Photo: Joseph Ross Smith
Yola On Reclaiming Her Agency, New Album 'Stand For Myself' & The Evils Of Tokenism
On her new album, 'Stand For Myself,' singer/songwriter Yola doesn't want to be viewed as a moral authority or a representative of a nebulous global community, but as a nuanced human being
In the wake of George Floyd's murder, a feeding frenzy for diversity officers and employees of color began. While this sea change in culture speaks to a valid and long-overdue reckoning, singer/songwriter Yola sees an insidious threat even in well-intentioned spaces. That menace, to her, is tokenism—the act of perfunctorily recruiting marginalized people so as to not get yelled at.
To Yola, tokenism isn't just a side effect of trying to do the right thing: It's a calculated wing of white supremacy. "The second that you find somebody that is different from you, you group them with a bunch of people that are different from you, so you have less work to do," she tells GRAMMY.com. "You're economizing." Because of this, Yola made Stand For Myself, which celebrates individuality over arbitrary pigeonholing based on melanin content.
Stand For Myself, which was released July 30, is a blend of soul, country, blues, rock and R&B, which shows both Yola's flexibility and how Black innovators created all those styles—a reality that remains depressingly lost on many. The music, however, is merely a vehicle for Yola to communicate who she is at her core, which may not jibe with what the public expects her to be.
"I'm a massive softie. I'm sentimental as heck," she says. "I want to be treated with a sense of nuance and tenderness. I don't have to be tough because I'm a Black woman. I don't have to be servile because I'm from some other community. I don't have to be 'Put up or shut up' because I'm seen as a moral authority."
GRAMMY.com caught up with Yola, who kicks off her national tour on October 7, to discuss the individualist philosophy behind Stand For Myself, why Black musicians still aren't given ownership of their inventions and how she exercises her 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 overcorrecting be destructive?
It's funny: I don't really think it's overcorrecting. I think it's an actual function of the white supremacist paradigm. The second that you find somebody that is different from you, you group them with a bunch of people that are different from you, so you have less work to do. You're economizing. That was a mainstay of my life for a long time: The sense of people economizing. They go: "I see a Black person." Can you tell one from the other?
I have a dear friend who gets mixed up with Mavis Staples. There's nothing [in common between them]—least of all, the considerable decades separating them. It gets to the point where you're not listening with your ears anymore. You're listening with your eyes. So, tokenism is one thing that is part of that paradigm: That "You're all the same, really."
Like, "Isn't it weird that you're in country music?" No, it's Dolly Parton. She's got records everywhere. "But isn't it bizarre that you're in this space?" It's all part of the grand paradigm of the supremacist's assumption that white people create all the music, when it isn't even remotely true. It's the colonization of our ideas. So, when you get tokenized, it's a way of disempowering you. You get put into a small box. It's a way of taking away your ownership.
Your contribution to rock 'n' roll, for example. It sort of goes around on the Internet at the moment: My interview with Channel 4 News in the U.K., speaking to Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who I adore as a journalist and generally. We were talking about navigating the industry and I said "I've heard a person from an A&R from 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 to any marginalized group. You reduce their contributions to society.
Do you think it may not be as simple as the "bad guys" engaging in this? That some of the good guys might be driving this?
Yeah! We've all seen liberal moments gone wrong, right? [Cringing voice.] "Oh, no! Oh, sweetie! Sweetie! You tried, but no!" It's a big thing. People aren't realizing that programming is something done to them and they have to police it. People say no baby comes out with cognitive bias, right? No, no baby does. They're right. They know that. But they come into a world that is absolutely strewn with it.
The second they hit air, they're learning supremacist programming. It's in advertising. It's in language. It's in the structure of how wealth is distributed. It's in the laws that govern the land. It's in everything. It's in so much of the politics. Supremacy is in so many things. Is it possible to escape it? What you have to do is be aware of it and police it. Someone's trying to program you all the bloody time.
I don't think racism is a thing you can be cured from, like we're searching for the cure for the coronavirus. Like, that's not how it works. Do what you can and police and pull out the things that keep jumping up into your life, because we all have it. It's not that white people are the only people to get supremacist programming. Black people get it too. Brown people get it too. You see it jump up in people where they haven't policed it and they start championing paradigms that's beneficial for their own people themselves.
Yola. Photo: Joseph Ross Smith
The title of Stand For Myself seems to imply individual identity and action, not a sense of belonging to a nebulous, easily pigeonholed "community" of people with similar melanin content.
[Long laugh.] I actually couldn't put it better myself! To not be part of this nebulous community, but to have this sense of standing up for your right to nuance. Standing for your right to tenderness. To be like: I want to be treated with a sense of nuance and tenderness. I don't have to be tough because I'm a Black woman. I don't have to be servile because I'm from some other community. I don't have to be "Put up or shut up" because I'm seen as a moral authority.
[It applies] whatever way you are: You don't have to be extra-camp because you're part of the LGBTQIA+ community if you don't want to be. It's past individualism and gets to the point of authenticity. Not faking it. Actually just being you. I know it's kind of a trite thing to say, but actually do you.
So, let's say somebody comes to Stand For Myself with an open mind. What do you hope people take away from it and learn about you?
I'm a massive softie. [Knowing laugh.] I'm sentimental as heck. The flesh of the record, the very innards of the record are highly sentimental and seek authentic connection through friendship, through the process of work and collaboration, through love, through my family, and all of these things. You hear it across the record.
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 bloody doormat. So, to be able to see the nuance that I have as a person is really, really the function of writing from my lens. I want to speak about my life experience. I want people to know about the nature of my life and the steps that I've taken.
I want people to see the whole of the person. I want people to see me as I am in spaces, across spaces. I want people to see what it sounds like when I'm taking the helm a tiny bit more. I'm actually able to choose the co-writers, whereas on the first record, I didn't know anyone in Nashville yet so I couldn't choose any co-writers!
This is the very epitome of my agency, so I want people to see what that looks like for me.
Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images
Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry
Selections by Albert King, Labelle, Connie Smith, Nas, Jackson Browne, Pat Metheny, Kermit the Frog and others have also been marked for federal preservation
The Librarian of Congress Carla Haden has named 25 new inductees into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. They include Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814,” Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Nas’ “Illmatic,” Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection” and more.
“The National Recording Registry will preserve our history through these vibrant recordings of music and voices that have reflected our humanity and shaped our culture from the past 143 years,” Hayden said in a statement. “We received about 900 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry, and we welcome the public’s input as the Library of Congress and its partners preserve the diverse sounds of history and culture.”
The National Recording Preservation Board is an advisory board consisting of professional organizations and experts who aim to preserve important recorded sounds. The Recording Academy is involved on a voting level. The 25 new entries bring the number of musical titles on the registry to 575; the entire sound collection includes nearly 3 million titles. Check out the full list of new inductees below:
National Recording Registry Selections for 2020
Edison’s “St. Louis tinfoil” recording (1878)
“Nikolina” — Hjalmar Peterson (1917) (single)
“Smyrneikos Balos” — Marika Papagika (1928) (single)
“When the Saints Go Marching In” — Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra (1938) (single)
Christmas Eve Broadcast--Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (December 24, 1941)
“The Guiding Light” — Nov. 22, 1945
“Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues” — Odetta (1957) (album)
“Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” — Albertina Walker and the Caravans (1959) (single)
Roger Maris hits his 61st homerun (October 1, 1961)
“Aida” — Leontyne Price, et.al. (1962) (album)
“Once a Day” — Connie Smith (1964) (single)
“Born Under a Bad Sign” — Albert King (1967) (album)
“Free to Be…You & Me” — Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972) (album)
“The Harder They Come” — Jimmy Cliff (1972) (album)
“Lady Marmalade” — Labelle (1974) (single)
“Late for the Sky” — Jackson Browne (1974) (album)
“Bright Size Life” — Pat Metheny (1976) (album)
“The Rainbow Connection” — Kermit the Frog (1979) (single)
“Celebration” — Kool & the Gang (1980) (single)
“Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs” — Jessye Norman (1983) (album)
“Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” — Janet Jackson (1989) (album)
“Partners” — Flaco Jiménez (1992) (album)
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What A Wonderful World” — Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993) (single)
“Illmatic” — Nas (1994) (album)
“This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money” (May 9, 2008)
Press Play At Home: Watch Dodie Perform A Morning-After Version Of "Four Tequilas Down"
In the latest episode of Press Play At Home, singer/songwriter dodie conjures a bleary last call in a hushed performance of "Four Tequilas Down"
"Four Tequilas Down" is as much a song as it is a memory—a half-remembered one. "Did you make your eyes blur?/So that in the dark, I'd look like her?" dodie, the song's writer and performer, asks. To almost anyone who's engaged in a buzzed rebound, that detail alone should elicit a wince of recognition.
Such is dodie's beyond-her-years mastery of her craft: Over a simple, spare chord progression, she can use an economy of words to twist the knife. "So just hold me like you mean it," dodie sings at the song's end. "We'll pretend because we need it."
In the latest episode of Press Play At Home, watch dodie stretch her songwriting muscles while conjuring a chemically altered Saturday night—and the Sunday morning full of regrets, too.
Check out dodie's hushed-yet-intense performance of "Four Tequilas Down" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of Press Play At Home.
Whitney Houston, 29th GRAMMY Awards
Apple Music Exclusive: Watch Classic GRAMMY Performances
The Recording Academy teams with Apple Music to offer historical GRAMMY performances by Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Shania Twain, Kendrick Lamar, and more
To celebrate the GRAMMY Awards' 60th anniversary and the show's return to New York for the first time in 15 years, the Recording Academy and Apple Music are bringing fans a special video collection of exclusive GRAMMY performances and playlists that represent the illustrious history of Music's Biggest Night.
Available exclusively via Apple Music in a dedicated GRAMMYs section, the celebratory collection features 60-plus memorable performances specifically curated across six genres: pop, rap, country, rock, R&B, and jazz.
The artist performances featured in the collection include Marvin Gaye, "Sexual Healing" (25th GRAMMY Awards, 1983); Whitney Houston, "Greatest Love Of All" (29th GRAMMY Awards, 1987); Run DMC, "Tougher Than Leather" (30th GRAMMY Awards, 1988); Miles Davis, "Hannibal" (32nd GRAMMY Awards, 1990); Shania Twain, "Man, I Feel Like A Woman" (41st GRAMMY Awards, 1999); Dixie Chicks, "Landslide" (45th GRAMMY Awards, 2003); Bruno Mars and Sting, "Locked Out Of Heaven" and "Walking On The Moon" (55th GRAMMY Awards, 2013); and Kendrick Lamar, "The Blacker The Berry" (58th GRAMMY Awards, 2016).
The 60th GRAMMY Awards will take place at New York City's Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. The telecast will be broadcast live on CBS at 7:30–11 p.m. ET/4:30–8 p.m. PT.
Carrie Underwood, John Legend To Host "GRAMMYs Greatest Stories"
Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Why Dead Poet Society's Jack Underkofler Has The "Least Picky" Backstage Rider
In the latest episode of Herbal Tea & White Sofas, learn why Dead Poet Society lead singer Jack Underkofler is committed to having the world's most reasonable backstage rider
For their part, Dead Poet Society have decided to take the opposite tack, as their lead singer, Jack Underkofler, attests in the below clip.
In the latest episode of Herbal Tea & White Sofas, learn why Dead Poet Society's Underkofler is committed to having the world's most reasonable backstage rider—including one ordinary pillow to nap on.
Check out the cheeky clip above and click here to enjoy more episodes of Herbal Tea & White Sofas.