One of hip-hop’s original female voices, MC Lyte first cemented herself as a rapper when she released her debut album Lyte as a Rock, as a teenager in 1988. She’s since parlayed that into a career that’s flourished into four different decades and continues to remain relevant to this day. The timing of her elevation into stardom caused Lyte to miss out on the “typical” teenage experience: instead of trekking off to a college campus, she hit the road and toured the world. Yet, her understanding the importance of education and mentoring ultimately led to her decision to embrace the responsibilities of a teacher and guide to generations who followed.
Her interest in helping others lead Lyte to founding the Hip Hop Sisters Network to serve as a platform to help empower not only young women, but all young people by opening doors to opportunities in education, entertainment, industry and beyond. The group’s non-profit charity Hip Hop Sisters Foundation works to promote positive images of women and works to help promising, but underprivileged children attend college and pursue higher education by providing annual scholarships.
In addition to holding active roles in her charities, MC Lyte served as a mentor to the contestants on the latest season of the Oxygen show Sisterhood of Hip Hop. The show’s promo run allowed us to catch up with the “Paper Thin” MC after she performed at the Democratic National Convention in late July. Lyte proved to be meticulous and insightful throughout our talk. As a result, we became students as her articulate, well-organized replies led the way.
What was the energy like at the Democratic National Convention?
MC Lyte: It was high, it was exciting. The hotel that I stayed at, they had music in the lobby and Clinton life size cutouts [Laughs]. You just felt the energy of a city that wants change, but is still aware that everyone is coming from all over the place. It was just really exciting to feel the high vibrations.
Through the primary election process, were you pulling for Hillary or were you on the Bernie Sanders train?
MC Lyte: You know what, I’m usually slow to move in these sorts of things because I need to know as much data as I possibly can. And then also, I think you know watching the DNC, several people said it’s really not about one person and it’s certainly not about once cause or one issue that needs to be tackled. It’s the culmination of many thoughts, many ideas, but also power that needs to be combined and the efforts need to be combined. To answer your question, I wasn’t on anyone’s train in the beginning.
Did you also pay attention to the Republican convention?
MC Lyte: I did, somewhat.
How did the energy between that and the Democratic convention compare to you?
MC Lyte: Oh they didn’t have anybody there. It just felt like all the excitement in the world was in the building [at the DNC].
What was it like to perform for President Obama at the White House?
MC Lyte: Oh goodness, you know what? It was such an experience. Not only, of course, being there to perform for the President and for the First Lady, and all of their closest friends, but in addition to that, I got to perform alongside a cast of folks that I look up to immensely: Smokey Robinson and James Taylor and Carol Burnett. The energy of talented, multifaceted, caring humanitarians. But I grew up listening and looking up at these people and laughing at Carol Burnett and singing James Taylor songs. And same with Smokey Robinson. So they were such a huge influence as a child that to actually sit alongside them and perform on the same bill was an amazing experience for me.
I’m actually headed back. I was invited back to the White House. I’m excited about that visit as well.
Did you have a chance to meet President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama?
MC Lyte: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’ve met them before at fundraisers and things. But to actually meet them in the space where they dwell and make the most important decisions is a totally different experience.
What was the vibe like?
MC Lyte: It’s so positive. I’m quite sure that they’ve got everything in the world going on, but when you’re in their presence, you feel like you’re the only person on the planet. They definitely know how to be present.
What’s the latest with your Hip Hop Sisters Network and the HBCU scholarships that you give out?
MC Lyte: Hip Hop Sisters is going strong. Our signature initiative is #EducateOurMen, whereby we have the pleasure, the enjoyment, as well as having received the blessings from above to send young men to further their education. Our partnership right now is with Dillard University and we will send off another two this semester. That is a young girl as a matter of fact — a young woman, I should say — and young man and a young woman will be the next to go. So we will choose them this early fall season and they will be announced in November.
But it’s no other feeling that’s greater to me than to be able to send someone off to further their education. It means everything, it presents opportunity and gives someone a chance at whatever it is they want to do. Be it a profession where they go into be the best and do the very best that they can for someone else’s company or they start their own and enter into the world of entrepreneurialism. Yeah.
We’ve been able to give away $750,000 in scholarships since the inception of Hip Hop Sisters. And that’s a combination of #EducateOurMen as well as sending two women to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, two years in a row on $100,000 scholarships. We have four women there at that university. And then the remaining folks, I think we have five, soon to be seven at Dillard.
Was higher education an opportunity for you?
MC Lyte: Uh yeah, I was enrolled to attend Norfolk State University and then my career kind of kicked off. And my mom wanted me to be close to New York City, so I wound up going to Hunter for two days, and then I was whisked off to Copenhagen for our first tour with Wreckx-n-Effect and a group called Da Youngstas.
But I’m in school every day. It depends on what it is that you do with all that free time when I’m not on the microphone. I’m reading, I’m studying. I love documentaries. I love learning what I don’t know. And of course, I wouldn’t suggest that particular lane for others. I’d say if you can, seize the opportunity, to go to a college or university and strengthen what it is that you have.
What kind of books do you like to read?
MC Lyte: Oh boy. Spiritual books, non-fiction, fiction, I have my moods [Laughs].
How has the perspective with which you approach music changed? How does it compare to 15 years ago?
MC Lyte: I think it’s very similar to that of many years ago. And that’s just truth. I just like to be in the now. And kind of reporting on what it is that I see, feel and that’s really reflective of the times that I’m in, we’re in and I think with the latest works, it’s still evident that we’re going through a lot of the same things. However, I’m older, wiser, more mature, and can deliver the rhymes in a different way. Because I guess I have a more holistic viewpoint and approach.
What’s driven that growth for you?
MC Lyte: Time. And just the ongoing desire to just be present. What is happening right now? That in itself, is an exercise. Because you can get caught up in yesterday and tomorrow and missing their moment that they’re actually in.
What’s your role on Sisterhood of Hip Hop? What have you learned from your participation there?
MC Lyte: I had a really good time on the show. Most of all, what I’ve learned is I need to share what it is that I know. And it’s the whole reason I’ve done what I’ve done for as long as I’ve done it. It’s that I’m able to use what I know in order to help someone else grow. And that’s exactly what happened on Sisterhood of Hip Hop. We wound up taking my enterprise inside marketing, branding, management, finances. We went in there and taught them a little bit about everything in hopes of them being able to have some takeaways that they’d be able to use in the future for their own careers. And I think we were pretty successful.
For me, I guess, just learning that just because there’s not a whole lot of female MCs on the front lines being supported by major record labels doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It doesn’t mean they don’t have the drive and the competitive nature and the will and the way. And so, I just got a chance to see strong tenacity and a desire to be on top from some young women who have never seen six, seven women signed at a time to major record labels. But they believe that they can put their footprint in hip hop in a major way.
What’s the key lesson you’d share with an upcoming female rapper in 2016?
MC Lyte: It’s hard to make it one piece of advice. For me, what’s most important is you kind of choose your point of view. What is your point of view going to be and why will it be important for others? It’s one thing to say a bunch of snazzy words and make them rhyme, and your flow is hot, but what are you going to say that’s different? And if everything else has been said under the sun, how will your point of view make what it is you’re saying different? Or what it is that you’re seeing that you’re relaying to others? What will make it different?
That’s one and the other is to surround yourself with people that really care about you. That’ll be more of a challenge than it will be to speak your mind. It’s to really find a team of people that are going to help you along this journey and they won’t be afraid to tell you the truth and they will be courageous when going into broker a deal for you and make sure that you’re treated fairly, because these are the kinds of things that women, emcees and musicians have to think about.
What are your thoughts on the state of female MCs today? I personally feel like it’s a great time for female artists and there have never been more that are bubbling under together. I mean right now we have Ill Camille, Jean Grae, 3D Na’Tee, Raven Sorvino, Rapsody… and those are just people I can think of off the top of my head. They’re definitely there.
MC Lyte: I agree with what it is you just said. They’re there. It’s just a matter of consistency, staying in there and a matter of you know, those who love hip hop showing support to female MCs and speaking about them and lifting their spirit up along with their notoriety, so that the word spreads that these are women who are deserving of a chance.
Do you think it’s harder for females than males to break through into the mainstream?
MC Lyte: It depends. You named all of those names, which by the way I know all of who you just said, so that means they’re doing what’s meant to be done. It just depends on what it is that individuals are looking for at the end of the day. Jean Grae has been at this forever, that’s not stopping. So for me, she must be fulfilling whatever it is that she’s looking for because she’s not letting go. She’s not walking way. She’s performing, she’s releasing music, she is doing what needs to be done as an artist.
There may be other MCs, be it male or female, that get into this for a different reason. And those will be the ones that walk away unfulfilled. Because they may not get that pie in the sky that they’re looking for. I think the expectations need to be set forth and, if they are managed well, the expectations can be hit and they can be happy.
As we wind down here, over the years, you’ve been a key voice in current events that have occurred throughout your career. And so in that spirit, I wanted to hear your thoughts on the recent, tragic killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of the police.
MC Lyte: Okay, so this certainly wasn’t on our list to discuss. What else can you say that hasn’t been said? It’s just extremely unfortunate. And I pray for their families. We don’t know any of them like their family and their friends. Those are people who are accustomed to seeing them every day and now they longer have that. So my heart goes out to their family, their children, their friends. the people who have known them known them.
I feel like there’s a cycle of community distrust towards police, which is caused in part by trigger-happy cops, which then leads to even more distrust. What do you think can be done to lessen this distrust and start to improve relations between the police and the communities they serve?
I don’t have the answer for that. I really don’t. I could meander my way through and answer for you. I think a lot of what’s being proposed on town hall meetings, bringing folks in. I’m seeing all sorts of suggestions in terms of how it is we educate the police on who it is that we are. And if they care to know. It’s just a terrible space that we are in right now. And so I am in a state of shock. But I am also hopeful through it all. Because we are what we think. The life that we live if we don’t take charge of how it is that we view it. And we succumb to the news, it’ll just be perpetuated and more and more of it will take place.
Anything else you’d like to say before we conclude the interview?
MC Lyte: First off, thank you so much for the platform, to be able to speak to you and your folks. I would just say, please visit EducateOurMen.org if you feel in the mood to help us send some men to school. I’d much rather see them get an education than to wind up in the middle of four walls. Because the opportunities are just not there and you gotta feed yourself somehow. So help us, EducateOurMen.org.