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Yola to Play Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Forthcoming Elvis Film

February 24, 2020
Written by
Cynthia Schemmer
Written by
Cynthia Schemmer
Photos by
Alysse Gafkjen

Last week it was announced that Yola will play the role of Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming film, Elvis.

On the recording of Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton’s 1952 hit, “Hound Dog,” the blues singer-songwriter opens with, “I want everybody to know that I was the one to say you ain’t nothing but a hound dog…”

With those words, Thornton foresaw the future: a white, hip-thrusting rock ‘n’ roll musician would co-opt “Hound Dog” four years later and be historically credited for the song—an appropriation of black culture that has occurred countless times before and after. 

Say it with me now: Elvis Presley would be nothing without black culture. And above all, his career wouldn’t be as iconic without Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

From her stage presence and attire to her blending of genres, Tharpe had a profound effect on Presley’s early music and performances. Consequently, Tharpe’s influence resulted in one of the most successful musicians of the 20th century, essentially providing a musical and aesthetic basis for Presley’s initial career. But Tharpe’s own legacy deserves much more credit, as do all of the pioneering black women in music.

This is all to say that I’m extremely curious to see how Tharpe is portrayed in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming biopic, Elvis, scheduled to go into production this spring.

Last week, it was announced that singer-songwriter Yola will be playing the part of Tharpe. In 2019, Yola released her critically acclaimed debut album, Walk Through Fire, and received four Grammy Award nominations this year, including Best New Artist. We interviewed Yola last year, where she spoke about today’s music industry and, not unlike Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “roles of service” that black women musicians are often forced into:

“There’s not really a great proliferation of women my color who are succeeding on the front level to the volume of the women of my color and darker who sing. It’s kind of like that twenty feet from stardom story of being kept in these roles of service…

This is something that happens to a lot of my friends, co-dark skin women of color, it’s a common trait. And sometimes you even get told that you should pursue backing singing above being the artist. So when somebody says, “Hey, you don’t really have the inclination to pick up a guitar, you probably shouldn’t bother,” and you never have, that’s in line with all the other stuff that you’ve been hearing about – ‘step back, this isn’t about you.’”

“For Yola, The Guitar is Her Freedom,” She Shreds, 2019.
YOLA CARTER AT EASY EYE SOUND. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

While there’s no doubt in my mind that Yola is going to be a visionary force on the big screen, it’s my hope that Elvis will dutifully illuminate the influence of Tharpe and further the conversation about her legendary work. But I’m not naive—what we really need is a big-budget Tharpe biopic, and here’s hoping we see it released in our lifetimes. And when that day comes, I hope it’s Yola at the center, flipping her own script to say, “Step back, this isn’t about you.”

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