Then there’s the one that no one sees coming. Enter 27-year-old Dayton, Ohio native and viral rap sensation, YelloPain. His words are not here to sell you but to awaken and enlighten you to enlightenment and action rather than allowing for a state of generational complacency.
In this interview, Yello who counts Oprah, Steve Harvey, Sharon Stone, Viola Davis, and Jermaine Dupri as fans sit down to discuss what he learned growing up in urban Dayton, Ohio. He also deconstructs the lyrics from some of his most famous songs including My Vote Don’t Count, Monsters, and Graduation; and his upcoming documentary that clears up government misinformation and our broken voting system.
Allison Kugel: I just finished watching your documentary, simplifying how government and our voting process work. It really enlightened me and opened my eyes to some of my own blind spots about how our government works and how our laws are really created. What inspired you to create this film?
Yellopain: It started with my cousin running for congress. She asked me to make a song about voting and I turned it down. I was just like everyone else. I participated in the system. I voted for Obama and nothing happened in my life. Then she asked me, “What are some things you want to see change?” I started to name some things I wanted to see change and she [rebutted] that everything I wanted to see change was connected to a person. She started to tell me who these people were. They were members of congress, school board members, and city judges. They were not the federal government. A lot of these people looked like me. Some of them were younger, and of all different races from Hispanic to Black, or white. My whole life, I thought they were these old crusty people in Washington. Once something is revealed to you, it sparks a level of curiosity. It’s why I made the song, “My Vote Don’t Count.” It was after going around and seeing those different people [in government]. I talked to so many politicians in 2020 and 2021 and that was kind of my research. I got to see where they counted votes at. I got to talk to people that just got bills passed to make a township into a city. I started to see these things and how they could benefit or hurt people just by people voting or not voting. The passion for this message really came from being in the field.
Allison Kugel: When did the love of music start?
Yellopain: Music started when I was a kid. I started making music when I was seven years old. I was influenced by the people around me and the Hip Hop culture, and I wanted that life. I wanted the money, cars, clothes, girls, etcetera (laugh).
Allison Kugel: Wait, really? But you are one of the best voices in conscious rap music. When did you have that epiphany that you wanted to use your art to give back and teach?
Yellopain: I started making music so early, and I wasn’t the most popular kid. I was broke and my older cousin, he was staying with us at the time and he got all the girls. He had more money than I had ever seen at age seven. Even $500 in 20-dollar bills looked rich to me at that point, and he was rapping so I got easily influenced by that. I wanted to be like him at the time. But I was a very smart kid. I won a lot of Spelling Bees, so I was very into words, and as I dove into the music it started to become therapy for me. It became more of an emotional expression than it was about me trying to get something. It was a time period around ages 12, 13, 14 years old where I felt like writing music was all I had. I kind of blocked out the world around me and I was like, “I want to be a famous rapper.” That was my mindset, and I put all my emotions into the music. Then, around 2017, I made it my mission to help people because it helped me just seeing the feedback I was getting. Around 2017 was the first time I went viral when I had people calling and telling me, “Yo, that song changed my life.” Just seeing the power in music and knowing the impact that my music was having, I realized that it was a tool to help people in their everyday lives, and it became so much more important than those shallow things I desired in the beginning.
Allison Kugel: I feel like people lose sight of the fact that RAP is an acronym for “rhythm and poetry.” It got co-opted and corporatized, and became something else from what it originally was in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Your music and your lyrics are truly rhythm and poetry.
Yellopain: Thank you, and I was going to also say that I think the type of rappers I was listening to probably influenced me as well, because even though I wanted the money, clothes, cars, and girls, that wasn’t the stuff I was listening to, to get me through my hard times. I was listening to the conscious artists coming up.
Allison Kugel: Which artists, specifically?
Yellopain: I listened to a wide variety of artists, and not just strictly listening to Hip Hop. I listen to a lot of different genres, but specifically in Hip Hop it was a lot of the deeper artists. It was like Rakim, Ludacris… I know Ludacris has a lot of fun songs, but he has a lot of introspective ones as well. Meek Mill became my favorite rapper. When I really got tied into it and he kind of talked from the struggle and the overcoming of it.
Allison Kugel: I watched your video for the song, “The Real Reason Why Men Cheat.” It was interesting, because when men say things like, “I want to get girls,” what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean you want to really forge a genuine connection with somebody, or does it mean that girls are like a possession, just another item and just something else to check off on the list? In this song you break it all down, talking about how a lot of boys are conditioned from the time they’re really young that the more women you conquer, the more women you have sex with, the more of a man you are perceived to be by your peers. Well, how would you put it? Put it in your in your own words…
Yellopain: What I would really call it is self-validation. I think as a kid you just get thrown into that world. You don’t have that much knowledge. All you know is just what kids know, and if people value you based upon the amount of attention you get from females you think, “Hey, if I’m going to be somebody, if I’m going to have purpose in my life, if I’m going to feel good about myself, I need to be in that race, even at 12 and 13 years old. I’m from the hood and the young dudes brag about how many girls they had sex with. I didn’t even think about having sex before being thrown into the culture of that fast-paced [life]. Everybody’s trying to get something, so it became that type of chase, and as a kid you figure out how can I conquer by any means necessary? How can I not be lame? How can I not be corny? That’s what happens to a lot of us, so as we get older some of those patterns, they stay in us and it becomes a part of our personality.
Allison Kugel: It makes sense because if you’re conditioned from the time you’re a kid to associate having sex with a lot of women with success and acceptance, the reward centers in your brain light up and it gets hard wired like anything else. But were you taught what it means to be a good boyfriend? husband? father? Or the value of committed relationships.
Yellopain: I think we are learning that more, now that it’s becoming more popularized. A lot of people think that social media is the demise of the world, but to be honest I think it’s access to information that we would never have gotten outside of our homes; a lot of things we were not exposed to. The only way you would be exposed to something was on television. Now you can hear somebody like me and the song “The Real Reason Why Men Cheat.” You can hear that song at age 12. You have access to truth. You have access to so much more information, and so many more influences, negative and positive. But it’s way more of a choice now, and it’s not just whatever you intake at home or in your own neighborhood.
Allison Kugel: You have another song about Thanksgiving that’s a pretty brutal commentary on America’s history. Do you celebrate Thanksgiving?
Yellopain: Not anymore. I definitely have a bone to pick with it. As I was doing research, I was reading books and I visited Indian villages. I had zoom calls with Native American people who are still on their Indian reservations, who know their own history. I don’t just go out and just start talking about something without having information and history. The more I found out it just kind of got sick, and I was like, “How did this become permanent history for us?” Once I found that out and I realized that I had to make a statement about it. We kind of just got tied into [a holiday] that was celebratory based around murder and successfully overtaking the country, So I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. I do love the aspect of family but what if the alternative is just another day? Another name? Just to break that tradition, kind of like how the Washington Redskins had to change their name to the Commanders. It’s like, let’s just take the brutal history out of it and make it something fresh.
Allison Kugel: What do you think we can use some improvement on with our American way of life and our level of consciousness?
Yellopain: America makes up 5% of the world and the whole world is entertained by America. I talked to people in Africa. I talked to people in other countries and everybody loves American culture. We are the the most viewed group of people in the world. I think because of that, in America, we don’t look outward; we look inward. We feel like what’s here is what it is like. This is our reality, and this is kind of all we know. I think with that, there’s a lack of compassion for a lot of different things, and there is some entitlement. Like, even with Thanksgiving, if you talk to somebody that is directly affected by it and their ancestors are affected by it, they won’t celebrate it. They talk down on Thanksgiving, and it’s just the same way with Black culture, where there’s things that we steer away from. I think people are in their own zones, like, “If it doesn’t affect me, it doesn’t matter.” I think that’s kind of the American way. That’s a mindset that I want to help change in the world, but especially in America. I think we don’t look left and right and for other people as much as we should.
Allison Kugel: What is the hardest lesson you’ve ever learned and how does it serve you today?
Yellopain: I have been through a lot of things. I think like one thing that I have really learned is to just discern when you should speak, when you should share things, and when you should just make your presence known in a room. Sometimes when you are passionate and you want to just be a part of culture and be a part of different things that people have going on, it’s a lot of cringy moments I’ve experienced where I was just talking too much. I learned to think about what I say before I say it, because you can hurt people’s feelings. I think because I’m so emotional, if I hurt somebody it hurts me too, you know I mean? So, I think just learning to shut up.
Allison Kugel: What is the best advice you’ve received?
Yellopain: My mother’s advice. She told me to, “Dare to be different.” She said it my whole life. Sometimes it resonated and sometimes it didn’t, but there has been a lot of times where I just took that advice and it always worked out for me. When you look [my song], My Vote Don’t Count, or something like that, I originally shut it down because I didn’t want to get pigeonholed. Where I’m from, it’s more popular to make lit music and I don’t want to not be able to make fun music. But when you know how important something is, you have to dare to be different and my mother’s advice really saved me from a lot of potentially harmful situations and it also changed my life.
Allison Kugel: Is there a famous historical period that you are fascinated with or would have like to witness in real time?
Yellopain: I would probably say ‘80s Hip Hop. I wasn’t alive then, but I’m pretty fascinated with that. I’m also fascinated with a lot of Bible scriptures and to see how they apply today. The Bible is subjective history, but definitely documented history. And this is about to sound crazy, but I would have wanted to witness the crack era, just because it’s a culture I didn’t see. My parents did tell me this story when they had moved to the projects, and when crack cocaine had first hit the community it was like a wildfire. People would be begging trying to get the crack off you. You pull into the neighborhood and they bang on your window saying, “Hey, I got this.” They knew what it was going to do, and it was just like this crazy obsession with everybody trying to sell crack. Then just seeing how that went and how indictments worked in the government, and just that whole era. It’s the ‘80s and still kind of tied to Hip Hop, because Hip Hop started to shift in that time into what it is now from what we first fell in love with. I would like to just go there and experience it just to see how it was.
Allison Kugel: I wonder if the crack epidemic of the ‘80s led to Bill Clinton’s mass incarceration for drug offenses. I think crack caused a panic and that fear trickled down to the point where they were putting people in prison for 20 years for selling weed.
Yellopain: Exactly. That’s what makes it so fascinating, because I was already into the Hip Hop culture aspect of it and watching drug movies, and to see how it operated in the time period. Once I got into politics and seeing how it tied together and became this whole thing, seeing how the government works. With Clinton, and this is my opinion, I don’t really share political opinions too much, but it just kind of goes into what I was saying in my documentary. It’s that thing of where politicians work for the people who vote for them. It was a very popular thing to say, “I want to be tough on crime.” It still is, but back in the day it issued a level of protection that made a lot of people vote for the person. So I’m thinking Bill Clinton thought, “If I’m running, I have to say what the people who are voting want to hear.” I think that’s kind of like that first little clear example of how the system works. Whoever is voting the person into power, they are going to pander to them to get their votes. Then they have to be held accountable for the things they said, which means he’s then signing a crime bill. It all kind of works together and it’s a fascinating story.