Yola on embodying her “Gender-Fluid” artistry


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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 and four wins to her credit, including Best New Artist and British Artist and Album of the Year (thanks to her July 2021 studio album, defend myself). She also landed an acting gig as the “godmother of rock ‘n’ roll” Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the Oscar-nominated biography, Elvis, directed by director Baz Luhrmann. “I have been homeless and poor for much of my life,” she said. “I don’t really come from a lot, you know, [so this] was so unreal.”

In this episode On the Rise, the singer-songwriter talks about landing his life-changing role in Elvis, using her voice as an instrumental mode of expression, and addresses her “deep mission” as a black female artist with a platform. See highlights from the chat below.

On the representation of blacks in Elvis

“He felt [like] this most incredible privilege and duty to represent Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” says Yola. “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 rockstar’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 is grateful that Luhrmann restored the noir narrative to the rockstar’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 bow,” Yola says. “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, you know?”

On his life in 5 years…

The singer will live in New York. (She’s already bought land for a house.) Career-wise, Yola — though she’s already landed the role she might have wished for “on planet Earth” — would also like to continue acting, as long as she does not perpetuate or permit racial stereotyping on screen.

“In all reality, I know that movies and TV smear us all the time. By us, I mean plus sizes, dark skin, 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.”

Among its profound missions is that of honoring and maximizing 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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