“My voice has no limits / my voice knows no end / my voice is my existence”, Emel Mathlouthi (آمال مثلوثي) also known as EMEL sings on “Souty”. When I speak to the artist ahead of the release of her album MRA, Emel talks in a soft timber from the comfort of home. But dubbed the voice of the Arab Spring, Emel Mathlouthi’s voice has the power to move millions. Hers is the voice resisting oppressive regimes and bands on freedom of speech during the Tunisian revolution in 2010. Hers is the voice that sings of freedom dreams while walking up to a police checkpoint dressed in traditional clothing. Emel Mathlouthi’s voice is a carrier of hope and resistance for many. And the vehicle of boundless self-expression for the artist herself.

On MRA, Emel pays tribute to her instrument – art and tool of resistance at the same time. The title translates to “woman” in Arabic and celebrates different styles, and languages as MCs from across the globe like Ami Yèrèwolo, Nayomi, and Camélia Jordana. Centering collaboration and tapping into a variety of genres, the record blends the distinct characteristics of Emel’s and her collaborators’ voices. MRA comes to life in its collaborative spirit, as the artist says: “This world needs us, women, more than before, and we women need each other, to change the system from within, to break all the inherited patriarchal toxic mechanisms in the music industry and beyond.” In this interview, we speak about the limitlessness of Emel’s voice, paying homage to it and breaking away from expectations.

Mother, Truth, Revolution

Emel, your voice has always been your central instrument from “Kelmti Horra” (“My Word is Free”) in 2009 to this year’s “Souty” (“My Voice”). How has your relationship with your voice changed?

The biggest chance life gifted me is to be able to sing, loudly and beautifully, to connect and touch people with my voice. I take great pride in being a singer. However, for a long time, I did not pay much attention to my vocal cords and their health. I wrote music that was unsuited to my voice, and at some point, I started experiencing challenges. Still, the doctors weren’t able to find anything and because I didn’t have any diagnosis, I couldn’t get treatment. It made me extremely vulnerable. I was afraid of losing my way of expressing myself, the deepest and the strongest. That made me value it even more. My voice is my tool. It is the way I exist.

Photo by Amber Grey

On MRA your voice takes on different roles as you collaborate with artists from various genres. It embodies the multiplicity of your artistic identity and refuses to be bound by categories. What is something you learned about your voice over the course of your career?

Voice can mean many things. Throughout the years, I faced a lot of challenges fighting for my freedom of expression and with the way my music and I have been perceived – in the Arab world and Western world. I never fit in anywhere. With “Souty”, I also want to explain to people that I, and we, don’t need to fit in. I learned that the most important thing is being true to yourself. On MRA, I am allowing myself to not always be super technical and do these acrobatic things with my voice. I sing in a key suited for my voice to give it space to breathe. For the first time, my expression is enough, my learning of the world, and of what music should sound like right now, is enough.

My voice can be everything: the Tunisian North African, Mediterranean, New Yorker, French Arabic, Berber, political, personal. I am all of that at once!

You have described your voice as “the mother, the truth, and the revolution”. How does your voice embody these characters?

The voice is a mother because it carries things with so much patience. We yell with our voice, we fight with our voice. We cry, and we get angry. I regard it as motherly because it is a constant in my life that has always been there as a bridge to the outside world. Voice is truth because I don’t think you can lie with your true voice. You can write words that you don’t mean, but when you speak those words, it’s hard to fake it.

And my voice has been revolutionary for me and for others. When I was younger, listening to some singers made me want to get up and start my own movement. Voice is a revolution because when we go out to protest in the streets the moment we start singing, shouting, and unifying our voices, we unfold our power. It is electric. To me, there’s nothing more revolutionary than the voice.

Feminist Solidarities 

MRA unites the voices of women and queer artists from many languages, regions, and genres. It is a celebration of feminist solidarity from its conception, content, and creation process. Why did you decide to only work with women and artists from marginalized gender identities?

For most of my career, I worked only with cis men. At some point, I was even proud of being the only woman on tour. It is fucked up that I was thinking that. Women and other marginalized gender identities have been oppressed for such a long time and we still don’t have equal rights – and not only in the Arab countries as the Western media likes to portray it. One of patriarchy’s ways of oppressing us is making us constantly rival one another to prevent solidarity. Such internalized misogyny makes us participate in our own oppression.

With MRA, the label again wanted me to work on the demos with a guy. But I was so sick of having to get validation from men. That’s when I decided not to work with cis men on this record. I intentionally moved away from this patriarchal thinking that women are always a threat and competition to each other. At first, it was difficult to find collaborators, not because no women and queer people aren’t producing music but because they are not visible. Then little by little, I found a magical thread that led me from one person to the next. My journey didn’t just take me to one artist, it took me to so many amazing artists.

How has working with a team of women and queer people changed the way you make music?

Together, we were able to create an environment that made everyone feel uplifted and respected. I was able to completely trust my surroundings and because of that, I had more trust in myself. It might sound cheesy, but there’s something real and powerful about the sisterhood thing. We need more feminist solidarity especially with everything happening in the world right now. Genocide, wars, and all those political decisions are and were led by white capitalist patriarchy.

A Vessel for Change 

MRA like all of your releases has a spirit of protest and revolution embedded in the music. Whether it is a battle cry for feminist solidarity like “Massive Will” and “Rise” or a song like “Nací en Palestina” celebrating Palestinian resilience. How do protest and music intertwine in your opinion?

Music has always been connected to protests and liberatory struggles. During the anti-war movement in the USA in the 60s there were lots of protest songs, which inspired me. Of course, there was a lot of protest and political music across the globe, for example in Latin America against dictatorship. Even entire genres like rap and hip-hop formed around music as a way of resisting. But nowadays I feel like there is not much protest music or it is not getting much attention. On social media, it seems like people are trying to be political without really getting behind values or a cause. It often feels unauthentic.

I was raised to speak up against injustice. Being good at singing and music gave me a tool to speak up and try to change the world. Music is a vessel for change.

But I sometimes struggle with Western media describing my music as political because it creates a box I don’t want to be put in. By making me their celebrated political singer, they can praise me as brave and revolutionary in the face of oppressive systems without considering and being accountable for their own historic involvement and responsibility. I don’t want to serve as their symbolic voice of freedom that they mindlessly praise. I want to be who I am without being put in a box from both Western and Arab perspectives. Because I am so many things: I am very political, I am an amazing singer, and a very innovative composer. I want and need to be all those things and I will never silence my voice.

MRA by Emel is out now via Yotanka Records.