Hip-hop meets Ivy League

As a kid growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Michael LeeYow (C’98), whose parents are from Trinidad, got the opportunity, through a scholarship program, to attend an elite prep school in Manhattan. Now he is returning the favor by providing the opportunity for Ivy Leaguers to visit his neighborhood, metaphorically speaking.

Albums by rappers from his native Brooklyn, such as the Notorious B.I.G., MC Lyte and Rakim, grace the shelves of the center he helped co-found at Penn, Teaching Ourselves the Unique Culture of Hip-Hop (TOUCHH), now a year old.

And though the aims of TOUCHH include bringing hip-hop into classrooms both as a teaching tool and to introduce it as a legitimate academic field of study, LeeYow, who was a rapper himself, using the moniker Da’ Lyrical, also has a mission to produce free rap shows. “Hip-hop is for the people, by the people,” LeeYow said. “Hip-hop happens everywhere.”

LeeYow works with the Foundation, a Penn student group that brings performers to campus, in putting together rap shows. Upcoming is Hip-Hop Week April 24 to 29, which will feature local “underground” performers, a symposium, game shows and a film screening.

LeeYow, whose maternal grandmother was Chinese Trinidadian and whose last name he bears, knows all about the broad appeal of hip-hop, which has gained popularity worldwide.

“Hip-hop is blowing up all over the place,” he said.

The idea for TOUCHH came to LeeYow when he was a senior at Penn, as an African American studies and psychology major. With the guidance of W.E.B. DuBois House Faculty Fellow William Eric Perkins (editor of “Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture”) and John H. and Margaret B. Fassitt Professor of Linguistics William Labov, TOUCHH acts as a hip-hop research and resource center, and formulates ways to use hip-hop to teach students how to read and build vocabulary.

LeeYow, who is a research associate for the African American Literacy and Culture Research Project as well as TOUCHH director, spent the summer of 1998 buying equipment and 110 influential rap CDs (including but not limited to artists from Brooklyn, though “coincidentally” all his faves are from his native borough) with a grant provided by Labov.

Located in a cramped corner of the Linguistics Lab, TOUCHH, which opened April 23, 1999, may seem humble but its ambitions are large.

“The goal is to have people see hip-hop as a field of inquiry,” LeeYow said.


Originally published on April 20, 2000