Category Archives: Hip Hop Education

20 Years in the Game: Still Doin’ Cyphers

Fall Cypher Series 1

The launch of the Fall Cypher Series is Tuesday, September 8th at 6:30pm.  It’s at City Lore Art Gallery, 56 E. 1st St btwn 1st Ave and 2nd Ave and I’m feeling kind of nostalgic this morning. Please pardon me while I share a piece of my Cypher history.  {Ok, so here is where I want you to imagine Souls of Mischief 93 ‘Til Infinity beat dropping.}

(Click this if you need audio for your visualization) 

I started organizing and facilitating Cyphers in 1994.  Young, in love and idealistic not only about Hip Hop but the world. I had a vision for using freestyle Cyphers as a way to promote artist responsibility, preserve the oral tradition and bring crews together.

The event started at State of the Union, a bar on U St in Washington, DC.  It was called Talking Heads but I soon realized that the stress of two drink minimums was killing my vibe.  I also discovered that even the MC’s who drink don’t drink much while rhyming.  The artists were coming to the event to build skills.

Kenny Carroll and Brian Gilmore, both professional writers and poets, were DC natives who outside of their day jobs recited with a collective, hosted events and readings and didn’t mind spending hours waxing poetic on any and everything from the science of Parliament Funkadelic to the history of Mambo Sauce, local, national and global politics and there was no limit to their knowledge of poetry.  Their circle of writers could speak to Anne Sexton as well as they could Amiri Baraka or Lucille Clifton. They were like big brothers.  Not only did they teach me a lot but they also supported, encouraged and challenged me to do what I do.  That’s how I ended up at a place called 8-Rock on Martin Luther King Avenue and Good Hope Rd in Southeast Washington D.C. hosting Cyphers in the land of GoGo.

Initially I called the Cypher, Freestyle Fellowship because a good cypher always made me think of a spiritual experience.  My childhood reference for getting open started in St. Mark Baptist Church in my Bay Area hometown in California.  However, a week after the flyers were made, a fellow Hip Hop head handed me a Project Blowed Mixtape.  Freestyle Fellowship was on it. My mind was blown by what I was listening to and it was proof that when a concept is out in the universe there can be a number of people thinking and feeling the same exact thing on opposite sides of the country or planet. I was kinda’ amped and proud that the group Freestyle Fellowship was coming out of Cali too.

Freestyle Union Cipher was born.  In the 90s Cypher was spelled with an “i” but the “y” spelling has become more popular over time so I thought I would evolve with the times. I added workshop to the end of the name after the Cypher started to grow.  It was becoming bigger and all kinds of personalities were showing up.  I interned for a year with a media training firm in DC and received Train-the-Trainer training. One of the key insights I gained from the training was how important it was to focus on activities and creating an environment for participants to get from point A to point B in a set amount of time. I added “workshop” and called it Freestyle Union Cipher Workshop to keep the hard heads out.  There was no budget so we didn’t have security.  My theory was that the only people coming to a workshop were people who wanted to work, develop and build. It worked. 300 Cyphers and never had one fight.  There were a few emotional outbursts by MCs who got frustrated with themselves or the process but that’s about it. Freestyle Union shot in front of Kaffa House

When I first moved to NYC I reconnected with a number of people who I met working in the arts with Kim Chan, who was then a DC based arts professional, over the years. At one point I thought I wanted to become a professional arts presenter but after co-producing a Hip Hop Festival with the Smithsonian and Washington Performing Arts Society I realized I’m way too much of an artist to focus on developing that skill set. Professional arts presenters like Laura Greer, Maureen Knighton, Baraka Sele and Micki Sheppard showed me incredible amounts of love.  Linda Walton, Bob Holman, Lois Griffith and Miguel Algarin also embraced me as a poet, MC and arts organizer.  I met Steve Zeitland, co-founder of City Lore Foundation, through Bob and he became one of my arts mentors and I am excited to be working with him again.

Well, this piece is a little longer than I wanted it to be so I’ll tell you the rest later. Maybe when I see you at the Cypher.  Spectators welcome.  Just be mindful of your energy.  Everyone’s energy matters in the Cypher. It’s all ages, all skill levels and for all those who believe excellence and commitment to the craft matters. Cypher Deets

Please Note:  My book, Wisdom of the Cypher, will be released this fall.


The Cypher: We Can Use Hip Hop to Prevent Violence

As I read this morning’s headlines I am neither shocked nor disgusted. I am sad, I am hurt but I am not surprised. Between the newscasters who said that rap songs caused slavery, Don Lemon defending the mom of one of the racist fraternity chanters in Oklahoma and the people recording a brutal beating of a teenage girl instead of intervening, I feel like we are living in a Boondocks episode. Someone put me in touch with Dave Chappelle because this stuff needs proper analysis and it’s so raw we need to laugh while we break it down. We need  to laugh to keep from crying.

Dave Chapelle

Over the past two years I’ve been diligently working to get my affairs in order and organize the vision for my life’s work. It has not been easy. After 20 years of facilitating cyphers and cypher workshops I started doing cypher trainings on how to lead nuanced cyphers that create space for transformation. In the wake of the political uprisings this work is too often seen as “soft” and not “real” activism, but I stayed committed to it because it is my ministry, the cypher is my purpose.

The cypher is a circle of sharing. In my new book, Wisdom of the Cypher, I define cypher as representing 360 degrees. It is completion of thought, the continuum, the giving and exchanging of energy, information and ideas. Whenever you see a gathering of artists in a circle or semi-circle formation, whether they are rapping, dancing, telling stories or sharing the spoken word, you are witnessing a cypher.

I proposed a focus on the cypher in two of my residencies this year but it gets inserted into larger programs because administrators and decision makers don’t get that the cypher is its own program. The cypher as I present it deserves its own platform because both youth and adults need a safe space to express themselves from their core.

My cyphers are disguised as freestyle rap, improvisational poetry and impromptu speaking workshops but are really spaces for people to release stress, confront fear and self-doubt, improve critical thinking skills, build vocabulary and confidence, heighten access to creativity and learn to think on their feet. The cypher helps us to build community while providing leaderships development and transformation.

Unable to secure the proper funding, I currently host cyphers out of my home or the home of my partner. We know that the cypher is a sacred space. We know that the best intervention is prevention. We know that as much as we complain about technology, emotional detachment and the lack of human interaction people have nowadays, that we are still human and deep down we long for moments of connection. The cypher reminds us of this need.

Akua Soadwa, founder of the Sista2Sista Summit, reached out to me this morning. Her online comments about the teenage girls fighting and what we need to do to help our youth inspired my commentary. She said that young people are dealing with spiritual warfare and that hurt youth without the right resources and support become angry, uncontrollable youth. Violence happens when people are not able to say what they want to say so they act out physically.

Prevention is some of the best intervention.

Prevention is some of the best intervention.

Of course, I am waiting for one of the newscasters to blame the melee at McDonald’s on a rap song. I’m sure that will happen at some point today, but these are the folks that know very little about Hip Hop music and culture. Part of me gets it. Hip Hop still has a stigma and when educated people formulate opinions about it based solely on mainstream media then ignorance will pervade, but I know the richness, the beauty and the spiritual consciousness that Hip Hop provides millions of people around the world. I also know how many lives it has changed and saved. This is why I am promoting the cypher, a concept my work borrows from Hip Hop culture, but is universal and relates to the human experience.


Sunday Ciphers: Hip-hop Healing The World

For years I’ve wanted to bring what I do around the world back to my hometown, Pittsburg, California. When I met Shannon and Robin, program directors for DLA Literary Arts Program, a community driven hip-hop project, I knew that this would happen.  However, I had no idea that on a Sunday in September we would gather to do God’s work through rhyme.   

Yesterday’s freestyle workshop and master-class was one of my best ever.  When the artists started showing up on a Sunday and on the day of the Seafood Festival, one of Pittsburg’s biggest events of the year, and then a videographer manifested to document the process after I had challenges securing one, I knew that magic was going to unfold. My opening focused on knowing why you do what you do and the idea that the cipher is a sacred space.  When true artists practice improvisation, freestyling can be meditative and heart opening.  It’s not freestyle versus writing, it is freestyle AND writing, it is using improvisation to get centered, to access new levels of creativity, and to release stress.  I also talked about committing to the craft, to making excellence and one’s personal best the goal.

As we got into the exercises and activities the group morphed into a collective sponge.  They soaked up every concept being offered to them.  When participants respond to the facilitator’s guidance in that way it becomes a powerful exchange that feeds the workshop leader’s soul just as much as those who are ‘in’ the workshop.  We were each in the zone.  One of the women MC’s started to tear up during her freestyle, the guys were compassionate but didn’t flinch into patronization or discomfort. I paused to acknowledge that sometimes we cry, that truth can move us so deeply that it triggers emotions, and that we women, we cry and that is ok.  There were a nice range of ages present, a few girls, and a number of different flows and styles. We had such an incredible cipher.

DLA Literary Arts project was born out of a mother’s grief and frustration.  Her son, a young visionary entrepreneur and hip-hop producer/engineer, who built a studio, a business and a crew, was killed in a random act of violence. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Half of the participants were his friends, young people who loved him and counted on the energy of his leadership.  I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the 2010 murder is just going to trial today.  Chalk it up to Divine Order that our workshop would land the day before.  The co-program director told me they had no idea the workshop would be so uplifting.  Instead of walking out with heavier hearts, the artists and the mother walked out with hope.  Her son’s spirit was all over the room.

It is 5:30am in the morning.  I am awake because my body is still on Eastern Standard Time, but I am sure they too are up early for different reasons.  I cannot imagine what each of them are feeling right now or what this day will bring for them. It is my prayer that they might remember and conjure up the energy of the cipher, to center themselves in the idea that their creative light can still shine and that the legacy of DLA lives and breathes through them, through the mother’s work with this program and through each of the artists every time they hold the mic.

It was an honor to share space with them and to share my time and energy.  I look forward to deepening our work relationship and generating opportunities to do business together.  Hip-hop can be a powerful tool for healing and transformation.  DLA, I give thanks for the reminder- the cipher is indeed a sacred space.

Rest in Peace:  D’Mario Lavelle Anderson

DOVE Self Esteem Movement

Even though the official start of summer was last month, mine feels as if it began last Monday. I honored my last public commitment in the midst of DC’s heatwave and returned home to a bedroom of chaos and clutter.  Still, it’s nice to be home, to have time to get grounded and focus my energies within. So much has happened since the launch of DOVE’s Self Esteem Movement and my being selected as a 2012 DOVE Real Woman, Role Model.  I was totally overwhelmed by the sincere commitment of the staff and team that work to make this campaign happen.  Their love not only for their work, but for girls and women could be felt at every turn.  A business advisor of mine said the authenticity of the people behind it is probably why it’s so successful.  The best part of it has been the opportunity to meet and connect with the other DOVE women-Lydia Villa-Komaroff, Jane Chen, Arlene Blum, Melanie Matchett-Wood, Fahima Osman and Severn Cullis-Suzuki.  Check out the Women Who Should Be Famous Film Series and get ready to be inspired. Share them with girls and women you know! Search DOVE + the name of any of the women above on or check out .  DOVE has been a trailblazer in the area of social cause marketing and has inspired paradigm shifting change since its launch of a Campaign for Real Beauty.

This weekend one of my mentees asked me why I hadn’t posted my own video yet? lol #Duh So here goes in case you haven’t seen it and if you have it’s a new edit from the original posting.

I take this Real Woman stuff seriously.  🙂 I am recommitted to my life’s work and looking forward to the good 2012 is bringing into my life.

Toni’s DOVE Film

Huffington Post Feature