In a lengthy conversation with VIBE, McDaniels laid out his plan to provide youth, particularly kids growing up in the foster care system, with the tools to not only live productive lives, but to thrive.
Having grown up in the foster care system himself, McDaniels understands the challenges kids face. As a way to reach out, he has nurtured the Felix program, which offers mentorship programs and activities, among other initiatives, to children. “All mentorship is, is providing information, being an example, and being living, breathing, touching, hope. We have to look these children in their eye and say, ‘Who are you? What do you want? What are your dreams?’ And we got to help them get there,” he said of the program’s mission.
His work doesn’t stop there. McDaniels is also involved in American Graduate Day, the national televised broadcast by PBS which is set forth to increase awareness about the importance of mentorship and education within the youth. On the broadcast, McDaniels will share his experiences alongside other celebrities, including John Legend and Misty Copeland.
While there are a number of influencers joining the initiative, McDaniels hopes the broadcast will trigger more of a response from the hip-hop community. “If we [hip-hop] can dictate what people are going to wear, what people are going to drive, what people gonna smoke, how people are going to act and talk, then we gotta shape up and tell people how to live and change the way that we’re living.”
The American Graduate Day broadcast premieres on PBS Oct. 14 at 2 p.m. ET. Here is what McDaniels had to say about the Felix program, the TV special and helping the youth.
VIBE: Tell us about your involvement in the American Graduate Day initiative.
Daryl McDaniels: For the last 10 years, I’ve worked with the Felix organization that works with foster kids in the city. What we do has a lot to do with mentorship. A lot of people are afraid of the expectations and responsibilities of becoming an adoptive parent. It’s a lot of work, dedication and commitment. The same with becoming a foster parent. Working with these foster kids in the Felix organization, we have a camp program. I also work with a lot of agencies in New York City and other cities. I found that just being a mentor to a lot of these kids has a big impact on their lives. What I mean by that is, OK, you may not be able to be a foster parent, but just talking to a kid throughout the week, just making yourself available, or meeting with a kid once or twice a week… Even if you just call a kid a couple of times a week, it turns their lives around. Giving them encouragement and just showing that you care. I visit a lot of group homes and foster care agencies, and a lot of times we keep in contact with the kids. And the kids tell their counselors, “Mr. DMC must really care about me because he calls to see what’s up with me.” With that being said, we’ve been doing the Felix organization for the last 10 years, and we’ve had remarkable outcomes with all the children that we’ve come in contact with. So I guess I’m a prime example of what happens when you give attention, opportunity and direction to a young person in these unfortunate situations.
You mentioned foster parents — does the mentorship program extend to them as well?
Yeah, a lot of the foster parents that are within the foster care system. There’s a hundred million great stories about great foster parents, but there’s also a hundred million terror stories. People can learn from the examples of mentorship through the foster care system. I’ve met people that have sent 20 kids to college. And all of those kids, because of the prime example that they were given through mentorship, they go back into their communities and keep the process going. A lot of people that work with the foster parents, they just work with the system to get the money. That’s a whole other issue that we’re dealing with. But what we’re doing is trying to make people understand that all of the children on the face of the Earth are our children. Our relationship with our children has nothing to do with blood relationships. A lot of the time, we walk by these children that live on the streets, and we don’t know that they do petty crimes just so they can go to jail so during the winter months… We walk by them every day and go, “These are not our children.” OK, maybe you didn’t give birth to them, but let’s give them an opportunity. These kids don’t just do well, they excel. A little bit of attention changes their lives. These kids want discipline and to show that someone really cares about them. And a lot of times, they lash out violently. If they don’t lash out, they hurt themselves or they choose to find an alternative, which is suicide. All mentorship is, is providing information, being an example, and being living, breathing, touching, hope. We have to look these children in their eye and say, “Who are you? What do you want? What are your dreams?” And we got to help them get there.
You grew up in the foster care system. How does that experience impact a child’s life?
I was the last foster kid in my house. All of the other kids who I thought were my cousins, all of a sudden started leaving and I never saw them again. It came to that point where I’m the last kid sitting in the room at 5 years old, playing with the toys. My mother and father realized that ain’t nobody coming back to get me, so they decided to keep me. With that being said, they gave me discipline, education and recreation. If we could provide this for every child in any unfortunate circumstance, we can see less kids going to jail, going to the mental institution, and less kids going to the grave.
Why do you think mentorship is so important in regard to education and pushing for youth to stay in school instead of resorting to crime?
A lot of kids don’t see the value in education. When I go to middle schools, I keep it real with the kids. I tell the kids, “You are 100 percent right. You will probably never use that algebra problem again. But it’s not the actual problem, it’s the process and the function and the utilization of your ability to solve the problem.” I was a good student in school. God bless my mother and father, every school that I went to, even though I wasn’t their blood child, they worked their butts off to pay for me to get this education. And I tell the kids that all the education that I got, wasn’t necessarily just to go to [school] because the adults tell you to. I say, I want y’all to go to school and practice. I tell them, “Repeat after me: ‘School is practice to prepare me for whatever it is that I will be doing.'” Because I was a good student — the use of language, being able to define words, create characters — when it was time to get on the mic with Run, I didn’t just become a rapper, I became the king. We have to put who they are and what they want to do first, instead of forcing education and making it seem like their dream is not important. Then we have to prove that it works.
Why is it important that hip-hop get involved?
Kool Moe Dee, I was so attracted [to his music] because he was the best rapper in the world. Every time he opened his mouth, he talked about how important school was. Here’s a guy who had less than me. They had nothing living in the Bronx. Kool Moe Dee said something really powerful that I always say when I visit kids. He said: “Once a nobody from the neighborhood/Took a hop to the top because I knew that I would/Excel over the rest because I make progress/I don’t consider it luck, because I’m not blessed/I got my life all together, love the way that I live/Go to school, really cool, and I think positive/Cause it’s the right to have fun, lots of pleasures and joys/But it’s the brain that separates the men from the boys.” When he said that, I had to fold the needle back.
So when it was time for me to shine, because Kool Moe Dee showed me how powerful education was, I got on the mic and wasn’t ashamed to say: “I’m DMC in the place to be/I go to St. John’s University/Since kindergarten I acquired the knowledge, and after 12th grade, I went straight to college.” I bragged about it with the same attitude and enthusiasm that rappers brag about shooting guns, having sex, taking drugs and stuff like that. Then, about 10 or 11 years later, I get a phone call on the radio, and the dude goes, “DMC, my name is Peanut. I’m from Houston, Texas, and I just want to let you know, I thought I had it all. Then here comes DMC, one of the coolest dudes on the face of the Earth, talking about school is cool. Just for making me open my eyes, I realized I didn’t have it all.” So just because I rapped about going to St. John’s University, he got his GED. Then he got a high school diploma and then [went] to local community college.
Luckily, people like you and Kool Moe Dee are here to influence people. But do you feel as though it’s even more important for the younger generation of hip-hop to get involved in this initiative?
Yes, the kids are looking at [them]. They think [they’re] cool. If we [hip-hop] can dictate what people are going to wear, what people are going to drive, what people gonna smoke, how people are going to act and talk, then we gotta shape up and tell people how to live and change the way that we’re living. Here’s the problem: Right now there is a reluctance to do it, because in America, negativity is perceived as a false sense of power. You can be an a**hole, a fool, literate, disrespectful, a f**king lying, conniving fool. But people giving you attention and paying you money, this nation will celebrate you. It’s not just an entertainment problem. Look at the president! In the business of this nation, as long as you getting attention and money, you are perceived as being successful. So that’s why people are reluctant. They are afraid to step to the mic. But the people who weren’t afraid to step to the mic and allowed Obama to get to his position in the first place, were young brothers and sisters, such as a Melle Mell, Chuck D, KRS-One and Rakim. We need the artists to step up and be the mentors to all of those eyes and ears in the audience.
You can make your fun record. It’s not about censorship or freedom of speech. It’s about homicide and genocide. The kids are looking at us. So if you’re rhyming about shooting a gun is cool, what the hell are you going to think? So on your rap record, Mr. Gangsta Rapper Man, you make a record about the use of a gun, but the next record should be about not using the gun. You can make a record about the strip club, but do you make it about the girl that went on to school with the highest GPA and become the doctor or the lawyer?