Emel Mathlouthi

Emel Mathlouthi (Arabic: آمال المثلوثي‎) also known as Emel, born 11 January 1982),[1] is a Tunisian singer-songwriter, musician, arranger and producer. She rose to fame with her protest song "Kelmti Horra" ("My Word is Free"), which became an anthem for the Tunisian revolution and the Arab spring. Her first studio album, also titled Kelmti Horra, was released worldwide in 2012 to critical acclaim: she married Arabic roots with western flavours. Her second album, Ensen, was released in 2017, blending more electronica to classical music. On Everywhere We Looked Was Burning in 2019, she sang all the lyrics in English.

Emel Mathlouthi
Emel Mathlouthi in 2017
Emel Mathlouthi in 2017
Background information
Also known asEmel
Born11 January 1982
Tunis, Tunisia
GenresWorld music, avant-garde, electronic, experimental, film score
Occupation(s)Singer-songwriter • music producer
Years active2010–present
LabelsPartisan Records, Little Human Records

In 2020, the video of her song "Holm" ("A Dream") that she sings in Tunisian, has been viewed more than 3.5 millions in a matter of a few months. "Holm" was included in the double album The Tunis Diaries which she recorded on her own with just a voice, an acoustic guitar as the sole instrument and a laptop.

She has also collaborated with other artists such as Tricky, Valgeir Sigurdsson or Steve Moore.

Early life and careerEdit

Emel Mathlouthi started singing and acting at 8 years old in a suburb of her hometown Tunis. She wrote her first song when she was 10 years old. She discovered her strong vocal capacities when she was 15, encouraged by her entourage and inspired by great pop singers of the 90's. She found a strong refuge in heavy metal a bit later and gothic music and formed her first metal band at a university in Tunis when she was 19. A few years later deeply moved by the voice and ideas of Joan Baez after her bandmate played "The Boxer" for her, she quit the band and began writing political songs, discovering her frustration by the lack of opportunities and the apathy of her compatriots, such as "Ya Tounes Ya Meskina" ("Poor Tunisia"). In 2006 she was a finalist in the Prix RMC Moyen-Orient Musique competition.[2] She decided to move to Paris, France in 2008 when the Tunisian government banned her songs from radio and TV.[3] Although banned from Tunisian airwaves, bootlegs of her live performances in France circulated on the internet in Tunisia. After the death of Mohamed Bouazizi she dedicated an Arabic version of the Joan Baez song "Here's To You" to him.[4]

Emil live in August 2012

She was recorded on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba singing "Kelmti Horra" to protesters and it became a viral video.[5][6][7] She has given concerts in Egypt and Iraq, and performed in Canada at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and the Festival du Monde Arabe de Montréal.[8]

At the beginning of July 2012, she gave a groundbreaking concert in Baghdad, Iraq.[9] On 28 July she gave a concert at the Sfinks Festival in Belgium, where she received a standing ovation for her cover of the Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah".[10] In 2013, after her first concert in Cairo since the revolution, Ahram Online described her as "The Fairuz of her generation". She opened for Dead Can Dance in the festival Les nuits de Fourvière in Lyon and performed at the WOMAD Festival at Charlton Parkin the UK. Israeli authorities refused to let her enter Ramallah to perform, so she sang in front of a camera in Jordan. The small show was broadcast to the Palestinian audience in a theater in Ramallah.

In 2015 she was invited to perform at both the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony and The Nobel Peace Prize Concert along with A-ha and Aurora, where she performed two renditions of her song "Kelmti Horra," one accompanied only by a guitarist, Karim Attoumane, and the other with a full orchestra and chorus. The concert was hosted by Jay Leno, who praised her in the concert press conference as being the first Arabic-language singer to catch his attention.

In 2017 she performed returned to Tunisia for her first concert there in five years, headlining the prestigious Carthage Festival. That summer she also performed at the Beitaddine Festival in Lebanon, and the SummerStage festival in Central Park, New York City.

Kelmti Horra (My Word is Free) (2012-2016)Edit

Emel Mathlouthi released her debut, Kelmti Horra, in January 2012.[11] It received critical acclaim. In a four out of five star review, The Guardian praised the album for twisting together Arabic roots with western flavours – some rock but mostly cavernous trip-hop. "The mix works well on stand-outs "Dhalem" and "Ma Ikit", where Mathlouthi's striking vocals find most melody; elsewhere, the understandably serious mood of protest and sadness flatlines somewhat. A powerful new voice, none the less".[12] The album was influenced by Joan Baez, Massive Attack, and Björk. As a politically aware musician, the songs in the album have made promising duty to speak out on any injustice that Emel has witnessed about her beloved Tunisia. While she sings about humanity and a better world, the success of this album has made her to reach many more people in different parts of the world. As the song, "Kelmti Horra" (My Word is Free), was considered as "the anthem of the Arab Spring," it has been Emel's most famous song so far. The outstanding success of this song led her to perform it on 11 December 2015, during the award ceremony of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo,[13] which was awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet.

During that time, she collaborated with Tricky and provided leading vocals on his song "Emel".[14]

Ensen (Human) (2017-2018)Edit

Ensen (Human) was released in February 2017 by Partisan Records.[15] The album was recorded in seven countries including Iceland, Sweden, France, and the US.[16] Producers of the album include the former Björk collaborator, Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurðsson and Emel's main collaborator Franco-Tunisian producer Amine Metani.[17] Pitchfork hailed the first single off the album, "Ensen Dhaif" (Human, Helpless Human), as "a gorgeously ornamented fusion of towering beats and darkly-shaded Arabic minor scales. Its incendiary tone is conducted by Mathlouthi's galvanic voice, which is at turns vulnerable and strong. On "Ensen Dhaif" you hear a person refusing to compromise, a searing vision founded on real risks and the necessity of truth".[18] As Mathlouthi explains, the song is dedicated to the "people that have to carry the weight and all the struggles so that a very small percentage can enjoy the power."[16]

The songs of Ensen were then entirely reworked on the remix album Ensenity. Nine different producers from different backgrounds were invited to accentuate the electronica side of the tracks.[19]

Everywhere We Looked Was Burning (2019)Edit

In 2019, she released her first all-English album Everywhere We Looked Was Burning, she wanted "to write about nature as well as the beauty and struggle of these times".[20] She was inspired by the “essential imagery” of US poets such T.S. Eliot and John Ashbury.[21] At that time, she he had been living in the New-York area for a few years. New York Times reviewed it saying; "As she sings about a mysterious experience, the sustained, modal melody and stretches of drone harmony hint at North African and Arab underpinnings, while its electric and electronic instruments pulse and hover in virtual space, maintaining the enigma".[22] Brooklyn Vegan wrote that "these really are some of her most breathtaking songs yet".[21] Everywhere We Looked Was Burning was produced in part with Steve Moore.

That year, Emel also sang on Moore's Beloved Exile EP. AllMusic reviewed her performance saying, "opener "Your Sentries Will Be Met with Force" features the enchanting vocals of Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi, who adds a sublime new dimension to Moore's glowing, pulsating electronics".[23]

The Tunis Diaries (2020-present)Edit

While staying in vacations in her childhood home in Tunis in 2020, she recorded a double album The Tunis Diaries on her own, with just an acoustic guitar and her voice.[24] She hadn't played on an acoustic guitar in a long time.[25] The Tunis Diaries is split in two parts "Day" and "Night".[26] The first disc includes Emel songs revisited sung in part English, and in Tunisian plus an unreleased song "Holm" which has been viewed more than 3.5 million times on YouTube as of January 2021.[27] The second disc features several covers of Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and Jeff Buckley.[27] While promoting the album in Paris, she recorded a rendition of a Siouxsie and the Banshees song as a one-off for French Television.[28]


Mathlouthi lists her early musical influences as Joan Baez, Marcel Khalife and Sheikh Imam.[16] Her other musical influences include Janis Joplin, Sinéad O’Connor, Led Zeppelin, James Blake Roger Waters and Fuck Buttons.[29]


Mathlouthi's singular style is a mix of North African sounds and modern electronic production.


Mathlouthi was featured in the 2014 documentary No Land's Song by Ayat Najafi, in which she becomes the first female to sing as a soloist in Iran since 1979. Her music has been used in the soundtracks of several movies.


Mathlouthi collaborates frequently with top and emerging designers for her stagewear, including Manish Arora, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Ahmed Talfit, but most frequently with compatriot Azzedine Alaia.


  • 2012 Kelmti Horra[30]
  • 2017 Ensen
  • 2018 Ensenity (Remix Album)
  • 2019 Everywhere We Looked Was Burning
  • 2020 The Tunis Diaries
Contributing artist


  1. ^ "Emel Mathlouthi". tv5monde.com. Retrieved 13 January 2016. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link).
  2. ^ "1e édition du Prix RMC Moyen-Orient Musique" (in French). RFI Musique. 16 June 2006. Archived from the original on 29 July 2013. Retrieved 30 July 2012. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link) CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  3. ^ Westall, Sylvia (4 July 2012). "Voice of Tunisian spring calls for justice, equality". Reuters. Retrieved 30 July 2012. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  4. ^ "A Song for Bouazizi by Emel Mathlouthi". France 24 (in Arabic). 18 January 2011. Retrieved 30 July 2012. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  5. ^ Daniel Gumbiner (2012). Now That We Have Tasted Hope: Voices from the Arab Spring. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. p. 22. ISBN 1614520208.
  6. ^ Mathlouthi, Amel. "My word is Free, English Subtitled (Tunisian revolution)". youtube.com.
  7. ^ "Emel Mathlouthi, le jasmin et la voix". Mars Actu (in French). 20 July 2012. Archived from the original on 3 April 2012. Retrieved 30 March 2012. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  8. ^ Varty, Alexander (12 July 2012). "Vancouver Folk Music Festival performers use music to make a difference". Vanvouver Free Press. Archived from the original on 14 July 2012. Retrieved 30 July 2012. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  9. ^ Westall, Sylvia (11 July 2012). "After Saddam and war, Iraq's musicians look to home". Reuters. Retrieved 30 July 2012. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  10. ^ Crooijmans, Charlie. ""In France I found my Tunisian identity"- an interview with Emel Mathlouthi". NewsAndNoise.Wordpress.com (self-publicised). Archived from the original on 10 November 2012. Retrieved 9 November 2012. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  11. ^ "Emel Mathlouthi: Voice Of The Tunisian Revolution". NPR.org. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  12. ^ Spencer, Neil (19 February 2012). "Emel Mathlouthi: Kelmti Horra – review". Retrieved 20 January 2015. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  13. ^ "Emel Mathlouthi | Festival International Nuits d'Afrique de Montréal". festivalnuitsdafrique.com. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  14. ^ Hudson, Alex (9 May 2014). "Tricky '54U' EP". exclaim.ca. Retrieved 20 January 2015. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  15. ^ Gaworecki, Mike (22 February 2017). "On 'Ensen', Emel Creates Revolutionary Hybrid Sounds". Brooklyn Magazine. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  16. ^ a b c Pelly, Jenn (14 September 2016). "Why the World Needs Emel Mathlouthi's Anthems Against the Dictatorship Machine". Pitchfork.
  17. ^ "Store | Partisan Records". shop.partisanrecords.com. Retrieved 5 December 2016.
  18. ^ Pelly, Jenn (16 February 2016). "Emel Mathlouthi "Ensen Dhaif"". Pitchfork. Retrieved 5 December 2016.
  19. ^ "Emel Mathlouthi réexplore son album Ensen". musikplease.com. 2 March 2018. Retrieved 5 December 2016.
  20. ^ "Emel Mathlouthi Announces New Album, Shares Video for New Song: Watch". Pitchfork. 20 June 2019. Retrieved 20 June 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  21. ^ a b Sacher, Andrew (27 September 2019). "Notable Releases of the Week (9/27) Emel Mathlouthi Everywhere We Looked Was Burning". brooklynvegan.com. Retrieved 20 June 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  22. ^ Pareles, Jon (12 September 2019). "Pop and Jazz Albums Coming This Fall - Emel Mathlouthi Everywhere We Looked Was Burning review". Newyorktimes.com. Retrieved 20 June 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  23. ^ Simpson, Paul. "Steve Moore Beloved Exile review". AllMusic. Retrieved 20 June 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  24. ^ "Emel: Tiny Desk (Home) Concert". npr.org. 17 January 2021. Retrieved 23 January 2021. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  25. ^ "Emel : "Je cherche le silence dans ma voix"". Franceculture. 19 October 2020. Retrieved 23 January 2021. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  26. ^ "Emel Mathlouthi Announces Double Album". pitchfork.com. 9 September 2020. Retrieved 23 January 2021. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  27. ^ a b "La Tunisie, toit du monde de la chanteuse Emel Mathlouthi". Marianne.net. 26 January 2021. Retrieved 26 January 2021. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  28. ^ "Emel reprend Siouxsie and the Banshees dans la collection Reprise". France.tv. 23 December 2020. Retrieved 23 January 2021. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  29. ^ Olbrich, Suze (24 February 2017). "Emel Mathlouthi: 'It's important to be out there as a creative woman from a Muslim culture'". The Guardian.
  30. ^ Neil Spencer, "Emel Mathlouthi: Kelmti Horra – review", The Observer, 19 February 2012.

External linksEdit