Photo above by Anthony “Truth” Gary – SFC’s “One Hundred” cypher gathered over 70 people in the Little Five Points Community Center this past June
By Vincent Mitchell
By now there is little question of the value of the notion of “creative placemaking:” that cultivation of a community’s arts and its culture can spark socially and economically generative developments. In order to foster a greater number of sustained, successful forays into “creative placemaking,” we Atlantans must highlight those entities who successfully embody its values. Atlanta’s rich history of hip-hop music created a social climate in which it was all but inevitable that organizations in the city would use hip-hop as a medium for community engagement. Among these organizations, one that has managed to sustain a visible effect is Soul Food Cypher.
For nearly 7 seven years, Soul Food Cypher (SFC) has embodied its mission to use “the power of speech to transform the lives of individuals and their communities,” cultivating a community around the art of freestyle rapping. Co-Founder and Executive Director Alex Acosta originally envisioned a cypher (i.e. a gathering of rappers) that could serve as a salon for lyricists to “share stories, exchange knowledge and speak freely.” Today, at SFC’s free monthly cypher series “One Hundred,” lyricists perform improvised vocal performances over instrumental music to diverse crowds of Atlanta residents who are invited to spectate and – if they are so inclined – participate.
But the 501(c)(3) organization functions go beyond public performances; SFC offers workshops for community programs and corporate retreats, hosts regular event activations throughout the city (previous collaborators include the High Museum, the Boys & Girls Club of America, Sprite, and the Cypher Series at Georgia State), and maintains a membership program that seeks to fashion skilled lyricists into future leaders and mentors.
It’s easy to see how SFC hits all the bullet points for “creative placemaking:”
- Place-Based Practice: Though the SFC’s members travel the city, the organization focuses its efforts in Little Five Points and East Atlanta, areas where effects of the city’s demographic shifts are clearest.
- Ethical Community Engagement: Events are free and open to the public. While SFC’s lyricists are given freedom of artistic expression, the value of “respecting” members of the audience – who embody various intersections of class, race, gender, sex, age, and sexual orientation – ensures that wide swaths of Atlanta’s residents can attend these events and feel welcome. Mentorship programs (such as their afterschool program at Kindezi Charter School) use freestyle rap to directly address growing gaps in education.
- Cross-Sector Collaboration: In addition to providing free entertainment and establishing public forums by itself, Soul Food Cypher’s partnerships have allowed its influence to reach into educational and corporate spaces.
- Consumable by the Public: Aside from members-only cyphers, all events hosted by SFC are free, open to the public, and MARTA-accessible. Events average an attendance of over 60 people.
- Influence Localized Development Systems: Lyricists’ performances often chronicle the effects of local, state-level, and federal policy on their lives and the lives of those around them.
The direct overlap of SFC’s practice with the ideals of “creative placemaking” is no accident. In 2015, Acosta wrote a detailed essay on the group’s conscious efforts after Soul Food Cypher was awarded a creative placemaking grant by ArtPlace.
Art has an intrinsic quality of communicating the psychology of its creator. Rap will likely prove to be the only art form that captures the structure of feeling our moment, and it’s certainly the only American art form that can truly claim to have a popular following across all races and classes. The freestyle rap that SFC fosters thus serves to provide artists with an opportunity to share their perspectives with various members of their community. It therefore directly enriches the artistic and cultural landscape of the city by its very existence.