I remember my favorite “Martin” episodes like they just aired yesterday. One finds Yolanda Whitaker, known to hip hop fans as Yo-Yo, with best friends Sheneneh and Bonquisha on the way to a club with Tommy driving. The mispronunciation of her name Keylolo by Tommy makes for an unforgettable comedic moment. The second episode takes us to a talent show put on by Martin as a fundraiser where Keylolo and Sheneneh perform. Let’s just say, their performance still has me laughing just as hard more than 20 years later.
These days Whitaker is enjoying a slower pace brought on by the onset of the coronavirus. The Southern California native is traveling less and cooking more for her daughters and husband while reflecting on how food played a role in her life and how she eats today.
“Waking up to great music, windows wide open to the smell of Pine-Sol and bleach. Water on the grass and bacon in the pan. The smell of fresh biscuits is how I grew up,” recalls Whitaker, who grew up in Los Angeles’ South Central region. “The music or the smell of food woke me up.” Behind both was her mom, who she still calls a super mom who wakes up early, has breakfast cooked and on the table and already halfway through her day’s routine before the rest of us even get up. One of Whitaker’s favorite childhood dishes is hot water cornbread that she says, “I am always calling my mom to make sure I am making it right.”
Creating a Food Legacy of Her Own
Years on the road touring would introduce Whitaker to a variety of foods and cuisines. In addition to her mother’s influence in the kitchen, Whitaker shares that she incorporates ingredients and techniques such as yucca root, peppers and fresh tortillas introduced by Thelma, who was once her nanny preparing Honduran dishes for her and her daughters.
Opting for dishes a little lighter than the eggs with scallions and cheese and grits with butter and sugar of the past, Whitaker’s meals usually start with a shake she makes with a combination of blueberries, strawberries, pineapple, kale, spinach and sea moss and is followed by a walk. After breakfast is when Whitaker likes to hone in on her culinary and entertaining skills.
“Fish tacos, I make the best turkey burgers. Catfish étouffée, I make the best salmon, mash potatoes. I make the bomb steak,” says Whitaker boasting as her daughter Tiffany agrees in the background.
“My go-to is celery, bell pepper, onion, garlic, carrots,” she shares along with naming garlic powder, cayenne pepper, chili flakes, fresh parsley, kosher salt and coarse pepper among her staple of seasonings. For the finish when preparing several of her dishes, she turns to Angostura, aromatic bitters found in Trinidad and Tobago and commonly added to dishes on the islands. Its recipe is said to be a guarded secret, with many guessing that exotic herbs and spices make up some of the speculated 30-plus ingredients.
Just as much as she enjoys cooking great meals, the artist of course is an entertainer off stage as well. “When I know somebody is coming over, I always like to start a dish. I want them to smell food when they walk in. Once I get company, I want them to be in love with the food,” says Whitaker.
This mood went into full display during our socially distanced photo shoot that later included a couple of family members and childhood friend and winemaker Tonya Renée Banks of “Little Women: LA” who lives not too far from Whitaker.
Creating a New Normal
Before COVID-19 shut down the country, Whitaker kept a non-stop schedule engaging in community programs through her Yo-Yo School of Hip Hop Project, filming as a cast member on “Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood,” where she released her single “Out of Control” and co-hosting the radio show Café Mocha which won another Gracie Award in 2019.
It’s no doubt that the time of less travel and events has given the Grammy-nominated artist time to reflect on what is important. “I have been reintroducing myself to my family, being patient and learning how to sit still. It’s been a long time since I have been able to watch a movie and not feel like I have somewhere to go,” says Whitaker, who is also an ambassador for Black College Expo. “I have taken the great out of this and not just the sadness. We have been experiencing death through this pandemic, but through it all, I think my family is solid and strong.”
Follow Whitaker on her Instagram page, “Yo-Yo Fearless,” for West Coast Wednesdays which gives artists a chance to show off their skills on her page as well as for fun family and cooking pics that let you know she is just like us trying to get through this unprecedented time healthy and safe while enjoying life day by day.