Sixteen months ago, when thousands of Tunisians marched on their country's streets in a movement that begat the Arab Spring, a protest song called "My Word Is Free" would frequently echo from the mouths of the demonstrators. They had memorized the words, memorized the melody, memorized the name of the young singer who first brought the song to life in 2007. If "My Word Is Free" had become an anthem of Tunisians' discontent, then Emel Mathlouthi had become their Joan Baez -- a troubadour with a striking voice and a strong social conscience who moved people to tears and beyond.
Mathlouthi's songs are like dramatic manifestos. "My Word Is Free" opens with the lines: "We are free men who are not afraid. We are the secrets that never die. And we are the voice of those who resist." Another song of hers, "Tyrant," contains the lines, "Kill me, and I will write songs. Wound me, and I will sing stories. Give me more suffering. It will warm up my winter."
Mathlouthi, who is performing a free concert Friday night at Berkeley City College, says she always hoped "My Word Is Free" would help inspire Tunisians to act the way they did. For three years before the revolution, she ended every concert with the song, with concert-goers singing the words by heart. Those concerts were held in France, where Mathlouthi moved in 2008, and in Tunisia, where she grew up and frequently returns. "In my mind, this song was very powerful," Mathlouthi said in a phone interview from Paris before flying to California for her U.S. concert debut. "I felt this song had a strange power to bring everybody together. ...I was trying to wake up the consciousness of my country."
The Tunisians' revolution forced the country's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to flee with his family to Saudi Arabia in January of 2011. Under Ben Ali's 24-year-rule, singers like Mathlouthi received little airtime on Tunisia's national media and were subject to bans. In its 2011 report on Tunisia, Amnesty International said the country's authorities "maintained tight control over the media and the internet. Those who openly criticized the government or exposed its human rights violations continued to be harassed, placed under intensive surveillance, unjustly prosecuted, and physically assaulted." Mathlouthi's songs found an audience in Tunisia through occasional radio play, her "underground" concerts in theaters there, word-of-mouth, and Facebook. In fact, social media and online clips of her music helped propel Mathlouthi's songs into the Tunisian mainstream, and Mathlouthi was touring Tunisia at a pivotal outset of the revolution: when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December of 2010. Mathlouthi's songs didn't cite Ben Ali by name, and she didn't perform at major festivals in Tunisia, which put her protest music under the radar.
"For the government, I wasn't a real threat," Mathlouthi tells me. "But the government didn't realize the impact of Internet and social media on the big part of society. They ignored the power of social media like Facebook. And the government didn't consider the depths of the subjects I was talking about. It was a mistake."
All of Mathlouthi's early songs are on her debut album, Kelmti Horra, which was released earlier this year to critical raves, with Britain's Observer calling Mathlouthi "a powerful new voice." Mathlouthi infuses some of her songs with electronica elements called trip-hop, as on "When" and "Burial," which gives them a cinematic flavor and also veers them into the realm of dance or lounge music. But with all the influences in Mathlouthi's music -- including folk, rock and traditional Arab music -- it's misleading to classify her songs with any one category. Kelmti Horra has lyrics in Arabic, French and English.
"I don't want to put a label on my music," Mathlouthi says, though she adds, "I can say it's 'fantastic electro rock music.' In French, 'fantastic' means like, 'strange universe' -- like 'fantasy,' like in (filmmaker) Tim Burton's universe. He has a very fantastic universe, very strange. I feel like my music is very close to the cinema."
Her music, it turns out, is also in ideal complement to street protests. At 30 years old, Mathlouthi was close in age to many of Tunisia's demonstrators. Bouazizi was 26 when he passed away. About 50 percent of Tunisians are under thirty. "Music is very powerful because it can go from heart to heart, from soul to soul, and it can touch everybody, anytime, anywhere," Mathlouthi says. "It's a very powerful art form. With the cinema, you have to plan that you are going to see a movie or you have to be in front of a TV. With music, you can be on the street. You can hear it on the radio in your home. People need music. It helps them in their daily life. It can give you energy."
Emel Mathlouthi performs Friday, May 11, 7pm at Berkeley City College. The concert is free. For more information visit berkeleycitycollege.edu.