Soul Food Cypher enriches lives with hip-hop

100 Off the Top is Soul Food Cypher’s monthly freestyle rap event held the fourth Sunday of every month. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the cypher is being held online at Instagram and Facebook. Contributed by Alexander Acosta
100 Off the Top is Soul Food Cypher’s monthly freestyle rap event held the fourth Sunday of every month. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the cypher is being held online at Instagram and Facebook. Contributed by Alexander Acosta

Showcases, educational programs are online for now

In foundational hip-hop films such as “Juice,” “8 Mile” or “Brown Sugar,” freestyle rap is often depicted in the context of a battle where a rowdy throng gathers around two MCs preparing for verbal annihilation.

The setting is typically a street corner, or some dark, damp boxing ring. Tension mounts until that moment when a boy becomes a man as the agony-filled words he’s been scribbling inside his notebook spill from his mouth, directed at another boy who is merely an extension of himself.

In reality, the way most amateur rappers fall in love with hip-hop is a lot less dramatic. It’s usually at school when a pencil and a desk become tools for making beats.

Alex Acosta, 33, fell in love with freestyle rap in the lunchroom at Milton High School. It was a great way to break up the school day back in the early 2000s, when hip-hop was emerging as one of the country’s predominant musical genres. At the time, Acosta listened to a lot of LL Cool J, Jay Z and Nas — all lyricists he still admires. Growing up so close to Atlanta, he would often ride MARTA into the city to watch b-boy break dancing battles and attend Mic Club events hosted at Apache Café when it was still in Midtown. He often took his camera, a gift from his mother, and snapped photos of the events and the graffiti he saw at the train stations.

“I was captivated,” Acosta said. “Being 15, 16, and seeing people express themselves that way had me in awe.”

After getting a photography degree from Florida A&M University and establishing a photography career in Atlanta, Acosta continued to immerse himself in hip-hop culture and sought ways to connect with MC’s throughout the city.

In 2012, he started Soul Food Cypher (SFC), an improvised, freestyle rap session, with four friends — Markmont, Eric "Zano Bathroom" Ludgood, Majorica "DJ Acrojam" Murphy and Wahid "Source One" Khoshravani, whom he met at one of those lunchtime rap sessions in high school. What set SFC apart from those gritty rap battles seen in popular film is that they were designed to hype each other up rather than tear each other down.

“The cypher is about the power of speech and building a sense of community,” said Acosta. “We want to provide a space where people can speak into existence new opportunities for themselves.”

SFC became so popular, Acosta and his crew were invited to perform and host similar cyphers at events such as the AJC Decatur Book Festival and Elevate, an annual public art festival in downtown Atlanta.

Meanwhile, Acosta began volunteering at Boys & Girls Clubs teaching photography classes. When he discovered that the easiest way to connect with the kids was to incorporate hip-hop music into his lessons, he got the idea to create an educational component for SFC.

Today SFC is a membership-based, nonprofit organization with a mission to use freestyle rap and lyricism to enrich and elevate individuals and communities by hosting cyphers, performances and educational workshops.

SFC’s signature program is 100 Off the Top, aka One Hundred, a cypher held the fourth Sunday of every month at the Annex Bookstore on Marietta Street. Like a verbal jam session, rappers take turns freestyling and adding verses to build upon a rhyme. Anyone can sign up for a two-minute slot. Typically, rappers are given challenges, such as not saying a certain word in 16 bars, or having to make up a positive verse about an opponent. Those with extraordinary skills can become a part of the SFC crew of MCs. To help develop skills, online workshops are available for a fee and paid memberships include access to webinars, “Secret Cyphers” and online discussions.

When workshop instructor ANON the Griot first heard about SFC, he was skeptical. The ninth-grade literature and composition teacher at Benjamin E. Mays High School often incorporates hip-hop into the classroom, but his experience of freestyle had been more bloodsport than brotherly love. However, in SFC, he found a hip-hop haven that he could encourage his students to participate in.

“It’s all about honoring each other, ancestors and tradition,” said ANON. “That first time I attended, I remember it was so engaging and pure. It called up everything I loved about freestyling, but it took away dismissing people. It allowed me to celebrate people.”

A self-described “Picasso of the Pen,” ANON developed his voice as a student at Morehouse College during freestyle rap competitions on the promenade between the Clark Atlanta and Morehouse campuses. Now, after three years of being a part of SFC, the Sunday night cypher is like a ritual for him.

He is indicative of many of SFC’s crew. These MCs are not necessarily rocking diamond chains and Versace shades. They are educators, real estate agents, engineers and corporate board members. What they have in common is a love of hip-hop and a desire for expression.

Not content just to host cyphers, Acosta and his co-founders wanted to share their love of language and hip-hop culture with the next generation. They started by volunteering with organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs. Eventually they created their own education model.

“When I was in high school, I started to connect the dots that the things that teachers were teaching as far as literary device, simile and metaphor, those were the things MCs use,” Acosta said. “It made me pay attention more in class when I realized those were the same things.”

Dwight Hutson, an SFC board member and program administrator at Morris Brandon Elementary School, has developed a school curriculum for SFC. Nearly every week during the school year, SFC is in classrooms playing word games and teaching students the art of rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter.

“The beauty of freestyling is that no matter how good you are, you’re going to mess up,” ANON said. “The words aren’t going to come out. Or there’s a challenge you’re going to face that you’re not expecting. We give them the opportunity to see a misstep and a recovery. And when someone says something that we like, we show praise.”

The lessons kids learn rapping translate into expanded vocabularies and improved communication skills.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, SFC has moved its cyphers and educational programs online. Recently, a Zoom session was held with visual artist Fahamu Pecou for his (ad)Vantage Point youth development program at Maynard Jackson and George Washington Carver high schools.

“It was one of the most fun presentations that we’ve had — and we’ve had the original Goodie Mob present to our students and some other amazing artists,” Pecou said. “It was a really special presentation with SFC because of the interactive way that they engage. The art of freestyle is equally as challenging as it is liberating.”

100 Off the Top still take places on the fourth Sunday at 6 p.m. and is broadcast on Instagram and Facebook Live. Anyone can watch for free, but donations are encouraged to help support SFC's educational programming. The first one was held in April. Fifteen MCs and about 100 spectators tuned in. Acosta was the DJ, and host Mike Sick introduced the rappers and energized online viewers, just as he would have at an in-person cypher. As the rappers took turns, topics ranged from relationships to quarantine to stimulus checks. It was business as usual, only the circumstances had changed.

The success of the virtual cyphers has Acosta and his board now thinking of other ways to expand their reach. Additional Sunday night cyphers have been added, as well as occasional Wednesday Wordplay cyphers. Going digital has opened up the possibility to going global.

“People need the power of cyphers, because it’s the place where people can hear one another, let off steam, heal,” Acosta said. “The cypher is a place where people can connect. We want to be the quintessential online cypher for people around the world.”

MORE INFORMATION

Soul Food Cypher. 100 Off the Top cypher, 6 p.m., fourth Sunday of the month. Annex Bookstore, 748 Marietta St., Atlanta. Free, donations requested. In-person events are suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. Check instagram and Facebook for live virtual events.www.soulfoodcypher.com, www.facebook.com/SoulFoodCypher, www.instagram.com/soulfoodcypher

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