Yola; Credit: Jospeh Ross Smith

Early in Yola’s career, an A&R person told the English singer one of the most ridiculously inaccurate statements ever: “No one wants to hear Black women do rock.” Apparently, he never heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the American singer and guitarist who, with her inventive style of distorted playing and gospel vocals, laid the groundwork for rock ’n’ roll. The universe, it turns out, has a wonderful sense of course correction: Not only was Tharpe’s influence  showcased in Baz Luhrmann’s movie Elvis, but it was Yola who portrayed the groundbreaking musician. “I can’t tell you how much of an honor it is to be able to tell the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” Yola tells City Paper. “The number of people I get to tell, ‘Oh, you know, she invented rock ’n’ roll. Do you know when she coined the term? 1938! In a song, ‘That’s All.’ So it’s on record. The fact that we’ve been ignoring it is belligerent …. If she had known the blast radius she would create by creating this genre, like, gosh, we should build shrines to this woman!” Geeking out about Tharpe is normal for Yola who grew up around “music nerds and record collectors.” An accomplished rhythm guitarist herself (Yola had to learn how to play lead guitar in order to play Tharpe), her multi-genre upbringing found its way into her music career as she began writing for other acts including fellow Brits Will Young and EMD duo Chase & Status and performing as a touring lead vocalist for Massive Attack. Early in her 20s, however, Yola found herself briefly homeless. Calling the experience “a profound failing of humanity in my inner circle,” Yola now realizes that it was an initial stage of transformation; one that definitely improved with age and influenced the song “Barely Alive,” the opening track from her Grammy-nominated second album, Stand for Myself. “I suppose down to it being my early 20s … it’s not the place commensurate with the most ardent boundaries,” says Yola. “You don’t have the best standards for yourself so people being crap to you is regrettable, but not necessarily a deal breaker …. This current record, the narrative starts when I hit 30. Really, it’s the exit of that low boundary, low standard doormat version of Yola. That’s the song ‘Barely Alive.’ That’s where we set our scene.” That scene leads to an extraordinary amalgam of songs, which Yola credits as the reason she draws such diverse crowds. “People often go, when it comes to the show, ‘What the hell is this show?’ cause they can’t figure out the demographic,” says Yola. “They don’t know why that Black trans woman and that old White granny are bogling together. They don’t understand what universe that happens [in].” Quite simply, it happens in Yola’s musical universe, and if you’re part of the fortunate ones to have a ticket to her sold-out show at Lincoln Theatre on Sept. 24, you’ll be able to witness it for yourself. Yola plays at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 24 at Lincoln Theatre in Northwest. thelincolndc.com. Sold out, but resale tickets are still available.

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