Soul Food Cypher fosters community through freestyle rap

Soul Food Cypher's next freestyle rap event, “One Hundred,” will take place on Sunday, Nov. 27 at CreateATL in Southwest Atlanta. (Anthony Truth Gary)

A hip-hop cypher is where freestyle rap or improvisational on-the-spot lyrical creativity reigns. Participants form a circle and must skillfully craft unscripted rhymes in a display of imagination, confidence, skills and faith. The organization Soul Food Cypher uses the art of freestyle rap and lyricism to transform individuals and communities, and the organization’s next Freestyle Rap event, “One Hundred,” will take place on Sunday, Nov. 27 at CreateATL in Southwest Atlanta. Soul Food Cypher MC, host and community manager, and Clark Atlanta hip-hop history professor Joe Stu, spoke with “City Lights” producer Jeannine Etter about the art of freestyle rap.

Interview highlights:

Discovering and defining the art of freestyle rap:

“I had the fortunate pleasure of being born in the Bronx. Hip-hop was just always around,” recalled Stu. “I remember riding the bus to school and somebody would start beatboxing and you would just hear in the back of the bus someone just rapping. And one of the kids that was rapping, I was like, ‘Wow, yo. This guy can really rap,’ and I was asking him, ‘Did you write this down?’ and he said, ‘No, this is just straight off the top of my head.'”

“With freestyling, you can use the environment as your muse. You can use people around you, you could use, like I said, the environment — any inanimate objects can now take life because you’ve now spoken life into them using your freestyle improvisational skills,” said Stu.

He also explained, “Freestyling, originally, the concept referred to a rhyme or a verse which had no particular topic. You could go here or there with it; you can talk about who you are, you can go braggadocio with it, but it didn’t have a set topic. In later years, it formulated into someone who was improvising as they went … off the top of their dome.”

What makes a cypher:

“First and foremost, there’s a DJ. The DJ is the cornerstone of hip-hop, without any question. And we usually have a DJ there, and while the DJ is spinning and playing instrumentals, we will usually see … MCs within a circle formation. And that circle formation represents a lot of things; one, it represents the continuous energy within that cypher, but two, it also represents that circle that you see whenever there’s a breaking competition or there’s a breaking display or whether you have a DJ that holds circle with the vinyl. That circle is pretty standard within hip-hop, but not only hip-hop but through a lot of cultural references that have to do with rhythm.”

“The host is the MC who guides the segments for each one of those sections of our events. One of our most famous, or most notable, segments is wordplay. And wordplay is an opportunity for, I want to say, to kind of give you training wheels when you’re rapping, and it gives you a visual reference. We have a screen that will show a particular word. Maybe it’ll be an image, and whomever is up to bat will start freestyling whatever they see on that screen,” Stu explained. “That’s also one of the most popular segments that we have during our events.”

The hip-hop cypher as therapy, as church, as community:

“There is a sense of freedom that you have when it comes to freestyling,” Stu said. “It provides an opportunity for clear, direct human expression in the form of verbal linguistics. So you may have had a horrible day or you might have had an awesome day. Maybe somebody in your family you’re feeling sentimental about. This cypher provides you the opportunity to speak that and have no judgement when it comes out. We provide a safe space for lyricists. So whatever’s said there stays there, but also, we’re not looking at your lyrical display or your performance in a sense where we’re judging you on how dope you are. Sometimes we have people who have come to the cypher, and they’ve never rhymed before.”

Soul Food Cypher’s next event, “One Hundred,” takes place on Nov. 27 at CreateATL in Southwest Atlanta. More information and tickets are available at