Category Archives: Rhyme like a Girl

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.


You are a Freakin’ Idealist!

He pointed his finger and with disgust with the words rolling from his lips as he said, “The problem with you is that you are an idealist, a freakin’ idealist!”

A respected music journalist, he hurled the accusation at me.  For some reason it landed as an insult as one of the other men on the panel agreed with him. They laughed and high fived. I remember sitting there on a panel at a Hip Hop conference in Denver not knowing whether or not I was supposed to feel small. Was he questioning my intelligence? Was I wrong for being the way that I am?

Of course, I am witty and have eight years of competitive speaking under my belt so I later came back with the appropriate intellectual jab.  I caught him with his own words, but the sting stayed with me for years.

For two decades my idealism has been soaked, stewed and dipped in Hip Hop. At times it has made for an appetizing, soul feeding experience. Then there were other times where it left me feeling starved.  Even I questioned my ideas and choices. Why did I love this thing that way too often didn’t seem to love me back?

Toni Spittin' & Speaking in Kang, Botswana

Toni Spittin’ & Speaking in Kang, Botswana

There are still many who hear the words Hip Hop and the only thing that comes to mind is the latest “it” rapper or pop rap song but for those of us steeped in the culture it means so much more. This poem I wrote after hearing Kalamu ya Salaam’s poem, “The Blues is Not” inspired the piece below which best explains my perspective.

tagging your heart not walls

 hip hop is not music

it is not dance

it is not djing or writing

it is not rhyming

no voice is needed

hip hop is not beats

it is not the

boom bap, the boom-boom bap

but the way the

boom bap

feels when it vibrates through


hip hop is not song

nor is it singing

or even speaking

it is not windmills

it is not 12-inch vinyls

or 16-ounce cans of krylon paint

it is tagging

your heart

not walls

it is feeling

it is not hard core

or soft

it is not old school

or new

it is not east, west

or even worldwide

it is within

My idealism keeps bringing me back to the center of who I am and as the years go by I get to know myself even better.  The one thing that I’ve done regardless of circumstances is host and lead ciphers and cipher workshops via Freestyle Union Cipher Workshop and Rhyme like a Girl, both projects I created because I believe in the power of the spoken word, storytelling and rap as an oral tradition. I am just as passionate about the potential of using freestyle (improvisational) rap to promote social responsibility, critical thinking skills, creativity and confidence as I was when I first began in the 90s.

Some outgrow their ideals and some get stuck in them, while others attach to new ones. I am refining mine as I expand and update my vision. I no longer feel insulted by the term and I’ve discovered that I have enough “realist” running through my veins to keep me grounded. It feels good to be grown.  I now love myself as much as I love Hip Hop and have no shame in in being me.


Toni Blackman

An Unapologetic Idealist

Click here to support Toni’s work:

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…


Lauryn Hill and the Universe


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

One of the reasons why I Rhyme like a Girl….

A repost from Facebook that moved me so much I needed to share it again.  It helps to articulate one of the reasons I’m so committed to the work with the cipher, with Freestyle Union & why Rhyme like a Girl is on the top of my agenda:

“Hip-Hop is not a counterculture. Hip-hop is a reflection of American culture.
Though we may have rebelled to some degree to create our art form, the way we think about our community is really no different from the country we were birthed in. In fact, it is just a microcosm, a reiteration. We cannot say that we are creating real change and a paradigm shift if we do not think differently with rega

rds to patriarchy, misogyny, classism, racism, and all the other sundry of societal ills that must be addressed and worked on consistently.How many times have I been told I am a good dancer (for a girl)?

How many times have men told me passive aggressively OR directly to shut up but once men say the same thing they listen?

How many times have I been called out into the cipher with children AFTER the men dance?

How many times have women stood to the side during lectures, ciphers, and not side by side with the men as equal contributors and participants?

Hip-hop could be so beautifully revolutionary but it’s not because we don’t think and act any different than the oppressive forces that pushed us to either create the art form or to be a part of the community?

Let’s practice and create Hip-Hop the way it was intended: to go against the status quo and create new ways of living in this world.” –Yvonne H. Chow

OSU Hip Hop Conference

I’ve enjoyed not having to travel much during the Mercury Retrograde period.  It was a wonderful time to go into at-home-grind-mode.  The month of May brings a workshop series I’ll be facilitating with the Caribbean Culture Center in New York and a quick return to the state of Ohio.  I was at Wittenberg University and Central State University early last month. This month I’ll be performing and facilitating a Rhyme like a Girl Workshop at Ohio State University for a conference featuring the likes of Daddy-O from the legendary Stetsaonic and scholar and media personality Marc Lamont Hill. Dr. E (Elaine Richardson) is activating hip-hop elevation so let your folks in and around Columbus know…check the link below:

Hip Hop Sisters Conference Call April 5th

Hip Hop Sisters is an active online community dedicated to “Women promoting positivity and encouraging personal growth through Hip Hop”.  Founded by the legendary MC Lyte, the tagline for Hip Hop Sisters is:  Not just music, it’s a movement.  The social network includes not only MC’s and dancers, but DJ’s, producers, managers, promoters, retailers, designers, industry professionals and anyone who supports women in hip-hop.  Even men are allowed to join the site if they’re committed to encouraging the feminine presence in the music and culture.

MC Lyte spoke at the Hip Hop Sisters meet and greet and is building an incredible team to help implement her vision.  One of the offerings of being a part of this community are the educational conference calls like the one coming up on April 5th at 9PM EST.  There will be a host of guest speakers calling in to share some pertinent information with the members of Hip Hop Sisters.  If you want to join Hip Hop Sisters, go to

The call will include digital marketing specialist Dr Post A Lot, HHS’ marketing chair Carolina Redd covering social media and marketing, Hip Hop Sisters founder MC Lyte who will speak to choosing the right management for yourself as an artist and other special guests to be announced.

Don’t miss it.  RSVP at

And remember if you haven’t done so already come join us at (Yes, I am a Hip Hop Sister!)

  • Hip Hop Sisters –Women Promoting Positivity and Personal Growth Through Hip Hop

2011 is unfolding quite lovely

Rhyme like a Girl (RLAG) was launched as a project when I was selected to be an Open Society Institute Fellow with the Soros Foundation.  The organizational structure has changed, but the mission is still the same–to use hip hop as a way to empower girls and women!  Here are a couple of flicks from the day of the video shoot for RLAG’s biggest youth project to date.