring proceeded, Emel’s name was spread throughout the Arab world.
When her album Kelmti Horra (My World Is Free) was released in 2012, its title track was often heard during demonstrations in Egypt. That year, she also performed for a stunned audience in Baghdad, Iraq. After the performance, a female member of the audience said: “The lyrics of the songs, against fear, against dictatorship, the call for freedom and a decent life – we miss such songs here in Baghdad… we are in need of such music, with an upbeat rhythm.”
Performing at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo in 2015, Emel typically stated that she did not primarily sing for the prize winners of the National Dialogue Quartet, but rather for Tunisian and Arabic youth who have a long struggle ahead of them in years to come.
“I am a star in the dark/I am a thorn in the oppressor’s throat”, sings Emel Mathlouthi. Her beautiful music gives renewed hope to people who have yet to experience a life in freedom, safety and dignity.
Text: Kristian Krohg-Sørensen