On February 26, 2012, I produced my first freestyle cypher in the basement of Wonderroot, an Arts center in the Reynoldstown neighborhood of Atlanta, Ga. This cypher brought together, emcees (rappers) from all socio economic backgrounds, races, and gender identities. With the help of four friends, this would grow into a revolutionary community based 501c3 Non-Profit organization, Soul Food Cypher.
This night, February 26, 2012, would prove to be ominous for other reasons as well. This was the same night that Trayvon Martin was tragically murdered. His murder proved America, despite having a Black President, was not at a point of Trans-Racial national identity and would start the Black Lives Matter Movement.
As fate had it, the moment and the cypher would be intricately tied together.
Stemming from a deep place of ancestral memory, the cypher continues traditions of old, in new, bold ways.
A cypher is a circle in which any art form or spiritual practice can take place, and has long been a staple in the black community. The cypher represents community – In Soul Food Cypher, its a place where freestyle emcees (rappers) and lyricists, under the guidance of meter and rhyme, share stories, exchange knowledge and speak freely. It’s a place where emcees improvise their lyrics and are challenged and rewarded for their quick-wittedness in lyrics, depth in content, and personality in presentation.
For three years, Soul Food Cypher would host cyphers at Wonderroot before expanding to other venues (see One Hundred and Cypher Sunday). These cyphers included curated programing that challenged emcees artistically through lyrical challenges but also included conversations that educated and broadened the community’s exposure to ideas, perspectives, and life-saving information. The cypher became a place where black and marginalized voices could speak proudly, be heard, and more importantly, be felt.
In the 1700’s enslaved Africans would meet on Sundays at Place Congo, continuing their African traditions of drumming and dance. Mixed Race New Orleanians trained in European classical music and instrumentation joined in; what is now called Jazz and the Blues born out of these sessions. Additionally, on the Georgia and South Carolina coast, the Gullah Geechee would circle up in what is called a Ring shout and through rhythm, song, and call & response kept traditions alive that was crucial to their survival through the horrors of slavery and Jim crow. With our cyphers, we simply continue to build on the traditions and practices of old. Providing Emcees with a safe and nurturing environment to share their message and pass this rich tradition to the next generation.