Yola On Recovering From Her Agency, New Album “Stand For Myself” And The Evils Of Tokenism

After George Floyd‘s murder, a feeding frenzy for diversity officers and employees of color has begun. While this drastic culture shift signals a valid and long overdue judgment, the singer-songwriter yola sees an insidious threat even in well-meaning spaces. This threat, for her, is symbolic – the act of superficially recruiting marginalized people so as not to get yelled at.

For Yola, symbolism isn’t just a side effect of trying to do the right thing: it’s a calculated wing of white supremacy. “The second you find someone who is different from you, you group them with a group of people who are different from you, so you have less work to do,” she told GRAMMY.com. “You save.” For this reason, Yola made defend myselfwhich celebrates individuality rather than arbitrary classification based on melanin content.

defend myself, which was released on July 30, is a mix of soul, country, blues, rock and R&B, which shows both Yola’s flexibility and how black innovators have created all these styles – a reality which remains hopelessly lost for many. The music, however, is just a way for Yola to communicate who she is deep down, which may not be what audiences expect of her.

“I’m a big soft. I’m a sacred sentimental,” she says. “I want to be treated with a sense of nuance and tenderness. I don’t need to be harsh because I’m a black woman. I don’t need to be submissive because I come from another community. I don’t need to be tough because I’m a black woman. I don’t need to be ‘shut up or shut up’ because I’m seen as a moral authority. “

GRAMMY.com caught up with Yola, who begins her national tour on October 7, to discuss the individualistic philosophy behind defend myselfwhy black musicians still don’t own their inventions and how she exercises agency in her music.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In the press release, you mention an insidious component of discrimination: tokenism. Can this form of overcorrection be destructive?

It’s funny: I don’t really think it’s an overcorrection. I think that’s a real function of the white supremacy paradigm. The second you find someone who is different from you, you group them with a group of people who are different from you, so you have less work to do. You save. This has long been a pillar of my life: the sense of saving people. They say, “I see a black person.” Can you tell one from the other?

I have a dear friend who merges with Mavis Staples. There is nothing [in common between them]— above all, the considerable decades which separate them. It gets to the point where you no longer listen with your ears. You listen with your eyes. So the symbolism is one thing that is part of this paradigm: that “you are all the same, really”.

Like, “Isn’t it weird that you’re into country music?” No it’s Dolly Parton. She has records everywhere. “But isn’t it weird that you’re in this space?” It’s all part of the big paradigm of the supremacist assumption that white people create all music, when that’s not even remotely true. It is the colonization of our ideas. Thus, when you are symbolized, it is a way of relieving yourself of responsibility. You are put in a small box. It’s a way to take ownership of your property.

Read more: Jen Shyu on New Album ‘Zero Grasses: Ritual For The Losses’, Overcoming Grief and Discrimination in Lit Spaces

Your contribution to rock ‘n’ roll, for example. This is kind of circulating on the internet right now: my interview with Channel 4 News in the UK, talking to Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who I love as a journalist and in general. We were talking about navigating the industry and I said “I heard someone from an A&R at a major say ‘Nobody wants to hear a black woman sing rock ‘n’ roll. That’s not what we want right now. ”

I’m like, “That shows you don’t know the history of who created it! You don’t know anything about Sister Rosetta Tharpe! She created rock ‘n’ roll!” We have a problem here. If you don’t understand the lineage of something, if you minimize it, you become reductive for any marginalized group. You reduce their contributions to society.

Do you think it might not be as simple as the “bad guys” who indulge in it? That some of the good guys could drive this?

Yeah! We’ve all seen liberal moments gone awry, haven’t we? [Cringing voice.] “Oh, no! Oh, my darling! My darling! You tried, but no!” It’s a big thing. People don’t realize that programming is something done to them and they have to control it. People say no baby comes out with cognitive biases, right? No, no baby does. They are right. They know that. But they arrive in a world that is absolutely sprinkled with that.

As soon as they air, they learn supremacist programming. It’s in the ad. It’s in the language. It’s in the wealth distribution structure. It is in the laws that govern the country. It’s in everything. It’s a big part of politics. Supremacy is in so many things. Is it possible to escape it? What you need to do is be aware of it and watch it. Someone tries to program you all the time.

I don’t think racism is something that can be cured, like we’re looking for the cure for the coronavirus. Like, that’s not how it works. Do what you can and control and remove the things that keep popping up in your life, because we all have it. It’s not that white people are the only ones receiving supremacist broadcasts. Black people understand it too. Brown people get it too. You see it jump into people where they haven’t controlled it and they start to champion paradigms themselves that are beneficial to their own people.

Yola. Photo: Joseph Ross Smith

The title of defend myself seems to imply individual identity and agency, not a sense of belonging to some nebulous, easily pigeonholed “community” of people with similar melanin content.

[Long laugh.] In fact, I couldn’t say it better myself! For do not to be part of this nebulous community, but to have this feeling of defending your right to nuance. Stand up for your right to tenderness. Be like: I want to be treated with a sense of nuance and tenderness. I don’t need to be harsh because I’m a black woman. I don’t have to be servile because I come from another community. I don’t have to be “set up or shut up” because I’m seen as a moral authority. [It applies] whatever your situation: you don’t have to be off-camp because you’re part of the LGBTQIA+ community if you don’t want to. It is past individualism and comes to the point of authenticity. Don’t pretend. In fact, just be you. I know it’s a bit trivial to say, but in fact, do you.

So let’s say someone comes to defend myself with an open mind. What do you hope people take away and learn about you?

I’m a huge softie. [Knowing laugh.] I’m sentimental as hell. The flesh of the record, the very innards of the record are highly sentimental and seek genuine connection through friendship, through the process of working and collaborating, through love, through my family, and all of those things. You hear it through the disc.

People try to put this “strong black woman” paradigm on me, and there’s so much of my life when I wasn’t that. I was a real doormat. So being able to see the nuance that I have as a person is really, really the function of writing from my lens. I want to talk about my life experience. I want people to know the nature of my life and the steps I have taken.

Read more: Press Play At Home: Watch Yola perform a solid rendition of “Stand For Myself”

I want people to see the whole person. I want people to see me as I am in spaces, through spaces. I want people to see what it looks like when I take the helm a bit more. In fact, I can choose co-writers, whereas on the first record, I didn’t know anyone in Nashville yet so I couldn’t choose co-writers!

It’s the very embodiment of my agency, so I want people to see what it looks like to me.

For Charley Pride, black country music was a given

About Elizabeth J. Swartz

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