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In ‘Elvis,’ Yola Brings Black Women Music Pioneers the Recognition They Deserve

PhenomenalMAG Staff  |  Entertainment

Grammy-nominated singer Yola made her debut at the Glastonbury festival as she continues her whirlwind jaunts around the globe.

The British musician is on the cusp of her first European tour in over two and a half years and fresh off promoting her debut feature, Elvis.

Baz Luhrmann's (Moulin Rouge) Elvis biography recounts the musician's journey to prominence and friendship with Colonel Tom Parker. Yola said she “grew up with Baz Luhrmann's 'Romeo & Juliet” and that it turned her onto Shakespeare. “His cuts, angles, and enthusiasm truly affected me. I felt his Elvis impression would be ideal. The story needs strong intensity,” she told ELLE UK.

Before filming, Luhrmann informed Yola he wanted to show Elvis' humanity and depict the genuine tale of rock 'n' roll. For a musician who draws on rock 'n' roll, that was huge, Yola said. In the film, the singer plays Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a 1930s singer, songwriter, and guitarist who found Little Richard (who is played in the film by Alton Mason). Tharpe was one of the most significant, yet underappreciated, rock 'n' roll creators. Yola wanted to bring their names to a new generation.

Yola claimed she grew up a 'musical pariah' in Bristol, England. “Black and white people told me what a Black musician should do. They may rap, sing R&B, do reggae, or be an MC, but not play guitar,” she said. "A white guy could accomplish anything."

“One record business official told me no one wanted to hear a Black lady sing rock 'n' roll,” she laughed. “I had to deal with ignorance from pundits to executives. It's everywhere how much we owe women in music, people of color, and Black America.”

Yola spent hours learning how to mimic Tharpe's unique lead guitar approach. She credits her character with pioneering the rock 'n' roll movement and developing the music scene by presenting new talent.

“She said Little Richard, Elvis, and B.B. King were her children. Unfortunately, heterosexual white men are credited with the evolution of rock 'n' roll, not a queer Black woman. If a little Black girl wants to pick up a guitar and believes she has a right to it from Tharpe, who invented the genre, then I've done something good. If a young Black girl wants to play guitar, I've succeeded.”

Yola began her career working with Bugz in the Attic and Massive Attack before her 2018 performance on Jools Holland's Annual Hootenanny won her four Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist. The New York Times called her 2021 album Stand For Myself a “record crafted on her own terms.” Its opening tune, “Barely Alive,” tackles feeling like an “other” and shrinking to fit in, yet losing yourself.

“Being a Black woman in England inspired it,” she explains. “I often ask my friends to count the amount of times they see a Black woman in an ad not raising a child on her own, or even just laughing, dancing about, or being doted on (not because of some magical white savior complex) for no reason or without an agenda. A Black woman's story is so often ignored that she tries to fit the nearest standard, which doesn't honor her. I saw intelligent people whose talent was muted by rejection.”

She says, “Society has decreased expectations for Black women. As if we should be grateful to be considered. These standards aren't universal... People expect me to accept a lower degree of life experience because of who I am.”

Yola moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 2020 and now splits her time between the US and UK to celebrate diversity and artists' skills. She maintains that Nashville is more than the country music stereotype.

“'I needed to be somewhere with musicians and a scene that was more than one genre,” Yola explained. “Nashville's jazz and soul scenes are underappreciated.

‘When I got to Nashville, I realized I wasn't having conversations about how to extend music in London. What I didn't expect to see in Tennessee, compared to hyper-liberal places like London or Bristol, was the number of women producing their own scripts and succeeding. I met talented female instrumentalists. Before moving to the US, I didn't know many female instrumentalists, which felt wrong. I chose Nashville because it allowed me to be myself.”

Elvis was predicted to win awards after a 12-minute standing ovation at Cannes in May. If Rami Malek's 2018 Oscar win for Bohemian Rhapsody is any indication, Butler is a lock for Best Actor nods next year. Yola appreciates the “family-like vibe'' among her cast more than any award.

While she didn't meet some of her co-stars, like Hanks, until the film's promotional tour, she says the rest of her co-stars would go out on the town after a day of filming. Yola didn’t meet Hanks during shooting because the period film is set during segregation. Tharpe and other Black characters wouldn't have interacted with the white characters or been in scenes together, for the most part. The exception, of course, is Austin because Elvis grew up in the Black community.

“Olivia DeJonge, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Alton, Austin, and the gospel team would go out for supper often, she says. We were drunk on a boat once,” she laughs.

Elvis is out now in theaters.

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