Back in 2016, YATTA released a beguiling little EP called Spirit Said Yes! Only 13 minutes long, the EP held more ideas than albums many times its length. Subsequently re-released with bonus tracks, this initial offering established YATTA as an artist of political importance and musical depth. From spoken word to gospel services to a coy cover of “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, the tape defied convention and resisted genres. In 2016, YATTA’s self-definition was “sierra leonean-american digipoet & yung priestess.” In 2019, as a trans artist, YATTA proudly claims the pronoun “they.” Looking back, it all makes sense: the conversation of past and present, soul and jazz, male and female voices (which may in fact be the same person recorded at different speeds, like Låpsley).
To be African, black and trans in modern America is a challenge. It’s impossible to imagine just how much YATTA has been through; we hear only the anger, determination and grace. This alone wins our admiration. “Don’t need no one to tell me what to do,” YATTA declares on “desert song” (from Spirit Said Yes!), a sing-song proclamation laid above strings and handclaps. Is there a place in the church for YATTA? YATTA sidesteps the question by making a place for the church in the music. This is a church of tradition, but it is also a church of inclusion.
“How do I say the word ‘survive’?” asks YATTA on the opening track of WAHALA. “For my parents, survival was having food. For me, it’s having my feet on the ground and hoping that no one notices when my brain flies away without me.” The track is interrupted by voices, which are loosely identified as demons. “Just remember the devil waits around every corner.” But wait ~ the title of the track is “A Lie.” It’s time to question everything. This is a different shade of blue: not the blue of depression, or even the blues, but sky and sea in deep, no-holds-barred negotiation.
There’s an odd confluence in the choice of “Cowboys” as the first single, given the current controversy around Lil Nas X, the 20-year-old country trap rapper who recently came out. “Cowboys are black and techno,” claims one voice, while another drones, “Black girls are like Pokemon, gotta catch ’em all.” Then there’s screaming atop a stuttered electronic swirl, followed by a sudden laugh and even more abrupt ending. “Cowboys” will never be as popular as “Old Town Road,” but it walks the same trail, challenging assumptions that were once unquestioned. We’re saying words we’ve always wanted to say, and hearing blowback worse than we’d ever imagined. But the truth is liberating. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.
The end is “Bliss” is a caffeinated rush; but the beginning of “Rollin” is a slurred question that recalls the doctored tape of Nancy Pelosi. Voices of dissent have been distorted for years, but few artists have distorted their own voices on purpose, a declarative inversion. “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin'” pokes fun at Rawhide, extending the cowboy theme a little longer. YATTA knows that truth tempered with humor makes the medicine go down. The surprising “Francis” is mostly voice and birdsong, on the surface a bucolic interlude, until one attempts to decipher the lyrics and draws uncomfortable conclusions. Just as one is adjusting to the tone, it changes beneath a blanket of “yo’s,” a straightforward “I love you” skipping across a lake of electronics, chased by yelps.
“Galaxies” stretches even further, from a lamentation that black people have to change the way they walk to avoid trouble, to a meditation on space, to a proclamation that happiness takes different forms. “Will you hold me when I doubt?” YATTA asks on the subsequent track, a raw nerve like an upturned wrist. Suddenly, for a span of only seconds, techno! “I will feel joy, I will feel good,” chants YATTA before retreating to the former question. No emotion is out of bounds, from depression to euphoria.
When the album ends, some listeners may feel wrung out. “The pain we feel when we’re asked to hold multiple truths at once is the source of much suffering,” intones YATTA, putting a finger on the modern pulse, recalling the hymn “This Is My Song” (“But other lands have sunlight too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.”) YATTA concludes, “I don’t know what to do about morality.” But that’s okay; we’re not looking for answers in YATTA’s music as much as we are the appearance of a singular, articulate voice. Thanks to WAHALA (which means a state of worry, trouble, a terrible mess) the potential for revelation has been increased. (Richard Allen)