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Yola on Embracing Her "Genre-Fluid" Artistry

The singer-songwriter talks about her life-changing role in Elvis and mission as a Black woman artist.

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

Singer-songwriter Yola—born Yolanda Quartey—is quintessentially self-made, and with her versatility as an artist, she refuses to be tied down.

As of this year, she has six Grammy nominations under her belt, including those for Best New Artist (for her debut album, Walk Through Fire) and Best Americana Album (thanks to her July 2021 studio album, Stand for Myself). She also landed an acting gig as the Godmother of Rock 'n' Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, in the Oscar-hopeful biopic Elvis, helmed by director Baz Luhrmann. "I've been homeless and I've been poor for a lot of my life," she says. "I don't really come from much, you know, [so this] was just so unreal."

On this On the Rise episode, Yola talks landing the life-changing role, using her voice as an instrumental mode of expression, and her "profound mission" as a Black female artist with a platform. See highlights from the chat below.

On Black representation in Elvis …

"It felt [like] this most amazing privilege and duty to portray Sister Rosetta Tharpe," Yola says. "It felt like I have this rare opportunity to bring her name and her legacy into a whole new generation of people. I get to make young Black girls feel like they have the right to reach for the guitar, and no one can tell them that that ain't a thing that a Black girl does, like they did me."

Her role was also an opportunity to give Elvis's story its due context, demonstrating the ways that Black America directly shaped the rock star's music, lifestyle, and icon status. "I get to show Sister Rosetta Tharpe as the elder—as the inventor of rock 'n' roll—which is what she was," Yola says. "Because of segregation, she didn't get the credit."

Yola adds that she's grateful Luhrmann reestablished the Black narrative in the singer's reimagined memoir. "I have an absolute mountain of respect for Baz for doing it this way, which is put Elvis's story 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 says. "To be a director, a writer, a filmmaker, someone who goes, 'I see an injustice and I really want to rectify that'—I just don't see that enough, babes."

On her life in five years …

The singer will be living in New York (she already bought a plot of land for a house). Career-wise, Yola—despite having already landed the one role she could have wanted "on planet Earth"—would also love to continue acting, insofar as she's not further perpetuating or enabling racial onscreen stereotypes.

"In all realism, I know that cinema and television do us dirty all the time—by us, I mean plus-size, dark-skin Black women," Yola says. "Like, we get done dirty on the regs." She refuses to be typecast into roles meant strictly for "comedic relief," like being some "clown on the side"—but is eager for the chance to act again, "as long as it's something that is not toxic for people that look like me, something really positive for the culture and for my particular demographic."

On pushing artistic boundaries …

Yola refers to herself as "genre-fluid" musically and refuses to limit herself to a particular type or style of music. "People always want to kind of put you into these boxes," she says, "and I think one of the most gratifying and satisfying things you can do is be the master of your own destiny."

Among her profound missions is to honor and value to the fullest extent the inherent complexities and contradictions of her identity through music. "I want 100 percent to have the freedom to combine everything that I love in music. I want all of this stuff to coalesce and to find the connective tissue between this music," she says. "That's the privilege of this platform, is espousing the virtues of defining yourself—especially for artists of color."

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