First appearing on Ice Cube's 1990 hit "It's a Man's World," female rap pioneer Yo-Yo (neé Yolanda Whitaker) immediately let the hip-hop world know that she was not to be played with. Just a year later, the Compton native would release her debut single "You Can't Play With My Yo-Yo," an anthem that set the tone for the rest of her storied career.
As Ice Cube's protégé, Yo-Yo lead with a new sound and messaging for female emcees. While her music never leaned heavy into the pro-feminism spectrum, she let it be known that women in this industry were to be respected, not overly sexualized, and given an even playing field as their male counterparts.
"It's me, the brand new intelligent Black woman why-O-why-O Which is Yo-Yo. But I'm not to be played like I was made by Mattel...you can't play with my yo-yo," she said in the debut song.
Music, though, wasn't her only claim to fame. She also had a reoccurring role on the comedic series, Martin, as well as roles in Black films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society. Most recently, the emcee unveiled her new cooking series, Downright Delicious with Yo-Yo on Aspire TV.
EBONY sat down with Yo-Yo to discuss the 50th anniversary of hip hop and that defining moment in her career.
EBONY: What are you most excited about for this commemorative year in hip-hop, especially as an icon in the industry?
Yo-Yo: I’ve definitely paid my dues. I used to shy away from the word icon, but I've surely done enough in this industry to be considered one of the greats. I'm excited for hip hop; this is long overdue. Doing Rock The Bells this year is exciting. LL has taken a leadership role in all of this, and like I told him recently, "You don't have to ask for permission anymore, we are owning it." The fact that we are getting the recognition that so many who paved the way deserve is so special. It's full circle for me. I'm also excited for other artists like Roxanne Shante, Sha Rock and so many others. It's well overdue. I'm hoping this won't be just a year of voices, but something that will trend forever.
What was that moment in your career where you knew you made your mark in hip hop?
It's so crazy because I felt that very early on. Cube had just left NWA, and it was during the height of all the East Coast/West Coast stuff. I joined him on the Apollo stage, where he debuted "It's a Man's World" in 1991. When I came out, the crowd went crazy. Cube and I killed it—people were throwing money on stage and everything. That memorable moment was surreal. I knew then there was a place for me in this industry.
How do you reach back to bring up the next class of female emcees and young artists?
I have the Yo-Yo School of Hip-Hop which just celebrated 10-years in Detroit and the Intelligent Black Woman's Coalition is still in full effect. We're going on 33 years with that. I give away $1000 scholarships each year to the National College Resource Foundation for those who have a passion for pursuing music. And, my advice to young artists anywhere—male or female—is to live your truth. Your truth will win!
What's your favorite Yo-Yo song of all-time?
I want to say, "You Can't Play With My Yo-Yo", but it's "Bonnie and Clyde" with Ice Cube. It's a classic here in California; you know I'm a West Coast cutie. That's just one of those songs that if you play it in the club, the whole crowd will sing it.