Emel 2024
Photo: Amber Grey / Girlie Action Media

Emel Keeps Her Electropop Revolution Strong on ‘MRA’

Tunisian artist Emel’s MRA is what contemporary pop should be: a true and socially conscious mélange that makes its audiences want to listen, learn, and move.

Little Human
19 April 2024

It’s rare to find a pop star who can claim to be genuinely revolutionary, but Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi fits both descriptors equally well. Her 2010 song “Kelmti Horra” brought her work to a global audience when it became an Arab Spring anthem, and she’s continued to fight the good fight–creatively–ever since. As Emel, she makes genuinely global music, collaborating with artists worldwide and drawing on an even broader range of sonic styles in massively appealing ways. The new album, MRA (Arabic for “woman”), continues this body of politically engaged work and is perhaps her most expansive release yet.

The title is more than just lip service. Emel’s team across MRA is made up of women from the world over, including up-and-coming artists like Malian rapper Ami Yerewolo, Brazilian producer Lyzza, French singers Camélia Jordana, Penelope Antena and Katel, and many others. Each artist brings their own language, perspective, and style to a nonetheless cohesive mix of politically potent tracks. Yerewolo’s verse on electric “Nar” is a sharp-edged, lightning-fast addition to Emel’s urgent call to power (“I am a soldier / I am a fighter / I am a bullet”). On “Lose My Mind”, Swedish-Iraqi rapper Nayomi lets loose over breezy reggaetón beats. Eva Alordiah’s self-affirming bridge on “IDHA” brings an Afrobeats-inspired bounce to a melancholy mix. Angelic guest vocals from Camélia Jordana uplift “Mazel”.

Emel’s voice is a magnetic centerpiece for everyone in participation, as are her unrelenting lyrics. She intertwines the personal and political from the start on the opening track, “Massive Will” (“It’s the voice that is growing inside you and me / It’s the new way you draw on the day you are free”), throughout which she rises through her high register, at once angelic and grounded. Her voice flows even more smoothly on “Souty”, a meditation on the power of the titular voice (“My voice has no limits / My voice has no end / My voice is my existence”) through which she glides at a lower part of her vocal range.

For “I’ll Leave”, Emel makes her voice even more like velvet against goth rock-adjacent synths as she sings a solemn dirge (“Father, father, help me think this through / I can’t seem to possibly find the truth / The world you drew for me has lost its way / And I can’t be the one to bring it back”). Even the vocal processing on “Pride” seems to have some extra humanity from Emel’s delivery.

Though a few overarching themes recur everywhere on MRA, there’s still a tremendous amount of range in terms of style and substance. The complexities of the many multilingual pieces are a statement in and of itself, but so is the simplicity of “Rise”, whose three repeated lines (“I will rise again / Like a phoenix / I will not surrender”) make it as effective a chant as an electropop ballad. Persian rapper Justina’s extensive section on “L’amour” turns what is otherwise a swaying, minimal ode to love (“Love will take me / Where I need to be,” sings Emel) into a frenzy of ideals and trap beats. There’s never a dull moment.

Emel has long since proven her ability to inspire her audiences to important ends. MRA is exciting on musical and cultural levels; Emel features artists who are often overlooked by virtue of gender or origin and, with them, dabbles in dramatic flavors of rock, EDM, and roots music from many different places themselves. This is what contemporary pop should be: a true and socially conscious mélange that makes its audiences want to listen, learn, and move.

RATING 8 / 10