The song’s music video opens on a windswept beach in Tunisia, where singer songwriter Emel Mathlouthi mourns the global crisis. Waves swell furiously around the shore as her voice echoes through the barren landscape, singing of the “silence of a life that once was breathing.” The sky glowers and flames erupt. Nature is seething.
“Footsteps,” released ahead of Mathlouthi’s new album Everywhere We Looked Was Burning, is her first track sung entirely in English rather than her usual Arabic, a choice that was partly artistic, partly practical. Until now she has missed out on opportunities that might have been more forthcoming for a Western artist, she said. But the new album, which will be released next month, will move her work out of the somewhat narrow world music category and into the mainstream “where I can share my views with a wider public.”
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“I feel I still didn’t get from Western countries what I deserve,” says Mathlouthi, who has lived in New York since 2013 and Paris before that. She wants to break out of the box she finds herself in, both as an Arab artist, and the woman whose song “Kelmti Horra” (“My Word Is Free”) became an anthem for protesters in the 2010–2011 revolution. “I was lucky enough to have a historic moment,” said Mathlouthi, who sees her “voice of the revolution” reputation as a mixed blessing.
Road to Fame
It’s now nine years since she travelled back from Paris to perform once more in her home country. Arriving in Tunisia in December 2010, the streets were swirling with the news that a vendor had set himself on fire that day. On stage later, Mathlouthi ignored a plea from concert organisers to stick with neutral songs, and called on the audience to support the oppressed before heading to the capital and joining the protests. Videos of her singing in the streets quickly went viral.
Since then, Mathlouthi has sung at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and performed at concerts worldwide, mesmerising audiences with songs that speak out against oppression in a voice of haunting, ethereal beauty. “Activism has always been part of my journey,” said Mathlouthi, who wants her music to “bring back force and empower the weakest.” But she also wants her work to be appreciated for its artistic merit and feels typecast as an Arab artist singing protest songs.
“At some point I rejected that side. … I realised I could only exist in a certain way in certain parts of the industry and couldn’t be recognised for real artistic values.” On the few occasions that she has shared the stage with bands including Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Om, she feels like she has briefly stepped over these barriers, but there’s still a long way to go before she is viewed beyond settings that foreground her exoticism, she said.