Even those who question how a recognizable ’90s rapper like YoYo is “unsung” should appreciate this installment of TV One’s juggernaut show.
“Twenty-five years and I’m still standing,” Yolanda Whitaker says of her journey. While it’s no secret that female rappers were—and still are—scarce, most of us can only imagine how hard being in the game was back then. Recounting those challenges 25 years later offers a greater perspective on exactly where a personality and voice like YoYo’s fits in.
Co-signed and introduced to the world by Ice Cube on his debut solo album, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, in 1990, YoYo was unafraid to stand up for herself and other women. A legitimate hood chick who was pretty and sassy, YoYo was also strong. On “It’s a Man’s World,” she was celebrated for trading rhymes with Ice Cube that challenged his sexist lyrics and the sexist views of many men. Given the criticism that the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton has generated for its omission of the misogynistic attitudes depicted in the group’s lyrics, as well as Dr. Dre’s assault of TV host Dee Barnes, this was no small feat. YoYo was figuratively in the hot kitchen dishing it out and throwing it back.
Ice Cube’s presence in her Unsung episode speaks to his respect for her and her skill. “Ain’t nobody gon’ call YoYo no bitch or no ho,” he says, still in awe of her 25 years later. He talks about going to her high school and hearing her and being blown away because, in his opinion, she was as good as, if not better than, many male rappers.
What makes that revelation even more poignant is the fact that YoYo came to rap directly through poetry. She speaks of being into poetry first and then trying her hand at rhyming after hearing pioneering rapper Roxanne Shanté. That words held a special sway over YoYo is really driven home by the poster of Ntozake Shange’s play For Colored Girls on the wall behind her in a homemade video of her rhyming at school as a teen.
Videos for her 1991 debut album, Make Way for the Motherlode, especially “Stompin’ to tha ’90s,” featured lots of “girls in the hood” like her, whom she dubbed the IBWC, Intelligent Black Women Coalition. Of course, her No. 1 single, “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo,” featuring Ice Cube, hit on so many levels. In the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, she found herself on news talk shows, where she didn’t back down, even against the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Her feministic fire even landed her before Congress. When she realized that she had a voice that could be heard outside of her community, she used it. So getting a glimpse of where that voice was nurtured and cultivated is extra special, particularly since both her mother and father are included in the episode.
There are surprises, like her connection with Tupac, and the anti-colorism message of her single “Black Pearl.” Then there are the other highs in her career, such as “The Bonnie and Clyde Theme”; the “I Wanna Be Down” remix with Brandy, Queen Latifah and MC Lyte—who is featured throughout this episode; and an appearance on Martin as Keylolo, Sheneneh’s friend. It’s the downside, however, that speaks loudest.
Perhaps the most important change noted in this Unsung is how the image of the female rapper changed. “The shift in female hip-hop turned to sexy, but YoYo’s raps weren’t based on ‘sex sells,’ ” observes Adrian “A.D.” Scott, program director of the L.A. radio station KDAY, where YoYo became a radio personality. “As pretty as she was, nobody looked at YoYo as a sex kitten like [Lil’] Kim at the time or even a Foxy [Brown] at the time.”
YoYo’s reaction to the shift is still admirable today. “It just seemed like it was the ‘it’ thing and it was the ‘here and now,’ ” she says of the raunchy images female rappers began adopting. “And if that was the direction music was going, I wasn’t going to be able to participate.” When her last album, Ebony, never came out in 1998, she walked away.
Today, what the mother of two girls is working on is empowering her community through her youth program, YoYo’s School of Hip Hop, which operates in both Los Angeles and Highland Park, Mich., where her husband, DeAndre Windom, is the mayor.
“YoYo’s legacy to hip-hop comes with an understanding of the power of a woman and being able to convey that to younger girls, that they, too, have the power and should be fearless,” praises MC Lyte. YoYo’s former manager Belinda Wilson proclaims, “She’s not just an unsung rapper; she’s an unsung human being.”
Editor’s note: The episode of Unsung featuring YoYo airs on TV One on Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.