Category Archives: Music

Meditation is Hard

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Whenever I mention that I am working on a hip-hop meditation project someone inevitably says, “But Toni, it is not easy to meditate.” One of my songwriting students recently told me that meditation was too hard and a good friend told me she’s just not a be still kind of woman.

I woke around 6am today and did Day 1 of Oprah & Deepak’s 21 Day Meditation Experience. It was about 3/4 through that my monkey mind started to dance. I kept bringing myself back to the centering thought until I heard the bell. I heard my student’s voice and smiled. Part of me was thinking like him- meditation is hard.

The sun was just rising so I lit a white candle and incense while preparing my thyme tea. As the sound of Native American flutes played faintly in the background I cleared my chest then got back into my bed so I could focus on the flame. Candle gazing can be a useful meditation technique as it brings focus and energy to the third eye.

This morning’s meditation wasn’t auto-pilot for me. It required deliberate focus and intention but I am reminded of Dr. Deben, one of my spiritual teachers, who would say that mediation wouldn’t be such a big deal if we used the word practice whenever talking about it. It is a practice. Some days meditation is not easy but the more we practice a thing the better we become.

So. I recently slipped into one of my workaholic patterns. My life’s work is beyond exciting right now and my mind wanted to get its Usain on at every hour of the day. Eventually, I crashed and a series of health issues stopped me in my tracks. Meditation helped me make it through commitments  – performances, lectures, panels, teaching and a special event.  We may lose our footing but we can always return to center and our meditation practice will be available to us.

Here are a few ways I have been able to make meditating easier for myself:

  • Clearing my mind almost always begins with writing. I have to empty out the ever present list that is in the forefront of my mind so I pick up pen and paper and I jot it down. I bless the list with love and let it go for later. Sometimes I do this before I sit still to meditate but doing this right before bed also helps me sleep better.
  • Breathing can be a meditation within itself. Slowing down the breath relaxes the mind, calms the nervous system and shifts the focus from stressors to being present in the moment. There are many breathing techniques one can use. I inhale slowly through my nose as if air is entering my belly causing it to expand like a ballon. I exhale the air gently through my lips. Eyes can be open or closed.  It is a simple exercise that can have a profound impact on our emotional state.
  • Focusing on gratitude always rocks. One of the easiest ways to go into the zone is to say out loud – I am grateful for _______________. I say it over and over, filling in the blank until I have run out of things to say. There are some days where I go in so deep that I will find myself in tears of gratitude at the end of this meditation. On other days my heart just smiles.
  • Sometimes my meditation requires motion so I take a walk and listen to guided meditations from youtube or even my own. Hot yoga is another moving meditation that I have grown to appreciate. Meditation does not have to be about sitting still all of the time. It is about making time and space to reconnect and recenter.

We will release BELIEVE, the first installment of the Meditation Mixtape Series just in time for the new year. I want to share more stories from my meditation journey and keep it 100 about the difficulties and challenges. Meditation is not always easy  in the beginning but it doesn’t have to ever be hard. Learning breathing techniques and practicing meditation have changed my life. I’m excited to share what I am learning with you all.

Meditation is not just for relaxation; its primary purpose is to develop the capacity to respond skillfully and gracefully to life’s difficulties as well as its joys” -Shyalpa Tenzin

 

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Manifestation Monday: Special Mix By DJ SMii

A number of folks in my life have become ministers, life coaches, healers, spiritual teachers and inspirational speakers. I’m surrounded by reminders to tweak my thoughts and habits. Two of my home girls refer Monday as Manifestation Monday. They speak it, tweet it and believe it so deeply within their souls that it sets their work week in motion in such a powerful way.

I’ve spent the last year and half working with an incredible DJ/Producer to develop my meditation project. We were working with these concepts around transformation, healing and belief so much so that we couldn’t help but start living it.  It’s amazing how that works.  It’s the perfect example of being mindful of the company you keep, words you speak and the thoughts you think.

Well, ladies and gents, brothers and sister, kindreds from near and far away – my DJ has put together an incredible mix of music, sounds and words.  It is the DJ SMii mix for Money Mondays aka MoneyDay! This one is called Money Magnet, and is a 10 minute mix designed to get your mind in alignment with it’s magnetic nature and focus that power toward attracting money. Play it in your car, on the train, while walking or sitting on a park bench. Blast it in your home while making your morning smoothie. If you are interested in conditioning your mind to be more magnetic to abundance, prosperity and money, by all means–whatever you do — Listen.

#thankmelater and have a magnetizing day!

20 Years in the Game: Still Doin’ Cyphers

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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.

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Be Thankful: Birthday Eve Reflections

Sleeping with the fan on blast two nights in a row has left me feeling a little sniffly.  I thought not using AC would prevent this feeling but alas here I am drinking extra lemon water to warm my throat.  William Vaughn’s “Be Thankful For What You Got”  is blasting through my blue-tooth speaker as summer reminds us she is still here. I’ve meditated on gratitude since I rolled over at 6am.  It was two hours before my alarm but I felt so good I couldn’t wait to greet the day.

gratitude-changes-everythingNo flutes, native American drums or Kora music this morning, my meditation soundtrack was pure soul music from my childhood.  I’ve listened to the original version by William Vaughn, the version by Curtis Mayfield, the one with Omar and the version Omar does with Erykah Badu.  I am what they call a “repeater”.  I can loop the same song and listen to it for an hour before tiring of it.  The line “you may not have a car at all, but remember brothers and sisters you can still stand tall”  — makes me think of the images from Ferguson which brought me both tears and inspiration. Gratitude was the rope I used to hang on during the past month.  I tied a knot at the end of the rope and decided I was not going to get lost in the emotional abyss and I was not going to check out either.  I am choosing to be fully present regardless of the chaos of this world.

Muhammad AliIt’s September 3rd, my Birthday Eve, and I’m feeling some kind of way about life. Honestly, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I stopped being surprised that I was still alive. For the first 30 years of my life I had to channel Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali in my fight against the fear of death.  Behind my smile was this recurring and haunting thought.  Our minds can be powerful tools for elevation or for destruction.  I recently lost three folks I knew in one week, two women and one man, each of them in my age group. A friend who I share the spiritual path with suggests I not use the word “lost” but reference it in a more powerful, uplifting way.  I’m working on it and still seeking the word(s).

Coincidentally as I am sitting here writing about death, Dr. Sari, a Brooklyn-based holistic chiropractor and healer, sent me a video text focused on life.  She is sharing her Day 2 intentions for her 30 day juice cleanse. I have an accountability partner for exercise, movement and my emotions/energy.  Dr. Sari is now my accountability partner for what I put inside my mouth. They say when the student is ready the teachers will appear.  images-2

I told Jomo, the acupuncturist at Third Root Community Healing Center, that I am finally ready to heal.  I was not ready before now.  The resources that I am coming across are amazing and not as coincidental as one might think.  Doing healing research on Saturday led me to discover a Womb Workshop on Sunday.  It was free and led by Sankofa Ra, a doula, healer and womb wellness consultant.  I ended up booking a healing session with her on Labor Day right after my chiropractor appointment.  It’s symbolic to do this work at the beginning of September, at the end of summer and the week of my birthday.

I am grateful to now be free of bitterness and to be one who can trust her own heart, to be an artist who has honored the core of her true purpose, to be a woman of integrity, to know how to be happy for others,  to have traveled to Europe, Asia and South America, to have lived the dream of nurturing a relationship with Africa, to be a Howard University Alum, to live in Brooklyn, NYC, to not have any toxic friendships, to be in love with myself, to have a healthy relationship and to be on this spiritual path, healing and walking towards wholeness.  It was through a few recent conversations with friends who questioned my alone time that I realized how much I now like me, how much more patient I am with life and its process, how much more clear and intentional I am with both my thoughts and actions. The quiet time of the past two weeks won’t last forever so I am cherishing it.  If it were raining I would go outside and dance in it as an affirmation to the universe:  I am here and fully present.

Be thankful for what you got so says the song and that is exactly what I am going to do.  I am dreaming and envisioning the life I want without attachment to the outcome. I am also grateful for who I am becoming. This evolution has involved sacrifice, surrender, sweat and tears. Every tear shed has been worth it. The blessings are too many to name but trust – I earned this smile on my face. Now, let me go juice some ginger root to help with this sleeping-under-the fan congestion. Be blessed. Be thankful.

 

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Fears Be Gone (in honor of International Day of the Girl)

The worst mind games are the ones we play with ourselves. We stick post-it notes to our own foreheads as reminders of what worries us just so we don’t forget to focus on those fears. Before we know it our subconscious mind is programmed and like puppets we dance to songs of fear whether those fears are rational or not. Eventually the music in our head gets so loud we have to make a choice:  succumb to it and believe what we’ve been telling ourselves or confront it head on and fight until we can turn the volume down.

JahiyaCrewInternationalDayOfTheGirl.jpgThe UN has declared this Friday October 11th International Day of the Girl. It’s also the day of the biggest performance I’ve done since my April show at the Apollo Music Cafe. The only thing I’ve done more consistently than teaching workshops is perform. Poetry, dance, music, theater–I have always performed. Every possible distraction that could exist has come up. The guys in my inner-circle say that it just means it’s going to be a damn good show.  I am adopting their perspective but still wanting to meditate on letting go of any negative energy I may be carrying. What is in my way?

Last week the answer to my question came.  I finally admitted that I am in my own way. What is it that makes us humans so uncomfortable with being our best? Why do we resist shining our brightest light? Why do we not give 100% of ourselves to the very thing that we say we want? I have performed thousands of times, where are these fears coming from?

Last year I had a performance where I made a major mistake in a song.  It was the kind of mistake where you find out who your friends are. When I worked with my coach, he walked me through an exercise to demonstrate that my mistake was based on my not warming up. Simple enough but self-forgiveness has still been a journey. I am absolutely comfortable freestyling in front of thousands of people yet the fear of singing until now– persists.

I know it is tied to letting go of the good opinions of others. The fear of not being perfect can be self-destructive.  Atelophobia is the scientific term for the fear of not being good enough. Our fear may not be at the level of an anxiety disorder, but not only do many artists have it but people in general carry these feelings of unreality and extreme disappointment when we fail at something.  It’s ironic because I work professionally as a communication coach, an area where I know I am a master teacher. I coach my clients to let go of the very fears I am dealing with in another realm. I can see their potential greatness and massage their resistance. In my freestyle rap and improv poetry workshops I coach artists to make mistakes material and to embrace their imperfections. Getting over these things is critical to our personal development and to reaching many of our goals.

I am a performer, I am a speaker, I am a presenter, I am a conveyor of messages and music and I have been groomed for this very moment in my life. I rap, I sing, I speak the spoken word. I am a writer with stories to tell and feelings to share. There are insights that are unique to me, that were meant to come through me. I am not my mistakes nor am I my fears. I remind my mind that I am in charge. I control the tapes that play in my head.  I am whole, healthy and in complete harmony with myself, my gifts and the universe. God rocks mics through me so every time I perform I get open, I do my best, I honor my gifts.

I plan to play a new kind of game with my mind this week.  It’s the least I can do to honor the girl within and all of the girls watching. My drummer has assembled a tight band that can support what it is that I do and my girls Yolanda Zama and Gabriella Callendar will bring both their love and musical genius to the stage.  The show must indeed go on…

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Lauryn Hill and the Universe

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A few of my ‘music critic’ friends inboxed me this tune on some “what chya’ think?” business. They know I am both hip-hop head and a fan of Lauryn’s heart and lyricism.  I didn’t reply to the emails because I think not.

I am in a space where I believe that what I think or what anyone else thinks should not matter. What matters is that L-Boogie is in creation and release mode. The world doesn’t just miss her, but people miss authentic passion, we miss artistic voices that are in alignment with their own hearts and not just their pocketbooks, we miss that fine line that true artists walk when the core of one’s creativity looks like “crazy” to “civilians” (i.e. non-artists) but to those truly in the artistic zone– it’s just processing, it’s re-centering.

When one’s purpose has been so clearly outlined and defined the universe will not allow he or she to stray to far from it. Resistance is futile. True artists either create or they shrivel up and die. Death doesn’t necessarily mean being six feet under.   It also includes the soulless and the walking dead. Plenty of the zombies we see during rush hour have “that thing” and gifts that could inspire the world but for some reason are not sharing them in this lifetime.

What do I think? I think that divine order is at work. I think that the universe has left her no option but to create and release. We’ve all been in that space where God put a foot in your ass–when you waited too long to leave a relationship or didn’t move when intuition told you to.  It’s amazing how life will create circumstances that force us out of our self-imposed funks.  Lauryn’s energy has so little to do with Lauryn right now. My only prayer is that she remembers the big picture and she crosses these sands of fire victoriously. We are all connected and the energy that we put out impacts all those around us. It resonates. Because of her connection to millions of people around the world, I imagine that with even the slightest amount of focus and a willingness to stay on a higher vibration these new Lauryn releases have the potential to impact the stagnation and ‘stank’ that are plaguing hip-hop music and culture.

Just let the music play…

Lauryn Hill Neurotic Society Compulsory Mix