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A Gift Worth a Thousand Words

“Songwriting as a medium allows students to speak to their own realities and provides a profound opportunity for youth to talk about their position in the world. This class is a way to teach them important skills by meeting them where they are."

A Gift Worth a Thousand Words

Growing up, Marshall Mathers—known in most circles as Eminem, one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time—was a Detroit kid who had a fascination with words.

In a 2011 interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes, the rapper admitted that he used to read the dictionary for fun. He wanted to have as many words as possible at his disposal, to use whenever he needed them. They ended up becoming his most valuable resource.

His talent as a wordsmith earned him multiple Grammy wins, an Oscar for best original song, sold out concerts, and the launch of his own record label. Through it all, the pride Eminem has for his city has remained an inextricable thread in his craft.

His pride is evident in the philanthropic pursuits of the Marshall Mathers Foundation, which provides funds to support organizations that work with at-risk youth, in Detroit and throughout Michigan.

A Harmonious Partnership

Three years ago, Eminem and Carhartt collaborated with Nike’s Jordan brand to create ten pairs of ultra-limited-edition Air Jordan sneakers, which they sold in an international online charity auction that netted more than $201,000.

In a move true to their Detroit roots, their interest in music, and the mission of the Marshall Mathers Foundation, Eminem’s manager and business partner Paul Rosenberg (’93, Social Science), sought out MSU’s Community Music School in Detroit (CMS-D) to explore a way the funds could be used to support the youth of Detroit.

Thanks to the gift, the Verses program at the CMS-D was launched in February, 2016. The program teaches the fundamentals of literacy through song and lyrics—enriching the lives of young people through music, while also helping to address the critical issue of Detroit’s low literacy rates.

Learning Literacy by Making Music

Since the inaugural semester, Verses has engaged more than 500 students, ages 10 to 16, who were recommended by public schools, family service agencies and shelters across the city. The students are being mentored in hip-hop, spoken word poetry and music technology by a faculty that includes a poet completing a Ph.D. in literary composition, an acclaimed Detroit techno artist, a folk singer and a recording engineer.

To develop the program’s curriculum, MSU faculty members drew on their specialties, as well as their experience working in urban school districts. Lessons in songwriting, mixing, critical listening, recording and performance serves as a vehicle to teach new skills in reading, writing, communication and critical thinking. Put together, these skills help the students develop new ways of expressing themselves creatively, critiquing the world around them, and collaborating with one another in pursuit of positive results.

“Songwriting as a medium allows students to speak to their own realities and provides a profound opportunity for youth to talk about their position in the world,” says Juliet Hess, assistant professor of music education in the College of Music. “It’s a medium they’re comfortable with, and this class is a way to teach them important skills by meeting them where they are.” 

Hess and Vaughn Watson, assistant professor of teacher education in the College of Education, also see Verses as an opportunity to study this unique approach to literacy education, and use their findings to expand the course. They hope to accommodate more students in the fall, and make the curriculum available to educators in K-12 public schools in the near future.

Considering Mathers’ path to success, paved with the words he consumed as a kid, it’s likely that the next generation of wordsmiths are sitting in Detroit’s classrooms right now. And chances are, Verses is the opportunity they’ve been waiting for: to learn how to harness the power of words and use them to pave a path of their own.

To learn more about Verses and the Community Music School-Detroit, visit

For more information on making a gift to the College of Music, contact Associate Director of Development Ann Marie Lindley at or call (517) 432-4889.

Author: Devon Barrett