Two decades after she landed her first deal with Ice Cube as a high schooler, Yolanda Whitaker — better known as YoYo — is educating South Central LA kids through hip-hop.
The hip-hop artist, actress, advocate and Grammy nominee founded YoYo's School of Hip-Hop and started a writing and language program for at-risk students that weaves hip-hop into the curriculum.
"I did some research and found in the inner city that kids were having a big problem," Whitaker said. "The writing literacy grade level of students in high school was that of a third and fourth grader."
Her lessons are designed to bring out her students' untapped creative potential; they could become future singers, dancers and producers. Her means of doing this? Rapping.
"They learn in my style of teaching; it's almost like learning my style of rap," Whitaker said.
The Compton native, now a mother and a mayor's wife, understands where her students come from — she was once in their position, too.
"I wasn't sure about my grammar. I wasn't sure about the punctuation. I wasn't a great speller," Whitaker said. "So not only did I have a fear of writing, I had a fear of myself."
She had her breakthrough moment at 28, when she found a college professor who taught lessons using hip-hop. After earning her degree, Whitaker got to teaching.
Now 44, Whitaker has schools at Pomona High School and in Detroit. Students are hand-selected to be part of her six-week hip-hop-infused program.
"I hold them to high expectations. I demand excellence from them. I don't let them fall," Whitaker said.
Sprinkled in with the academics is what she calls "artist development." She helps her students master the art of the "red carpet pose," of always being poised and positioned for life.
"People always say, 'Why don't you go back to rapping? Why don't you do another movie?' as if what I'm doing isn't good enough," Whitaker said. "This is the best job I've ever had."