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British artist Yola’s ‘genre-fluid’ blend turns heads in Nashville

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: The Grammys will be handed out Sunday night.

And one artist, Yola, who has been nominated six times overall, is vying this year in two categories, best American roots song and best Americana album.

Jeffrey Brown went to see why the musician has chosen Nashville as her home base to shake things up with her fusion of many genres.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: There she was headlining Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, singing the title song from her new album, "Stand for Myself," a kind of musical autobiography that looks back to an earlier, less confident version of Yola.

Yola, Musician: I sing a coward in the shadows, no view from above, in my song "Stand For Myself," which sounds kind of hardcore on myself. But I was kind of chicken.

Jeffrey Brown: It's hard to imagine, actually, sitting here with you, because...

Yola: I know. I was a very different person.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Yola: I have done a lot of work, like, a lot of work.

(LAUGHTER)

Yola: I have come a very, very long way.

Jeffrey Brown: All the way from Bristol, England, all the way from fronting other bands and doing the bidding of others.

Now Yola Quartey, who goes by first name only, is making a big name for herself on her own terms with a powerful voice, a sense of personal mission, and a mix of musical sounds, including R&B, country, soul, and rock, that she calls genre-fluid.

Yola: It sounds like where I grew up, absorbing things from Caribbean people based in the U.K., African people based in U.K., the stuff we import from America, the stuff we import from everywhere else, all smooshed, to see where the connective tissue of humanity is.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Most important, she's the one doing the smooshing.

Yola: It's why I speak the way I speak and as plainly as I do, because people need to see a person of my hue, of my brand of chocolate with agency and with a sense of joy and creating things.

Jeffrey Brown: She traces the start of her rise to a 2016 attention-getting appearance at The Basement.

This is a tiny place, right?

Yola: It's not massive.

(LAUGHTER)

Yola: It's, what, 100 cap, right?

Oh, look at her.

Jeffrey Brown: A famed Nashville club where musicians come to perform and be seen, in her case, seen as Yola, showcasing for the first time.

Yola: This is the real "I'm here" moment, you know? And when you make a transition from being in service to someone else's dream to daring to ask people to come and support your own dream, that's a very big psychological transition.

Jeffrey Brown: Soon after, she was working with Dan Auerbach, guitarist for the rock band The Black Keys and a Nashville-based producer.

Together, they recorded the 2019 album "Walk Through Fire," which got Yola four Grammy nominations, including best new artist. "Stand For Myself," their latest collaboration, received two more nominations, finally, she says, overcoming in-your-face biases along the way serious business, which she, characteristically, describes with humor.

Yola: Sometimes, people would speak of some imaginary producer that they had in their mind. And I go, I'm sorry, that's me. And they'd be like, Oh. Oh, no. Oh, why? But you're a woman and you're Black. Why?

You know.

Jeffrey Brown: But big names in a wide range of music started noticing her and including her with them on stage, Dolly Parton, Gary Clark Jr., Brandi Carlile, Willie Nelson, and Chris Stapleton.

Nashville is now Yola's adopted home, and she began her recent tour on its most historic stage, the 130-year-old Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. And for Yola to headline here, from sound check to preparing to go on, to belting out her songs, was a statement in itself.

Nashville's music scene has received plenty of criticism for its lack of embrace of women and artists of color. Yola is just one sign of change, both in the diversity of musicians and sounds.

Yola: It becomes a really important thing for me to feel as though I'm surrounded by people who understand, who've spent maybe a moment in their life being other, having an understanding of what that might feel like.

Jeffrey Brown: And she's also soon to reach wider audiences through her acting debut, playing the rock 'n' roll progenitor Sister Rosetta Tharpe, popular in the '30s and '40s, in director Baz Luhrmann's upcoming film on Elvis Presley.

She's eager, she says, to help change music's story of the past and present. And that includes the audience.

You're talking about changing who's on stage, right? But do you have to change the audience?

Yola: You inevitably start doing so, but you only start doing so when you're able to make the change up here. Black people don't just magically appear. This only works by us telling them that this is happening right now.

Jeffrey Brown: Yola is touring across the U.S. into the fall.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Judy Woodruff: Some great music.

And on the "NewsHour" online now, you can see recent profiles of two other artists vying for Grammys on Sunday. They are Brandi Carlile and Arooj Aftab. That's on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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