Reconstructing rap culture

Terah Boyd

An excited buzz fills the air as a swarm of apprehensive students enter a room in the University Center. A slight tension  can be felt as a disc jockey warms up on stage, scratching a vinyl record while several cameramen shrewdly inspect their lenses. A smile of anticipation is daubed over the face of a bespectacled man wearing a thick outer coat. He is watching several Panthers playfully bounce rhymes off of one another. The edges of a circle slowly form as everyone turns towards the room’s center.

As the cypher begins, there is a clear symbolism of the cultural changes occurring within the city. At Soul Food Cypher, Atlanta freestyle rappers congregate to network and express themselves lyrically. At first glance, the Soul Food Cypher may seem like the typical underground battle rap scene, but with a closer look, it becomes apparent that the cypher is different. Dissociating from the typical back-and-forth braggadocio of battle rap, the Soul Food Cypher features several format based freestyle rounds in which no topic is off limits, ranging from personal anecdotes to prominent social issues, such as the controversial Christopher Dorner case.

Where It All Began

Founded at Wonderroot Arts Center, the cypher infuses artistic expression and philanthropic efforts to elevate the morale of the greater Atlanta community.

“The Soul Food Cypher is an organization whose purpose is to reverse the negative stigma associated with rap,” said founder and Executive Director Alex Acosta. “We feel that speech has the power to transform individuals and culture, as our emcees act as spokespeople for their communities, influencing the lexicon of America.”

Acosta’s passion for art can be traced back to his roots in photography, which is how he conceptualized the cypher in the first place.

“I wanted to continue developing my photography skills, and that’s when somebody told me about Wonderroot. I started going there on a weekly basis, and one night I attended a party where I noticed people freestyling” he said. “I realized then that I wanted to create a place where it’s an open forum for emcees to meet and rap.”

Acosta could trace his earliest memories of rap to his childhood, when he witnessed his first cypher.

“I was about 5 years old and my friend Sam was rapping with his friends in the garage over NWA beats,” he said. “He placed me right next to the boom box, and at the time I couldn’t comprehend what they were doing. But now that I look back, my first memory of hip-hop was a cypher.”

The root meaning of “cypher” also has special connotations, as well as the purpose behind its organization.

“The term ‘cypher’ means ‘circle’, as well as its Arabic meanings, which are ‘calculation’ and ‘problem solving,” Acosta said. “We have discussions and equal levels for communication throughout the circle that we rap in. We make it a
necessity that there are no stages or microphones used because we want all of our lyricists on a level ground. Everyone speaks democratically and there’s equality amongst all artists.”

The Rap Pack

Georgia State’s first Soul Food Cypher was held this month. The event featured several rap communities from around Atlanta as well as local rappers from Georgia State, including “Conscious Collective”, a spoken word assembly.

Shalom Little, a member of “Conscious Collective”, said he noticed many similarities between Georgia State’s cypher and Wonderroot’s cyphers.

“It was very similar to what we witness regularly at Wonderroot,” Little said. “Wonderroot runs a little smoother just because of experience, but the spaciousness of the venue at Georgia State definitely made it more comfortable”

Little has been rapping for 14 years, and was impressed by the energy Georgia State showed at the cypher.

“It was very reassuring to see people I didn’t know out there spitting genuine raps,” Little said. “I loved the effort and it’s great to see that Georgia State’s student body embraces hip-hop culture and has a love of music.”

Although Acosta is the visionary behind the Soul Food Cypher, the movement would never have reached Georgia State’s campus if not for Karon Franklin, Concert Director of the Spotlight Program Board.

Franklin organized the event after attending a cypher at Wonderroot five months ago.

“It was an amazing concept. I just wanted to be a part of it. I attend Wonderroot every second and fourth Sunday, and I really wanted to bring it to Georgia State,” Franklin said. “Luckily, I’m in a position at this school to bring it to our students. We also have two more planned on March 13 and April 17, and by next academic year, hopefully it will be an established monthly event.”

Franklin was surprised about the turnout at Georgia State’s first cypher.

“It was a seamless transition,” Franklin said. “There was great attendance, and there were no hassles at all. It helped give a lot of exposure and networking opportunities to up and coming rappers, and for a first time event, it went very smooth.
The cypher really helped to promote artistry”.

Franklin’s interest in music supersedes attending and organizing cyphers. He is also an up and coming artist, known as “Kingsy.”

“I’ve always had an interest in the music industry,” Franklin said. “My goal is to work various parts of the industry into one. I’m very interested in production and management. I definitely see myself subtly monopolizing the music industry,
for example owning a venue and a record label together.”

The Southern Renaissance

Although Acosta and Franklin have differing ambitions and personal goals, they both share an interest in quality rap music. They were also very vocal with their opinions regarding the current state of Atlanta’s rap, and had a plethora of insight about the culture of rap music.

“I feel like there is a pay for play system with the local radio,” Franklin said. “People need to pay more attention to the local artists who are putting out quality music, but aren’t getting recognition. A majority of people are chasing the same sound. The scale of experimentation has definitely decreased.”

Rap’s lack of recognition by mainstream musical forums (the Grammys for example) doesn’t move Acosta much.

“I could care less about the national representation of rap. It doesn’t matter if it’s mainstream. Rap is a live culture that is better as an underground forum,” Acosta said. “You can see the evolution of rap in Atlanta… Atlanta’s music is constantly reconstructing itself and has become a melting pot of culture”

Acosta said he can see history repeating itself in Atlanta’s new wave of musical culture.

“Atlanta’s culture has become an enigma that represents a 21st century Southern Renaissance,” Acosta said. “Atlanta is the new Hollywood, and there’s a reverse migration coming back to Atlanta because of our post-industrial society. Atlanta is the new ‘chocolate city’. Soul Food Cypher sees itself as a part of this cultural wave, and the migration to Atlanta provides a diverse array of rap styles at our cyphers.”

Franklin, however, has a different view on the evolution of rap music.

“Rap doesn’t face the same discrimination that it once did upon its conception, but it doesn’t get much respect as a genuine art form,” Franklin said. “There is far less discrimination in rap than in previous years, a prime example being Drake, a Jewish-Canadian rapper who’s winning Grammys now. That might not have been possible a few years ago. People automatically assume a rap album fits a certain criteria when they hear the genre. There’s no discrimination, but there’s no appreciation either.”

Little said cyphers help break the stereotypes that many Atlanta rappers face, and said Georgia State’s expansive network is the catalyst for change.“Georgia State’s size as a university draws a lot
of attention from the music industry,” Little said. “The genuine rap style that we’re creating reaches a lot of people, and I think it’s great for the culture.”

Little, Acosta and Franklin all agree that cyphers bring a certain standard of lyricism back to Atlanta rap, because the unpredictable format of the battles prevents preconceived rhyme making.

Franklin intends to organize an individual Soul Food Cypher chapter at Georgia State, while Acosta plans to spread his movement to every major city in the United States. Little also feels that the future of Atlanta rap has a variety of directions it can go as a result of everyone’s collective efforts.

As bass bangs through gritty instrumental, passion and distinction can be seen in the faces of emcees as they release their innermost thoughts.

Amongst the head bobbing and aggressive hand movements, a rugged image of innovative artistry can be seen within Atlanta’s most promising lyricists.

“Atlanta has been the Motown of music for quite some time now,” Little said. “A lot of the style that has been unique to Atlanta can now be heard nationally. As a result of this, if our community continues to promote sincere musical production, Atlanta will continue to prosper. However, if the mainstream stays at the level it’s at right now, our
identity will lose its appeal and a new region will be the source of musical inspiration.”


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