Emel Mathlouthi Is The 21st Century’s Catalyst For Change

It’s not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.

The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of “woman” itself. What is a woman? It’s a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. —Ann Powers

Emel Mathlouthi isn’t interested in being a nice girl. She isn’t fond of being typecast as an exotic North African. And she positively bristles at being labeled as an activist whose music and art are ancillary to a message.

But for people who still haven’t heard the Tunisian-born singer — an artist who grounds her honeyed vocals in heavy, distorted electronics, and whose theatrical stage presence and arresting visuals call to mind the likes of Kate Bush and Björk — it’s still useful to know how she rose onto stages across the world and become an anthemic voice during the Arab Spring.

Now 36 years old, Mathlouthi began singing while she was still a child growing up in the suburbs of Tunis, Tunisia’s capital city alongside the Mediterranean coastline. By the time she was in college, she was fronting a metal band. (Mathlouthi possesses a sweet, high voice, but woe to anyone who misreads those qualities as fragility or weakness.) Soon, she was writing songs that were deeply critical of the government of the then-leader of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In 2008, she moved to France, convinced that her career would founder if she stayed in her native country.

Mathlouthi knew that she was running right up against the strictures of the regime but she persisted — and kept right on singing about Tunisia and about oppression. Certain Tunisian DJs would try to sneak her songs onto their playlists at odd hours, but by the time she began singing “Ya Tounes Ya Meskina” [Poor Tunisia], with lyrics like “Fear resides in their bones, being mute is their lot” — the die was cast.

The song that tipped her over the edge, though, was “Kelmti Horra” [My Word Is Free]. With lyrics by the young Tunisian poet Amine al-Ghozzi, “Kelmti Horra” is a declaration of independence, a statement of hard-earned liberation. “I am those who are free and never fear,” she sings, her voice ringing with certainty. “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.”

Years before crowds of Tunisians took to the streets to protest widespread corruption, political repression, high unemployment and endemic poverty, Mathlouthi had already been singing “Kelmti Horra” every chance she could get — she ended every concert with it in both France and Tunisia, to which she returned occasionally, performing at underground shows while word of her music spread largely on social media. (She had already been prohibited from performing at music festivals in her home country, and “Kelmti Horra” was banned outright.)

Mathlouthi was in Tunisia for one of those illicit tours when a despairing street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010 — a pivotal moment that sparked what became first Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, and then, in a string of regional uprisings, the Arab Spring.

“Kelmti Horra” had already become a well-known song in the Tunisian underground by then. But finally, on one remarkable January day just weeks after Bouazizi took his desperate step, Mathlouthi stood up in a crowd of demonstrators along the packed Avenue Habib Bourguiba — the largest boulevard in Tunis — to sing her signature song. The ground was already shifting under everyone’s feet: Within days, President Ben Ali and his family had fled the country.

But on that day, in the midst of the protests on Habib Bourguiba, Mathlouthi sang “Kelmti Horra” a cappella, media cameras and microphones shoved hastily in front of her, while the protesters immediately around her listened in rapt silence. And she sings, you can hear the bristling energy of other demonstrators shouting slogans in the distance, in what becomes a strangely beautiful polyrhythm of revolution. And soon, “Kelmti Horra” was a song known and loved across the Middle East, as young activists began to imagine new futures for themselves, unbounded by the strictures and stiflings of the past.

That one song made Mathlouthi an international star; four years later, she was invited to sing it at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in a lush, big-stringed, grand arrangement that in its cinematic scale is, frankly, far less stirring than that badly shot video taken on Avenue Habib Bourguiba.

The Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women+

This list is part of Turning the Tables, an ongoing project from NPR Music dedicated to recasting the popular music canon in more inclusive – and accurate – ways. This year, our list, selected by a panel of more than 70 women and non-binary writers, tackles history in the making, celebrating artists whose work is changing this century’s sense of what popular music can be. The songs are by artists whose major musical contributions came on or after Jan. 1, 2000, and have shifted attitudes, defied categories and pushed sound in new directions since then.

Our list includes songs performed by women and non-binary artists. The use of the term “Women+” is part of our engagement in a movement to recognize a wide spectrum of gender identities coming to greater light in the 21st century.

Lori McKenna, “Humble & Kind” (2016)

In 2005, Lori McKenna won the songwriter lottery when Faith Hill recorded three of McKenna’s songs, effectively ushering the New England folk singer into the Nashville country music writing fold. Since then, McKenna has penned dozens of hits, including her magnum opus “Humble & Kind.” Tim McGraw released his version of it in 2016; McKenna recorded her own version for her album The Bird and the Rifle that same year. The song is a list of what McKenna wants to tell each of her five children, with the most important piece of advice at the end of each refrain: “Always stay humble and kind.” The authenticity of her writing rings through the song’s wonderful simplicity, making it one of the best country tunes to come out in the last 18 years. —Cindy Howes (Folk Alley & WYEP)

Rapsody (ft. BJ The Chicago ), “Black & Ugly” (2017)

Rapsody’s sophomore album Laila’s Wisdom, named after the North Carolina MC’s grandmother, houses the type of truths often dispensed in passing from a porch rocking chair or in the midst of cooking Sunday dinner. Standout track “Black & Ugly,” featuring BJ The Chicago , dispenses the type of common sense that society often works so hard to make uncommon: Blackness in any form – light skin or dark, wide or svelte nose – is beautiful. “Talking appearance ain’t no diss to me / No one dissin’ me / I been to hell and back / And came back up here screaming victory,” Rapsody rhymes through her lisp at the tail end of a breath, as a strategic sample from R&B singer Tweet lingers in the background. —Sidney Madden

Demi Lovato, “Cool For The Summer” (2015)

The first few seconds were a tease: a piano riff like a pavement shimmer, a sweetly cajoling verse. But then the growling guitar hook sneaked in, the vocal line revved up, and by the time the chorus hit Demi Lovato had claimed her crown as millennial queen of muscular, self-assured pop. “Cool For The Summer” celebrates the multitudes that sexuality contains: frank yet lighthearted; die-for-you passionate while keeping it casual; steamy but still, well, cool. —Rachel Horn

Missy Mazzoli Is The 21st Century’s Gatecrasher Of New Classical Music

It’s not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.

The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of “woman” itself. What is a woman? It’s a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. —Ann Powers

Classical music has a gatekeeping problem, and much of that can be traced through the word “great.”

I don’t mean great as in “that was great,” the kind of thing you’d say as you walk out of the concert and pull out your phone to find somewhere for post-concert cocktails on Yelp. I mean Great as in Great Composers, the set of dead white guys whose Great Works manspread across the programming of most symphony orchestras, opera companies and other classical music-presenting institutions in the country that don’t exclusively focus on new music.

Don’t get me wrong. Most of these works are in the canon because they are actually pretty great. They’ve been fascinating us, pulling our heartstrings and making us hum along for centuries. But if the major selling point of classical music is how objectively Great it is or how Great the composers are, Greatness becomes insidious: effectively meaningless, but unchangeable, almost impossible to fight. Being sold Greatness is now what audiences expect. It belongs only to the past, so it’s antithetical to welcoming or nurturing composers and listeners of the present and future, especially if they don’t buy into that lineage of Greatness.

Missy Mazzoli, 38, is trying to tear down the gates for new composers and listeners. She’s a prominent figure in new music; she has three operas to her name with librettist Royce Vavrek, including the vicious Breaking the Waves — an adaptation of the controversial 1996 Lars von Trier film — and the dry, spooky Proving Up, based on Karen Russell’s ghost story set on the 19th-century prairie. Her work engages with stories about human beings and the oft-fraught relationships between them. None of her main characters is someone you would aspire to be or, conversely, an irredeemable monster (except one, in Proving Up, who actually is a monster). But all are complex and fully realized. In the case of Breaking the Waves, Mazzoli’s act of adapting a story hinging on a woman’s trauma feels especially prescient in a time when it’s still common for such stories to be told by all-male creative teams.

Her resumé also includes a handful of composer residencies with institutions like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the forward-thinking Opera Philadelphia, and two heady recordings with her all-female band Victoire, which she assembled to perform her own music.

“Band” isn’t a word that typically applies to classical ensembles, but it’s really the only accurate descriptor of Victoire, in which Mazzoli plays keyboards. Anything else would be slapping a label on it that doesn’t fit. Its second album of Mazzoli’s music, Vespers for a New Dark Age, turns poems by contemporary poet Matthew Zapruder into searing songs of secular prayer, with propulsive drumming by Wilco’s Glenn Kotche and production by Victoire member and synth wizard Lorna Dune. It feels like it belongs to no genre and many genres at once. It’s been called everything from “ravishing, unsettling…from the chamber-operatic to the electronic and semiabstract” to “an engrossing classical-electronic-vocal epic” to a “suite for singers, chamber ensemble and electronics” — that last clear-cut description nonetheless makes it sound drier and less friendly than it is. When I try to think of what to call it, anything I come up with either sounds too generic or detracts from the simplicity I hear in its core. But it moves; it’s old, new, borrowed and blue. I’d play it for people who would never go to a classical concert.