Yola on Embodying and Embracing Her “Gender-Fluid” Art

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welcome to On the rise, a BAZAAR.com series featuring the breakout talents everyone will be talking about. Get to know these new faces on the verge of stardom.


Singer-songwriter Yola, née Yolanda Quartey, is essentially self-taught, and with her versatility as an artist, she refuses to be tied down.

Since this year, she has six Grammy nominations to his credit, including Best New Artist (for his debut album, cross the fire) and Best Americana Album (thanks to his July 2021 studio album, defend myself). She also landed an acting gig as godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, in the Oscar-winning biopic Elvis, directed by director Baz Luhrmann. “I have been homeless and poor for much of my life,” she says. “I don’t really come from a lot, you know, [so this] was so unreal.”

So On the rise episode, Yola talks about landing the life-changing role, using her voice as her instrumental mode of expression, and her “deep mission” as a black female artist with a platform. See highlights from the chat below.

On the representation of blacks in Elvi…

“He felt [like] this most incredible privilege and duty to represent Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” Yola said. “It felt like I had this rare opportunity to bring his name and his legacy to a whole new generation of people. I make young black girls feel like they have a right to reach for the guitar, and no one can tell them it’s not something a black girl does, like they did for me.”

His role was also an opportunity to give the Elvis story context, demonstrating how black America directly shaped the rock star‘s music, lifestyle and iconic status. “I can show Sister Rosetta Tharpe the Elder – the inventor of rock ‘n’ roll – what she was like,” Yola says. “Because of segregation, she didn’t get the credit.”

Yola adds that she is grateful to Luhrmann for restoring the noir narrative to the singer’s reimagined memoir. “I have a mountain of absolute respect for Baz for doing it this way, which puts the story of Elvis in the context of black America – him growing up on the black side of the segregation line, and what that means for his arc,” Yola said. “Being a director, screenwriter, filmmaker, someone who says, ‘I see an injustice and I really want to fix it’, I don’t see it enough, girls.”

On his life in five years…

The singer will live in New York (she has already bought land for a house). Career-wise, Yola – although she has already landed the only role she could have wished for “on planet Earth” – would also like to continue acting, as long as she does not perpetuate or further allow racial stereotypes. on the screen.

“In all reality, I know that movies and TV get dirty with us all the time — by us, I mean plus-size, dark-skinned black women,” Yola says. “Like, we get the rules messed up.” She refuses to be typecast in roles intended strictly for ‘comic relief’, such as being a ‘clown next door’ – but is eager for the chance to act again, ‘as long as it’s not toxic to her. people who look like me, something really positive for the culture and for my particular demographic.”

Pushing artistic boundaries…

Yola defines herself as “genre fluid” musically and refuses to limit herself to any particular type or style of music. “People always want to put you in those boxes,” she says, “and I think one of the most rewarding and satisfying things you can do is be the master of your own destiny.”

One of its core missions is to honor and maximize the complexities and contradictions inherent in its identity through music. “I want to have 100% freedom to combine everything I love about music. I want it all to merge and find the connective tissue between that music,” she says. “It’s the privilege of this platform, to espouse the virtues of self-definition, especially for artists of color.”

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