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Star Power: When it Comes to Giving Back, U Can't Touch MC Hammer

05/23/2013 05:36 EDT | Updated 07/23/2013 05:12 EDT
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Star Power: A six-pack of questions for celebs making a difference. Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free The Children and Me to We, check in with some of their favourite actors, singers and activists to find out how they are changing the world.

There's more to MC Hammer than the neon harem pants christened in his name.

The hip-hop icon of the '80s is making his comeback in unexpected places: he's an ordained preacher, an angel investor, and a Silicon Valley mentor to minority-led tech start-ups. But he can still bust a move. Hammer took the stage with "Gangnam Style" Korean performer Psy during the American Music Awards last November, before teaming up with Kid President to do the "Harlem Shake" at We Day Seattle in March.

Known for his distinctive dance moves and an infectious blend of pop and hip hop -- think "U Can't Touch This" and "2 Legit 2 Quit" -- Hammer balanced catchy hooks with heartfelt calls to action. "I would never just do a bunch of songs and then not include something that would be about substance," he told us. This is the guy who declared "Stop -- it's Hammer Time," but also sang "Help the Children." He supports charitable organizations such as The Last Mile and the Northern California Innocence Project. But his passion lies in the fight against neglected tropical diseases (NTD), a group of infections that are endemic in poverty-ridden areas, but largely preventable or treatable in wealthier countries

We caught up with Hammer after his appearance at We Day Seattle. He told us about his missionary days "on the other side of the tracks" in East Palo Alto, and about how he categorizes his long list of heroes.

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We believe in living me to we: making choices that positively impact the world, instead of just ourselves. Describe the moment you decided you wanted to give back.

My moment happened before I became famous.

In my localized outreach programs, my missionary days at a very small, non-descript church in East Palo Alto near Stanford -- the other side of the tracks. Stanford is a rich area. East Palo Alto, the other side, was the poorest. At that time, in the early '80s, among the nation's top five in homicides and murders and it was a small city.

I used to go out into that neighbourhood and knock on doors and encourage people concerning faith issues. So that was the real foundation, as a grown man -- I was 20 at that time, 21 -- of saying, 'hey, I want to help. I want to affect change.'

And then as an artist, from my very first album I dealt with issues that encourage hope, faith, belief, calls to action, unity. And then I took it to another level on the second album with songs like "We Have to Pray," "Help the Children."

We work with so many young people. What were you like in high school and what advice would you give to kids in high school today?

Oakland is a very can-do city, blue collar, grit your teeth and make it happen. That's where I'm from, so in high school I thought I could do anything I wanted to do, that there was nothing that could stop me.

So the advice I would give these kids today is to embrace...they have an even better opportunity because they have more tools. The world's information is at their fingertips. I had to go to the library and read a page at a time -- they just Google it. They have 24-hour access to intellectual capital and social capital.

Use those tools and apply them to your dreams. And there's nothing you can't achieve.

On any given day, we know that girls' education, world hunger and global warming are some of the social issues facing our world. What's the biggest issue to you?

Well, right now I can't say one issue is bigger than any other issue. All those issues that you just named are all very, very important.

There are issues of health and diseases that need to be addressed that are not on the radar, but they are devastating populations in places like Africa, and even domestically. The term is NTD [neglected tropical diseases]. I've become involved with a program [called the END7 campaign] to help raise awareness. When I found out about it, I said "you know what? I'll do it myself. I'll help create the awareness."

NTD went to the top of the things I want to help with because when you see the small documentary on it, it's mind blowing. River disease, elephant legs, and all this stuff is happening in poor countries and in the very southern part of the United States [with the equivalent problem, called neglected infections of poverty].

You've got fans that look to you as a role model; who is your hero?

Musically, my hero would be James Brown, the godfather of soul, rest in peace. Michael Jackson, rest in peace. He revolutionized the music industry single-handedly almost.

If we were to talk about humanity, I would speak of people like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and Gandhi and people who fought for peace.

Business-wise, there's a long list, but then there are revolutionaries who blazed a trail like Steve Jobs, who created an entire industry, and not just a product but also the culture around a product. Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce.com. Amazing man. Amazing philanthropist. Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and Square. He revolutionized one aspect of communications with 140 characters and then he turned around and revolutionized online payments with Square. Same individual! So I look up to Jack Dorsey as a great businessman. I have a long list and it's balanced.

Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain. So different people at different times, and different eras.

If people from the future were talking about you, what would you want them to say?

That I gave of myself, of my influence, of my substance, continuously from day one. He was a giver. He was a giver and a lover of his fellow brothers, a lover of mankind.

That's the legacy that's most important to me.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

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