Within hip hop, a central component of the art of being an emcee is literacy, having an understanding of diction, grammar and meanings that allows for an advanced style of wordplay. However, in countries throughout the world the quality of basic schooling has been reduced beyond sub-standard levels, and literacy amongst students has suffered greatly. As one of the pioneers of hip hop, MC Lyte has been in tune with the importance of literacy throughout her prolific career, earning respect as one the most genuine artists to ever earn longevity as a rap artist.
A strong audience was in attendance at the Detroit Public Library’s main branch on September 8 to hear MC Lyte discuss literacy and reading’s ability to improve the lives of the people. The event was held in recognition of International Literacy Day, a day established by United Nations as a way of empowering men, women and youth towards the elimination of poverty.
The city of Detroit faces an astonishing rate of individuals who are either illiterate or inadequately literate. The Detroit Literacy Coalition has reported that 47% of people in metro Detroit are functionally illiterate. The lecture was also held as a part of the library’s literacy campaign, Detroit Reads!, a city-wide program providing tutoring to those in need.
MC Lyte was a signed recording artist while still a teenager in high school, owing much of her success to a discipline towards education installed in her by her mother, combined with an ear for the dynamic sounds of hip hop she was hearing on the streets of Brooklyn.
“There were nights where I wanted to go to a hip hop club and she’d make me write an essay,” said MC Lyte, born Lana Michele Moorer. “Who writes an essay to go to the club? In the morning, ‘how are you?’ I’m fine. ‘No, fine is not good enough, go to the dictionary and get me another word cause you said fine two days in a row’. That’s the type of mom that my mother was.”
If not for this guidance, the opportunity to start a career without the prerequisite of a diploma might have kept her away from the books. But in her development as an emcee, Lyte understood that her ability to comprehend and use language, both spoken and written, was an enormous advantage towards her success. Again, she credits her mother’s encouragement, poignant words spoken to an attentive crowd seating children and parents.
“Being able to enunciate and speak, that was a big thing for her and at that time, it got on my last nerve. But now that I’m older, do I appreciate her so. It is my livelihood, it is what makes me different when I do emcee and it’s what makes me different when I speak.”
Though she passed on the opportunity for a university education to pursue her enormously successful music career, Lyte carried on a mission of self-education to make up for her absence from higher education. Over the years, she has earned two Grammy nominations for her albums, landed many acting roles and has been a sought after voice-over performer for commercials. Her talk at the library represents her passion towards giving back to the community. She credits her education as the seed of her diversity, a collection of talents that has led to her continued success and evolution.
“I knew somewhere in my life that I was going to have to diversify,” said Lyte. “Because hip hop is great, but it’s not all to me. So what am I going to do to put myself in a position where I can still give, to give to the world. But not only that, somebody only wants to take something that’s worth having.”
“I wanted to make sure that I still had my game tight and was together so that even when I wasn’t rhyming I still had something to give the people.”
The Detroit Public Library’s own literacy campaign recognizes that enormous responsibility of encouraging literacy in our communities is shared by the people. By focusing on reading as a way to improve critical thinking and job skills, innovators and entrepreneurs can emerge to help drive an area’s economic success. This ability to develop one’s own wealth is an essential step to discovering more freedom.
“When you know how to do it, you take it for granted,” said Lyte. “I think it only hits me in times like these when I see statistics of people who actually don’t know how to read. Or even those who know how to read but won’t read anything beyond what is completely necessary.”
“To any of you who may be struggling with reading, it is the most freeing concept ever to be able to read.”