Tunisian Emel Mathlouthi made history with this performance in downtown Tunis in January 2011, singing her song "Kelmti Horra" ("My Word is Free"), which has since become an anthem for many Tunisians.
Mathlouthi's a singer and songwriter, called by some "the voice of the Tunisian spring." Tunisia, as you will no doubt recall, is where street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the harassment and oppression he’d suffered at the hands of government officials. It was the starting point of the Arab Spring.
Mathlouthi is a protest singer with a beautiful voice and powerful presence. And she is nothing if not direct. The opening lyrics to her song, “Kelmti Horra” (“My Word Is Free”), for example, translate something like this:
“I am those who are free and never fear
I am the secrets that will never die
I am the voice of those who would not give in
I am the meaning amid the chaos
I am the right of the oppressed
That is sold by these dogs (people who are dogs)
Who rob the people of their daily bread
And slam the door in the face of ideas.”
Emel Mathlouthi took time out of a busy touring schedule to talk to CBC about her role as a protest singer in such volatile times.
Q: How did you become, as many call you, “the voice of the Tunisian spring?
A: I don't think it's my role to answer to this question, all I know is that I tried to bring some hope and some light and strength to my daily life and the life of my compatriots by writing songs talking about a revolution, songs talking about freedom about popular uprising. I tried to believe in these songs and this fight growing in me, I had no choice, my only solution was to sing and sing again until my voice reach[ed] all Tunisians, and I am really happy that they believed in my dream.
Q: You were touring in Tunisia in 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight, precipitating such a dramatic series of world events. What was your response?
A: My response was to talk about these people sacrificing themselves and dedicate all my revolutionary songs to them and their struggle. While all Tunisians were made blind and unconscious by the government, there were youth shouting already what will become the slogans of the revolution, [but] no one would have risked at that time [Dec. 23, 2010] to talk about what was happening.
Q: You were based in France by that point. Why did you move to France?
A: I chose to move to France more than four years ago to survive, to breathe and to be an artist. In Tunisia at one point it became impossible, I couldn't perform freely, or reach medias or Tunisian large audience, I had no help from the ministry or the government. I never thought that in France I could be closer to my compatriots, thanks to internet. They started following me and encouraging me to resist in France and to persevere.
Q: Two of your songs,“Ya Tounes Ya Meskina" (“Poor Tunisia”) and “Kelmti Horra" ("My Word is Free”) have become anthems. What do you think makes these songs connect so strongly with people?
A: The first one was written while I was in university in 2005. When I started singing it, it touched people immediately because there were no bigger and tragic words about Tunisia's situation than "poor." No one had talked that way about Tunisia and some journalists hated me, they tried to break me and were angry. "How can I say that about this very peaceful and democratic country?" The second one has the most optimistic melody I have ever written in my music, it was like the song of the reunification, the song where we can all be united.
Q: What role have protest songs played in the Arab Spring in general?
A: I think that music was important because there weren't many artists doing that, it was unusual, exceptional. Music is the strongest weapon because it can travel very fast, easy and everywhere, especially these last three years. And this [is] what happened in Tunisia, young people started discovering new artists, new articles, new music, talking about their anger, their pain, their hopes.
Q: Who are your sources of musical inspiration for writing protest songs?
A: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Mercedes Sosa, Dolores O'riordan, Marcel Khalife, Cheikh Imam.
Q: What place does protest music have in Tunisia now?
A: It still does not have enough space and place, radios still play commercial shit, TV and the Ministry of Culture still don't support this kind of art, but people do, young students in universities and also high schools do. And that is enormous, that's the most important.
Q: What should we know about life (and the arts) in Tunisia now, that we might not know from mainstream media?
A: The situation is politically a bit confusing but there are a lot of artists fighting and creating more than ever, in theatre, cinema, photography, music, and we don't see that. We only see when there are troubles, and that is unfair. There are a lot of incredible new waves of creation, we should pay attention and support.
Q: What do you hope will be the way forward for Tunisians, and for the country?
A: My hope is to build a very modern, open and democratic country with a very powerful and advanced society where a lot of talents can grow and develop their visions.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Emel Mathlouthi plays twice in Canada in July 2012: in Vancouver on July 14 for Vancouver Folk Music Festival and in Montreal on July 17 for Nuits D’Afrique.
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on Jul 13, 2012