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Yola on the ‘Profound’ Impact of the ‘Revolutionary’ Jill Scott

The singer-songwriter talks about discovering the neo-soul star as a teenager and drawing inspiration from her joyful confidence
Photo Credit: Kwaku Alston/Corbis/Contour RA/Getty Images

F OR ROLLING STONE’S THIRD annual Icons & Influences feature, we asked eight of our favorite artists and entertainers to pay tribute to the women who have inspired them, in life as well as in their careers. Singer-songwriter Yola talks about awakening to Jill Scott’s artistry during her teen years and how the neo-soul singer’s music continues to speak to her today.

I’m going to tell a little story because it’s time it came out: I discovered Jill Scott while smashing. Said person I was romantic with was like, “Hey, I think you’re gonna like this,” and proceeds to play “A Long Walk.” And that’s how I discovered Jill Scott.

It was like the antithesis of the Hollywood idea of finally being saved by Prince Charming. It was so real. When you’re in your late teens, you’re really in that head space of defining how you’re going to interact with your sexual self. I wanted my experience to be positive. I wanted it to be one where I had agency, where it was just joyful and fun instead of subjugating or shame-mongering. Having an image of a plus woman in arch femininity, in all her melanated glory, being very everyday with her loving was so profound for me. It was the everyday-ness of it. I think that’s probably the most important point. And I thought that was revolutionary. I still think it fricking is.

When we got neo-soul, we got this really personal thing. I just can’t tell you how important that was at the time. I grew up in a city called Bristol [England], more specifically in a seaside town outside of Bristol that at the time was a village. I was one of very few people of color in the area. In that isolation, you have to reach for something to make that distance feel less severe, and for me, music was what I searched for. I grew up during the Nineties — you can imagine the singing quality that I expect, so the “sangers” are the people that I gravitated towards. Do you know what I really noticed when Who Is Jill Scott? came out? Everyone that sang would sing “The Way” like they were going to the gym, like it was a dissertation on how to sing. Textual range is a thing that I don’t think we get as much of, and Jill said, “Hey, I’ve got infinite parts of my voice, and you’re gonna hear all of them.”

Meaning and emotion were her fricking MO. “Starlight,” off my album Stand for Myself, was inspired by the tenderness of “The Way.” In my “Starlight” video, we’re supposed to be all just loving love. I love it. I’m trying to embody that. It was pure romanticism. It felt like just pure warmth toward somebody that looks like us. That’s all I want to see. I don’t think I’d seen anything like that. And I know a lot of people who look like me didn’t see things like that. That freedom of being is the grand fight for us all, to just be with the noses, the lips, the hips, the hair. That kind of generosity of consideration is massive. I’ll be forever grateful for it.

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