Tag Archives: Freestyle Union

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.

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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

ooh

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.

Signed,

Toni Blackman

An Unapologetic Idealist

Click here to support Toni’s work:  http://www.gofundme.com/6mwrcg

Freestyle Union: Looking Back

So this morning I see a tweet from @hereisDarren, a videographer/photog.  He sent  a link to a FOX News story on Freestyle Union circa late 90s.  Ironically, Chen Lo and I did our first video shoot of our hip hop workshops yesterday. Freestyle Union Cipher Workshop is being rejuvenated underneath the umbrella of the Lyrical Embassy.  This new partnership for the Lyrical Embassy with Chen Lo, a seasoned emcee and artist educator, will serve as a vehicle to promote all of my hip-hop endeavors and the foundation for this global lyrical movement.  Chen invited two emcees from his old program.  These really young cats love the art of emceeing with such passion that any hip hop head would’ve been inspired.  They were so easy to work with for the shoot and had really nice freestyles.  They just love to rhyme.  Plus, they were really talented, but also really humble and eager to learn.  It reminded me so much of the time I spent running the Freestyle Union Cipher Workshop in DC and later on in New York once I relocated.  There are so many shifts happening in my life and in our world.  I love the expansion and see nothing but possibility for the growth, development and preservation of the art of emceeing.  As I travel across the country and around the world I find more and more young people who are willing to listen and learn.  Yes, they are heavily influenced by the narrow offerings of mainstream rap, but they are also interested identifying ways to bring both worlds together—being able to be inspired by commercially popular music while being true to themselves and maintaining an authentic voice.  It is possible to do both.  You may not enjoy this news clip as much as I did just now watching it, but I still thought it was important to share it with you.  It is hip hop history and a part of my history too.

Darren’s blog:  http://rbadwahandmurray.blogspot.com/