“Hip hop may have taken sexual politics out of Il the halls of black academia and into the ‘hood,” reflected Joan Morgan in a 1991Village Voice review, “but feminist remains a word so loaded even a super-woman like [rapper] Queen Latifah steps from it. So as hip hop’s first self-proclaimed feminist activist, 19-year-old Yo Yo should be given her props on bravery alone.” Indeed the young rapper did arrive on the scene riding a wave of fierce and successful female rhymesters, but she claimed the mantle of feminism more openly than most of her peers. With the help of producer-mentor Ice Cube, Yo Yo established herself as a potent force in rap; then she launched the Intelligent Black Woman’s Coalition (IBWC) to “help sisters of all races make positive changes in their lives,” as she explained in Essence. Although the social agenda underlying many of her songs helped secure her place in the forefront of the hip-hop community, Yo Yo achieved fame primarily via her skills on the microphone. “She rhymes with charm and mischievous attitude,” commented Michael Small of People magazine, declaring also that Yo Yo “makes an unwavering call for self-respect that reaches her young urban audience as no polite pre-election speech could.”
Born Yolanda Whitaker in 1971, Yo Yo grew up in south central Los Angeles with her mother and seven siblings. A school security guard, Mrs. Whitaker’s energy and determination provided an early example for her daughter. “My mother is my inspiration,” Yo Yo told The Source, noting that with her own children grown, Mrs. Whitaker “works with young girls with babies, group home kids, you know, kids like us.” Following her mother’s lead, Yo Yo began swinging at sexism from an early age. By age 16 she had earned quite a reputation at George Washington Preparatory High School. “I came out rapping from a woman’s point of view ’cause I saw that no one was speaking up for the ladies,” she told Essence. “And I don’t give a damn if men label me a feminist. It’s about time someone gave men feedback and said, ’I’m not your ho or your bitch, I’m a strong, intelligent black woman!’”
Soon the rapper Ice Cube—known for his work with the group N.W.A.—wanted to meet her. He finally approached her at a flea market, “liked the way she sassed him,” in the words of Dimitri Ehrlich in Pulse!, and eventually signed her to his production company, Street Knowledge. Despite having made part of his reputation on the basis of lyrics widely condemned by
For the Record…
Born Yolanda Whitaker in 1971 in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of a school security guard.
Performing and recording artist, 1990—; signed with East West Records and released debut solo album, Make Way for the Motherlode, 1991; formed social issues group the Intelligent Black Woman’s Coalition (IBWC), 1991; appeared in film Boyz N the Hood, 1991, and made-for-cable film Strapped, HBO, 1993.
Addresses: Record comparty; —East West Records America, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
critics as misogynist, Ice Cube asked Yo Yo to lend her feminist perspective to a track on his album AmeriKKKa ’s Most Wanted. The two went head to head on “It’s a Man’s World,” and though critics were divided about who came out ahead, most admitted that Yo Yo held her own.
Ice Cube aided Yo Yo in brokering a deal with East West Records and then, he and his Lench Mob cohorts produced her 1991 debut album, Make Way for the Motherlode. Kim France of Rolling Stone instantly dubbed Yo Yo “the strongest female rapper to come out of the Los Angeles scene,” admiring the rapper’s toughness and her “profemale agenda.” Though she had reservations about the preachiness of some of Yo Yo’s raps, a note about the record in the magazine’s year-end issue added that “the arrangements are slammin’, as steely as anything on Ice Cube’s own records, but with a surprising, fluid sensuality in spots.” Make Wayyielded “You Can’t Play With My Yo Yo” and “Stompin’ to the 90’s” as well as the “Intelligent Black Woman’s Anthem”; on “What Can I Do?” Ice Cube stepped in to spar with the star. “Blessed with a range of rhyme styles and an uncanny ability for role play, Yo Yo speaks to the strengths, insecurities, f—-ups, and epiphanies particular to our gender,” opined Morgan in her Village Voice review.
1991 also saw Yo Yo join Ice Cube on the big screen, though her role in John Singleton’s film Boyz N the Hood was far smaller than his. She contributed the song “Mama Don’t Take No Mess” to the movie’s soundtrack; Rolling Stone noted that she “raises a good ruckus” with her rapping. In the wake of her album, Yo Yo was also able to publicize the IBWC, and chapters around the country hosted discussions of current issues. Describing her outlook to Spin, Yo Yo remarked, “I’m not Sister Yo Yo, one of those Afrocentric, X-cap wearing niggas that won’t bust a gut for the cause.” Of her organizational goals she said, “I don’t want to be one of these sisters on a black thing mission. I’m on a sister-to-sister mission and that’s worldwide.”
Yo Yo’s sophomore record, Black Pearl, utilized a variety of producers with Ice Cube serving as executive producer. The album’s title song sampled the 1969 soul tune of the same name by Sonny Charles and The Checkmates. As Yo Yo remarked in her East West biography, “Back in the ’60s, that song meant a lot to my parents.... Young people don’t know. Being black or too dark was supposed to be ugly. Back then the song was so powerful. It meant so much to black people who had been scared to express themselves.” Morgan, writing for Spin, commented that “Black Pearl certainly rocks harder. Its production mixes gospel R&B moments, sinewy bass lines, and Afro-club classics—a refreshing deviation from the South Central standard of 70s funk and manic urban hysteria. Yo Yo’s skills have also improved. Her rapid-fire delivery and syncopation allows her to coast past hardcore beasts as she drops science with her new school feminism.”
Another review in Spin, however, complained that the record was “subdued.” Arion Berger of Entertainment Weekly remarked that Yo Yo’s “high, husky voice is sometimes hard to hear, and the record meanders at first, but Black Pearl is a much-needed reassertion of feminine dignity from the all-too-misogynistic West Coast rap scene.” The album includes “Homegirl Don’t Play Dat,” an attack on philandering men called “Hoes,” and the seductive finale “Will You Be Mine,” a song Rolling Stone’s Diane Cardwell nonetheless called the album’s “only true low point” and “about as sexy as Monopoly.”
That comment notwithstanding, Yo Yo evidently needs no coaching in matters of romance. Dream Hampton of The Source described a night on the town with the star, during which Yo Yo was approached by scores of smitten young men. As Hampton observed, “Yo Yo’s ‘around the way girl’ position in the politics of hip-hop has created a space for sistas who refuse to support anyone unconditionally (brotha or no) and want, in addition to respect, the freedom to shake their thangs—if the beat so moves them.” After all, the IBWC never said anything about not having a good time.
(Contributor) Ice Cube, “It’s a Man’s World,” AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Priority, 1990.
Make Way for the Motherlode (includes “You Can’t Play With My Yo Yo,” “Stompin’ to the 90’s,” “Intelligent Black Woman’s Anthem,” and “What Can I Do?”), East West, 1991.
(Contributor)Boyz N the Hood (soundtrack; “Mama Don’t Take No Mess”), Qwest/Warner Bros., 1991.
Black Pearl (includes “Black Pearl,” “Homegirl Don’t Play Dat,” “Hoes,” and “Will You Be Mine”), East West, 1992.
(Contributor) “Get the Fist” (single), 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, August 7, 1992.
Essence, August 1991.
People, September 14, 1992.
Pulse!, August 1992.
Rolling Stone, May 2, 1991; December 12, 1991; August 6, 1992.
Source, October 1992.
Spin, July 1992.
Village Voice, June 11, 1991.
YSB, November 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an East West Records publicity biography, 1992.