Yola Is Finally Living For Herself — And Crushing Black Woman Stereotypes Along The Way

At last year’s Grammy Awards, Yola received four nominations — including Best New Artist — for her breakthrough debut album Walk Through Fire. Yet many were quick to place the Bristol, UK-born singer in a box, classifying her as an Americana artist following the Grammy recognition.

With her follow-up album Stand For Myself (released July 30 via Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound), she’s shattered all of those unwanted expectations and showed Black women’s multifacetedness. The album’s kaleidoscopic take on music (a blend of disco, funk, soul, pop, country, and rock) partly has to do with growing up with a Ghanian father and Bajan mother. We have specific genres in America: hip-hop, R&B, techno, pop, etc. But when speaking to UK artists, their perspective is more genre-less because of their radio format.

“Everything you said is what I normally tell people when they haven’t noticed,” Yola says over Zoom with a hearty chuckle. “The smushing of genres is a very British thing. I’m bringing my lens: Bajan, African, British, and feminine. It is it’s all of those things in balance. I’m really glad that it’s connecting to you as a second-generation Caribbean woman who sees the different layers in ways that others won’t. This is such a joy.”

Stand For Myself details her story: traveling to America and ultimately settling in Nashville. To Yola, the album feels like a release.

“I didn’t choose any of the co-writers for the first record and I hadn’t met Dan yet. I didn’t know anybody here [in America],” she explains. “I didn’t know how the industry was different from the UK and consequently, how I might function in it. So the concept of agency was absent. We managed to make a record that’s beautiful, but it’s impossible for it to be deeply personal because all of the co-writers are older white American males.

“We didn’t even have a geographical standpoint where I can speak on how our radio stations are very different or how being a Black woman in the UK is different. With this record, I understood how the machine works. I was able to pick all the crew myself, dig into my life experience and go into songs from the back catalog that was I ready to approach because I knew people who could help me finish them.”

Below, Yola goes deep with UPROXX about Stand For Myself’s story and why Black women are simply fed up with society’s archaic standards.

The closer “Stand For Myself” summates your entire journey. There’s such a gospel-inspired assertion when you sing “I’m alive!” I love that as a full-circle moment from the “Barely Alive” opener, where you’re not really mentally there. By the time you get to the final song, you’re in the fully realized moment of your purpose as a person.

Well, this is why it’s really nice talking to Black lady interviewers because normally I’m saying what you just said to somebody! [laughs]

Doesn’t it feel good when you finally have that relatability? We Black women just get it.

Yes! Normally [in interviews] I’m like, “Did you notice that?” But you’re like, “Of course I do!” Well, I can skip that entire part of the conversation and get even deeper. So you get to a place in your life where you decide that this sh*t isn’t a dress rehearsal anymore and you’re going to have to do everything in your power to live in your most honest truth as possible. I don’t think I recognized the blast radius of segregation in this country and what it would do to your networks and how hard it would be if you arrived with a manager who was a white lady, then everyone would assume that you want to only speak to white people. Like, I’m here too guys!

Another thing that was massive for this record was finding writers of color who are published and have experience with co-writing. I noticed that there was such a disparity with writers of color that were on rosters that I would have access to. It didn’t even necessarily have to be just writers based in Nashville, I’m like, “Send me whoever you have.” They [told me], “We don’t have anyone that doesn’t do hip-hop who’s Black.” That’s not great because white people are doing everything — they’re the most.

They’re doing everything that we laid the groundwork for, which is equally frustrating.

Thank you, it is! They’re doing hip-hop, R&B, neo-soul, jazz, funk, gospel, blues. We can’t stop white people. They’ll do everything. They’ll start doing Afropop soon. Wait, they already are! It’s never gonna end, what white people think they can do. Hey I don’t want to piss on your chips, whch is what we say in the UK. But at the same time, I just want the same level of freedom. No one goes: “So Justin [Bieber], how in the living heck did you get all of those Afropop influences given that you’re not African? Have you been to Ghana, Nigeria, or Senegal? Have you been up in Dakar? No? I didn’t think so!” [Laughs] So this expectation to have some connection that is more than “I bought a record” is something that is bestowed upon people that aren’t white guys.

Being a Black woman, I think about the title Stand For Myself. It’s like, “Well we survived, but at what cost?” Even though we’re empowered and trying to reclaim certain things, we’re always going to have to go through the struggle.

It’s standing for my rights to nuance. It’s not standing for my right to be a strong Black woman. If anything, it’s quite the bloody well opposite. We’re tired!

I’m over being strong, I want to be vulnerable and soft. And it feels like a luxury to be afforded that.

It really does. When we were doing the treatment for the “Starlight” video, I was like “We can’t have any sassy, strong Black woman energy” because I so rarely feel like that. If I’m in a romantic situation, I’m not like that. So let’s not misrepresent who I am.

I borrowed from Issa Rae’s brief where all the male romantic interests are still Black guys, but they’re nicer than the ladies. Could it be that we have a non-colorism option? So I was like, “my romantic interest in the video has to be at least one makeup shade lighter than me.” So I’m not putting the same toxic BS into the world for dark-skinned women. Not on my watch, sunshine.

In the middle of the album, there’s so much sentimental information. For that reason, I wanted the main body of my journey to be about my right to sentimentality, to that softness, to be Black ladies having nice times and being well-tended to. That’s all I want to see on my Instagram feed. I want to see on my television. I just want to see people being nice to Black ladies, that’s it. Not trying to deal with stuff in our lives. We’re not a sideshow or “the friend of”. We’re the protagonist. And that’s what this record is.

You’re also playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic — congratulations on this big breakout role, by the way — and she never gets credit for being the literal backbone of rock and roll.

She invented rock and roll, let’s not beat around the bush. Before the likes of B.B. Kings, Little Richards, and Elvises of the world came along, they went to her nights on Beale Street in Memphis. They were influenced by her. She’s doing this brand new distorted guitar, shredding sound. They’ve never seen anything like that. She was the first person to do it! Another day, another Black woman giving but not receiving. It’s an honor represent her, so that even though she’s not with us anymore, other Black people can go: “I have a right to this legacy and no one can talk me out of it.”

You are a Black woman who sings within so many genres that are now whitewashed, despite directly deriving from Black people. Did playing Rosetta wake up anything inside of you?

Maybe less with the movie, but I remember when I first came across Sister Rosetta in my teens and I was like, “Wait a minute, what year is this? Sorry, what? Shredding guitars was a thing in the ‘40s?” No one else was doing it. So she invented it! How didn’t I know this and how is this some kind of niche thing? If I invented rock and roll, I would expect to be carried on a damn chair everywhere I went. [Laughs] It’s a travesty. But you know, segregation was a whole thing. But what gets me is how easily we can be talked out of our own inheritance. Talking about Black people in jazz, blues, soul music and rock and roll. The number of times I come across a clutch of artists who are campaigning to be involved in something that they created or at least played a part in creating —

It’s so backwards and disheartening.

There’s something so profoundly wrong with the pleading. So I try and impart my sense of “white boy privilege” into everything that I do. I went to a posh school in England with white kids walking into places like they owned it. I thought, “Cool, that’s about to be me. I’m going to Kool-Aid myself into places and go, ‘Oh you thought this was yours? Cute, it’s all mine now.’”

Contemporary music is African, it’s at the origins of all of these things. Before we even had African-Americans in America we had Africans in America. So there’s no way of avoiding that contribution that engineered the inventiveness of African-American culture. Every time you see something groovy, you really think some buttoned-up white guy did that?

There’s a heavy dose of nostalgia on the album too, which sounds comforting. I hear Ella Fitzgerald, Earth, Wind and Fire, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, and Tina Turner. These are people that we grew up with and love. It subconsciously seeps out of our pores to only celebrate that in anything that we do. And I think you do it very well on this album.

Aah, you named everyone! Like no one ever pulls out Ella Fitzgerald [in interviews]. But you can hear it! She’s been my [inspiration] since I was 10. So when you’re like, “Well obviously!” I’m like thank goodness someone could hear it! But it’s all of our touchstones, so this album will touch everybody. Especially if you’re a second-genner in the west.

I totally relate to “Break The Bough” because as a Caribbean-American girl, I grew up eating tropical fruit. I grew up with that sense of joy and being free, which was juxtaposed with being “othered”. I came from a family of immigrants and had those luxuries ultimately taken away from me as I grew up in a white society. I was like, “This song is the story of Black women.” People who aren’t Black won’t get that.

No, but it’s not for them this time. There are a number of things specifically for Black women on this album. Speaking about being “othered,” I’ve gotten a lot of support and fellowship from the LGBTQ+ community. They’re like, “we’ve been othered and connect with a lot of things on this record.” Even if you’ve been a white woman in a space that’s dominated by guys, you would have felt some of this. But if you’re a Black woman, OOOOOOH! Every single jam on this is going to hit very close to home, especially if you’ve got immigrant parents. I’ve talked to Filipino and Asian people that have immigrant parents and they [tell me] they get it too.

So It was really important to represent all of that. Although every song on this record was co-written [with Dan Auerbach], there’s a volume of lyrics that could only come from me because of how personal it is. The pandemic gave me the time to finesse that so that there are these touchstones specifically for women of color.

Stand For Myself is out now on Easy Eye Sound. Pick it up here.