I’ve always asked God to use me. A few years ago when I decided to start rapping again, I sat down at the table to write and said, God, help me please. I want to rap in a way that people can understand. I don’t want to preach. I want to be hip. I want to be able to use slang, but if I can’t help anybody I don’t want to do it. That was my prayer. It took years for me to find the courage to say it.
I had been rapping since I was 17, back when I was deep into poetry and would borrow words from Maya Angelou’s and Langston Hughes’s poems because it was the only way I knew how to rap. I was in every talent show at Washington Prep High School in Los Angeles, and my rhymes were about not doing drugs, staying in school, catching a cheating boyfriend.
But when Ice Cube sought me out and said he wanted to work with me because he was leaving N.W.A, I was a little scared. His latest song at the time was “Bitch Iz a Bitch,” which was not what I was doing. But we worked well together and created my first big single, “You Can’t Play With My YoYo,” in 1990, when I was 18.
I was fresh out of high school, where I had been a peer counselor, and I wanted to continue my work with young women. So I started a project called the Intelligent Black Women’s Coalition, a support network to help women make positive changes in their lives. It had chapters around the country. I guess I knew instinctively that hip-hop could be a means of communication and empowerment. Still, people would ask, “Do you think that you’re a role model?” I’d say, “No, raise your own kids. It’s not up to us.” I didn’t want that responsibility. At least not until I went to New York for a promotional event and a little girl came up to me rapping my lyrics: “I’m the type of girl that’s down for my n-…” I said, “No, no, no! Don’t say that.” That’s when it hit me, Oh, my God.
I was battling to be sexy, I was battling to be feminine, I was fighting to show my strength with all these men, I was fighting to be respected as a dope MC. It was so much. At the same time I wanted to do something for my community. And I wanted to create something my pastor could listen to, a song my grandmother could enjoy. But the music industry doesn’t make that easy. I recorded “Black Pearl,” which had a positive message, and it never got played. I finally got to a point where I just didn’t want to rap. I bought a house at 22, then I had my daughter, Tiffany, and realized that life was a little bit more serious for me.
Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown had come on the scene, and as I watched the new, hot stuff that was happening, I really felt I had no place. So I left L.A. and the rap game behind after going through the disappointment of working on an album that never got released. I moved to New Jersey, went to community college, and got my associate’s degree. One of my professors took me under his wing and taught me how to express myself outside of just rapping, and I took acting and business classes. I came back home to L.A. a couple of years ago with just $3,000 in my bank account. I had no career, nothing. All I had was faith. I started calling producers and getting myself back out there. People asked, “YoYo, are you married with five kids? Where’ve you been?” I told them, “No, I’ve been working on me.”
Then I worked on my music. I remembered how 50 Cent blew up doing remixes, so I decided to do a remix of Ciara’s “Goodies.” I recorded it at my friend’s studio, burned several copies, and E-mailed the song to more than 160 radio program directors, pretending to be the assistant I didn’t have, using my sister’s name, Larissa. I sent it at around 1:00 a.m. L.A. time.
I woke up to more than 50 E-mail responses saying, “This is hot! I like this better than the original.” It put a smile on my face and confirmed that it wasn’t over for me. The song made it to number four on the L.A. station The Beat 100.3 and played on 17 stations in 12 states.
I asked Davey D., who is much respected in hip-hop as an activist and deejay, to help me. His underground crew E-mailed hundreds of stations. Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé’s father and manager, gave me a budget to work with. Now I’m hosting a daily hip-hop radio show in L.A. And we’ve opened up the Intelligent Women’s Coalition to everybody and changed the name to reflect that, because so many people want to contribute and there are so many stories to be told. This project is not a YoYo album-it’s a YoYo Movement. This is not for a Prada purse or a Gucci bag or a new house on the hill. This is for my sisters, this is for my community. My hands are clean, and my heart is pure. And I know God has something else for me-I know my work is not done.
YoYo’s first single from Fearless is set for release this month.