Yola attends the “Elvis” UK Special Screening at the BFI Southbank on May 31, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Kate Green/Getty Images)

Six-time Grammy-nominated musician Yola has taken to the big screen in Baz Luhrmann’s highly anticipated Elvis biopic, finally shining a light on one of the most pivotal, yet grossly unsung musicians in history, Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

In theaters now, Luhrmann’s film chronicles Elvis Presley’s youth in the segregated South, his early career as a provocative performer, and his meteoric rise to fame, duly highlighting the enormous impact Black musicians had on the hip-swinging showman. One of his biggest hits, “Hound Dog,” was in fact, originally recorded by a Black woman, Big Mama Thornton. After he was dubbed the King of Rock and Roll, Presley cited that title to Fats Domino instead. While the question looms large as to whether Presley was the musical renegade of a generation or a thief of culture who profited greatly off his appropriation, Luhrmann does well to remind his audience of Presley’s core source of inspiration.

Giving credit where credit is due, Austin Butler’s Presley is seen strolling down Beale Street in Memphis, meeting up with blues legend B.B. King (portrayed by Kelvin Harrison Jr.), listening to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s (Yola) searing and soulful vocals, and watching in awe as Little Richard practically bends over backwards on stage as Alton Mason provides a convincing and electrifying performance.

Yola as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Photograph: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

While the days were long for Yola and the team, the excitement in the room generated an energetic buzz in the air. “With Alton, Austin, and Kelvin, you just get real, authentic performances happening in front of an excited crowd of extras,” Yola exclusively tells GRAZIA USA. “I think when you see those scenes, you can feel that there’s real excitement in the room. When I’m playing, I’m really singing, I’m really playing those solos, so they [the extras] were getting a real gig.”

“Ordinarily, people come and pay to see me do that,” she laughs. “There’s a wonderful sense of just being transported and uplifted.” Raving about the Mason’s Little Richard performance, Yola says, “Alton is such a profoundly talented and gifted actor. His ability to move is just…spellbinding.”

Recalling the audition process, Yola found herself in a familiar position. Trying out for the soundtrack, the star had worked on sample replaying in the past — voice acting, while singing. “People might not know this, but [Luhrmann] often does the soundtrack before he films the movie,” she says. “The music leads what happens dramatically and, in his mind, he’s creating the story arc through the music.”

Replaying a sample for a DJ or a producer, Yola knew exactly how to evoke the same voice as an adapted character while emoting in a bit of authenticity as well. “When I got into the studio, it was the same kind of job. They told me, ‘We need you to throw your voice in the direction of Sister Rosetta, but we need you to impart a little bit of something else that gives it something to stick to, that makes it real and fresh,'” she says. Having grown up listening to Sister Rosetta, the task felt natural. So natural that Luhrmann told the star he knew he had found his Sister Rosetta as soon as he listened to Yola sing in the recording booth.

Discovering the musician in her mid-teens, a young Yolanda Quartey was shocked to realize how many others hadn’t heard of Sister Rosetta as well. “If I invented rock and roll, I’d be kind of miffed,” she says. “I’d be kind of pissed if people didn’t know who I was.”

Spearheading a “bone of contention,” for the teen, Yola decided claiming her space would be her mission, creatively pushing boundaries, while fluidly roaming across genres. “If Sister Rosetta thought she didn’t have this musical freedom, she wouldn’t have taken her background in the church, and gospel, and then her exposure to blues music, and all that guitar blues bending, and fused that energy from the church with the stylistic of the blues guitar and turned that into the rock and roll aesthetic. We don’t get it without her inventing the guitar aesthetic that is central to rock and roll,” she notes.

A catalyst of rock, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was not only a pioneer of the electric guitar, but discovered another rock originator, Little Richard when he was just 14 years old at the Macon City Auditorium in Georgia. Hosting a night at Club Handy, Tharpe was known for fostering a supportive, safe space for aspiring talent to take to the stage and hope to get noticed. “She was an active matriarch and advocate for other Black musicians of the time, and certainly created a scene in which people felt safe enough to be that free in the 1950s, when being buttoned-up and conservative was modus operandi,” she states.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe poses for a portrait holding a guitar in circa 1940 New York City, New York. (Photo by James Kriegsmann/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Queer and out, Tharpe founder a longtime partner in fellow musician Marie Knight, featured playing piano in the Elvis film next to Yola’s Sister Rosetta. According to Yola, “She got married a few times, kind of like beards. She made one of the [ceremonies] almost into a Super Bowl. It was a huge event, and she made money off it.”

A seminal figure in rock and roll, Yola says it was a “profound honor” to embody the icon. “I get to rectify the wrong from my mid-teens that’s been pissing me off this whole time. Through some trick of fate and kindness, they [casting] found the person that was most pissed off.”

Tharpe’s relative anonymity among the general public remains Yola’s main bone of contention.”We find it so hard to use the word genius with women,” she says. “It’s ridiculous.” She jokes about the number of times she’s heard male musicians hailed beyond their means. “The number of times I’ve read articles about guys who play C, D, and G chords and they’re called a genius. Maybe the lyrics are really lovely, and the melody’s quite nice, but I wouldn’t quite extend to genius-status, given the chord structure,” she says.

While she acknowledges sometimes the title is earned, it’s the “absence of that rhetoric” used for women that’s the issue at hand — and the erasure of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s contributions as the “Inventor of Rock and Roll” is only example one.

“There is no Elvis without Sister Rosetta, categorically. It’s the environment of Black America that made her, and then she makes this wonderful gift that we all get to take for granted,” she says.

Portraying this legendary figure gives Yola the opportunity to remind viewers that “foundationally, aesthetically, we [Black women] are in the guts of everything in contemporary music. And that’s something that I’ve tried to get across with how I make music, and how I talk about music—- the idea of taking up space and taking ownership of every space that you get into because you have a right to it. The number of times I’ve been told I didn’t have rights to spaces and genres just because of the demographic I happen to inhabit of being a Black woman. It’s great to make it challenging for any uneducated record company executive say to somebody, like they said to me, “No one wants to hear a Black woman sing rock and roll.”

Yola performs onstage during Day 3 of the 2022 Stagecoach Festival on May 01, 2022 in Indio, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for Stagecoach)

Crossing over genres, and refusing to be boxed in, Yola is breaking the mold and owning her space. Racking up Grammy nominations, performing at Coachella, and more festivals across the U.K. and Europe, Yola will loop back around to the U.S. in September for a series of gigs.

Inspired by Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, and Etta James, Yola fuses influences from Barry White,  Minnie Riperton, and Tina Turner Yola explains that Turner “really helped me understand my gravely voice,” along with Mary J. Blige. The Flamingos and Parliament-Funkadelic played their roles as well in forming Yola’s musical perspective.

Feeling “profoundly blessed” over the past few (very busy) months, Yola says, “It’s ridiculous. I’m sitting here thinking about it like…I was just in the number one movie in America at the moment.”

While music is still at her core, Yola would like to “get into a little bit more acting.”

Knowing she’s begun at the top, the “Starlight” singer wants to be “hyper-selective” in what she goes out for next. “The only way that I can stay at this level is to continue to put things into the movie and television spheres that are uplifting to Black women — that aren’t toxic, or reductive, or neglecting of their narrative in any way. I want to find the roles that I can talk about at length and with passion, that aren’t toxic for people who look like me. That’s the mission,” she says.

thoughts?