I first heard rapper YoYo in a verbal “dis’-off” with rapper/actor Ice Cube on his first solo album. Other female rap artists have taken on male braggadacio in ‘answer’ songs, but this debate, to the background sample of James Brown’s It’s a Man’s World, sounded in the moment and genuine. Example: She: “How you gonna rule the world when you’re as broke as a joke?” He: “With your county check, baby,” followed by evil laughter. But beneath the ribbing and resentment, one sensed a mutual respect.
Sure enough in ‘91 YoYo presented her debut album, Welcome to the Motherlode, portrayed “life in the ’hood” from the distaff side to a slammin’ West Coast beat. Her second album, Black Pearl, is more musically diverse, but her concerns remain the same: exposing the reality of ghetto politics, sexual and otherwise. More concerned with portraying the truth than appearing politically correct, YoYo raps about topics like drug addiction, teenage pregnancy and domestic violence. YoYo is also the founder and spokesperson for The Intelligent Black Women’s Coalition, a call to arms to women everywhere committed to the education and survival of young black women. In town to promote that cause at the end of a tour for her new album, YoYo met me for lunch about a week after the riots in Los Angeles.
Lynn Geller You grew up in South Central, but you weren’t there during the riots?
YoYo Yes, I wish I was, but I wasn’t. I wanted to go home. I understood what was going on. South Central’s been like a lost town. There are no leaders. In South Central, Los Angeles, rappers Ice Cube, NWA, Ice-T, myself… are the biggest influence; we’re the role models. The only thing they know in South Central is violence; no one teaches peace. That’s why I feel it’s very important to be educated. But I also feel that our leaders need to take responsibility and enforce the law. No one bothers to come to South Central. They don’t care what goes on there. Like I said, it’s a lost place. When you see kids out looting in the grocery stores with a shirt-full of food, you have to understand; these are children whose mothers are probably on crack, who probably don’t have fathers, who probably don’t know where their next meal is coming from. It was the chance of a lifetime. People say they don’t understand why the rioters burned down their own community. It’s because they feel it’s not really their community. The people in our community feel like outsiders. That’s not our liquor store, that’s not our grocery … To them, responsibility is wherever they lay their heads for the night, even if it’s a corner in a park. That’s why so many buildings got burned down without any care.
LG Like feeling homeless in your own city.
YY Yeah, and we don’t have anyone to take control of the situation. Someone’s going to have to take the blame.
LG I found Maxine Waters very impressive.
YY Maxine Waters is very strong but she’s lobbying in Washington. I’m talking about counseling, about people going down to high schools and junior highs and trying to find a way to pull out the kids who aren’t doing well, letting them hear some of that positive talk, speaking to them on a powerful level.
LG Speaking as an outsider, it seems that a lot of kids join gangs for protection and see their gang leaders as role models.
YY That’s another problem. Kids look up to the wrong ones, they feel more comfortable with the gang leaders. But the gang leaders don’t know how to be positive.
LG In the 60s, a Hispanic gang, the Young Lords, became social activists, started neighborhood programs, worked with kids. Could that ever happen in L.A.?
YY No. You’re pulling them out of a violent neighborhood, so if they teach anything, it’s be strong, stand up for yourself, fight back—the wrong thing.
LG Growing up in that neighborhood, what made you have a strong sense of yourself as a black woman?
YY I moved out … I wasn’t caught up in it. I got out. I travelled with my family. Being in the music business has made me more aware of what’s going on. If I was just staying in L.A. I wouldn’t have noticed how big racism is, ‘cause you don’t see beyond your own neighborhood. It’s a claustrophobic thing. In South Central you’re closed into a certain area and this area is lost, pushed to the side. You don’t often get a chance to get out. I didn’t know racism until I got out. If you go to one of the corner stores near my mother’s house and see a white guy or white woman come in, they’re from the police department down the street. That’s why you have a lot of blacks killing each other. It becomes a war, not on you but on me.
LG It becomes black on black violence.
YY And it equals hard time. You don’t expand. You go into Hollywood, you go outside of South Central, Los Angeles, you have a hard time, feel deprived and say damn, I’ll do better just staying here. It was just so terrifying to see these young kids killing each other. Bush had nothing to say.
LG Talk about irresponsible—what about Gates?
YY He knew! Darryl Gates knew from the start this was gonna go on. As police chief, he’s supposed to know and take precautions, to have something set up. He knows how violent South Central is. He should have had patrols everywhere. The system is just so fucked up. I’m glad I’m strong. I’m glad I feel like I’m a leader and can lead people the right way. It has to start within you. Everybody, not just one person, has to do what they can from their own position to make change. I feel like rappers have a lot of responsibility because rap is so popular right now …
LG Growing up in a violent neighborhood, were you scared as a kid?
YY No. (pause) No. I wasn’t scared growing up. I’m pretty sure a lot of other people were. I just wasn’t. I was more involved with activities. Thank God, I have a great mother who encouraged me. I built my own world. Inside my world lay activities—rapping, dancing, singing, acting, volleyball, softball, I was on the city drill team and marched in parades …
LG What about other kids in your neighborhood?
YY My mom’s the president of the block club. The police were involved, a community thing. They would donate money to do things like send the kids to see the snow at Big Bear, skiing and all that. So, we grew up with that. But, I think the gangs had such an effect on the neighborhood that the older you got, that’s where you’d turn.
LG Are girls in gangs or would they go out with gang guys?
YY Yeah, girls go out with gang guys. Mostly “county-aid” girls go out with either dope dealers or gang-bangers. My best friend was 300 and something pounds, and he said he was going to be my body guard once I started rapping. He died right when I got my deal, shot in the head. He wasn’t in gangs. He wasn’t a dope dealer. That’s just how crime is. It was a drive-by, shot him in the head. The guys who live down the street from me, they went to jail for six years and are just out. Their younger sister who’s 18 now has a little boy. I’m naming all the kids on the block, and what happened; a kid across the street shot a little baby in the head. He was trying to shoot at his brother. Now he’s in jail. Another older guy who stayed next door to us died of a cocaine overdose. The family next door got out. They kept to themselves for their children and then moved out of the neighborhood.
LG Does anyone ever sit down with these kids and say to them, what are you going to do when you grow up? A teacher?
YY Seriously, teachers are scared of them themselves.
LG Yeah. How were your teachers?
YY I have to say I’ve had some good teachers—maybe because I was a good student. A lot of people who don’t have children who are real violent or disobedient feel like, “Well, hell, you’re not mine, I don’t have to go through this. Do whatever the hell you want to.”
LG Bush blamed the riots on Lyndon Johnson and the social welfare programs of the 60s claiming that they didn’t encourage people to find their own jobs. What do you think about that? You know the Republicans made massive cuts.
YY If there wasn’t welfare, you would see so many people homeless it would be ridiculous. It’s true that if welfare wasn’t there, people might have more get-up-and-go but you have to understand, they’re not even hiring these people. My mom had seven kids and works three jobs. My mom has to bust her ass and it’s a shame. Then to see her crying, depressed, stressed out. And when you watch TV shows, it’s a whole different side to what we feel; it’s a fairy tale. For kids not to have anything and then to see all these ads. L.A. is so materialistic. Some kids would rather steal and give something to their families, make sure their mother’s bills are getting paid, rather than see her hurting. That’s why you have so much crime in Los Angeles. They end up killing another person over something little, because they’re stressed about so much other bullshit. That’s why it seems so petty to everyone else but major to us. Do you know what I mean?
LG What about that song, “Ghetto Bastard,” by Naughty by Nature. That line, “How will I get out … I won’t.” Every time I hear it I feel like I’ve gotten punched in the stomach.
YY Some journalist asked, when I buy my house, will I buy it in South Central? And I said, “No.” And they said, “Well why won’t you rebuild in your neighborhood, aren’t you for something new?” But why stay somewhere you keep fighting to get out? Yeah, I can build my house there, but for what—so these deprived, depressed people can tear it down? That’s who lives in South Central, Los Angeles.
LG But will you work to help the people in South Central?
YY Yeah, of course I will help them in any way I can as far as community centers. I think the violence not only woke up America, but the rioters woke themselves up. For the first time, I saw a lot of gang members speak on T.V. and I was proud. I saw some ignorant speakers, but the ones who sounded intelligent made me very proud.
LG It’s really, really important to let people who feel disenfranchised have their say. What I’m afraid of is a backlash. There’s a fine line between making people feel protected and persecuting people. And that’s the problem with the cops and the military.
YY My friend knows a drug dealer who got shot 15 times during the riots. He said, “With the riot going on the cops were hearing gunfire anyway, so it was a good chance to kill off anybody they wanted to.”
LG We should talk about your album. You touch on stuff that is very pro-female, and you encourage women to be strong.
YY I don’t think we have enough female leaders. And, I hate to say that it’s my responsibility, but I take it as my responsibility to be a leader with my rap career. Although people take rap too seriously; analyze it too much, they don’t just take it as art.
LG No, but I mean, on a gut level.
YY I understand what you’re saying. I try to do that in my music; I try to speak to the ladies. But in general I hate for rap to be analyzed because instead of putting the blame where it should be, they put the blame on us.
LG In other words, rap is accused of creating violence instead of just telling it like it is. But for a long time there’s been mostly male rappers and with that whole gang-bang mentality it’s been mostly about “bitches,” “hoes,” you know, keeping women in a particular place. Do you feel that’s a real attitude in the rap world or just a pose?
YY I feel that they rap what they know. If they were educated, if they knew more they’d probably rap about different issues.
LG But it’s interesting because so many women in impoverished circumstances end up being the bread-winner in the family, the strong person who hangs in. In fact, that’s really becoming more and more true in middle class families, as well, because there’s such a high divorce rate. So where does that male attitude come from?
YY Personally, I don’t think they intend to be as disrespectful as they are.
LG And then you have the Intelligent Black Women’s Coalition (IBWC). Have you gotten a lot of response to that?
YY Yesterday I met with two ladies who opened up a chapter and we came up with some good ideas involving the media, protesting, getting columns in magazines, maybe sending off a student who can’t afford it to an inner-city college. Going into high schools, which I do all the time. My hope is that these IBWC members can become leaders in their neighborhoods.
LG I notice you have a song from the point of view of an abused woman.
YY A lot of women stay in bad situations because they feel, He’s done so much for me, a little abuse won’t hurt. I’m totally against it.
LG You know what happens? Abuse becomes so internalized, you don’t even recognize it as abuse anymore.
YY You know what I say? The first time you don’t notice the abuse because you love him so much and you know he’s not trying to hurt you, so that overrides the abuse. A lot of young kids grow up not knowing what love is, but feeling like they want to be loved, they need to be loved, and that’s why it becomes a trend. A lot of my friends have guys say to them, “Don’t come at me with all that YoYo stuff.”
LG So “YoYo stuff” means standing up for yourself.
YY Yeah in terms of, “You can’t talk to me like that.” Just being real strong.
LG You also cover teenage pregnancy in your album.
YY I’m educated. The reason a lot of women can’t be successful today is a lack of education. Teenage pregnancy goes on because young women aren’t thinking about getting an abortion; they’re thinking about getting pregnant for the guy. I’m here to tell you it doesn’t work.
LG “Okay, have the kid and I’ll be back in the year 2020.”