By the time Toni Blackman was nine, she was already a hip-hop head. But popping and locking in Pittsburgh, Calif. couldn’t hold a candle to her aspirations to live in hip-hop’s birthplace, New York City. “I realized my dreams were not going to be lived in that small town I grew up in,” she says by phone from her current home in Brooklyn. As it turns out, her passion for the culture wound up taking her further beyond her Bay Area roots than she imagined.
In 2001, Blackman became the first hip-hop cultural specialist for the U.S. State Department. Wherever she goes, from Senegal to South Africa, she takes the wisdom of the cypher with her. For the educator, spoken word artist, and hip-hop ambassador, the circle in which rappers have long gathered to spit rhymes is more than an impromptu freestyle session, it’s a form of fellowship. After years spent using the cypher as a cultural tool for healing and community building, she’s turned it into hip-hop theatre with a stage show that premieres this weekend in Atlanta, co-starring D.R.E.S. tha BEATnik. Before her Wisdom of the Cypher world premiere at the Loft at Center Stage, we talked about the questions her choice to rap after college provoked, how she reconciles the relationship between hip-hop and the U.S. government, and her hope for the future of the culture.
In one of your TED Talks, you said that early on you were criticized by other emcees for trying to feminize the cypher. How did you get started and was it a challenge to find your voice in hip-hop?
I just started doing it because I wanted to build my skills and I wanted to create a place where you can just go and be an artist. I saw rap as an art form and that was it. It was really simple. I went to Howard University in Washington D.C. And I had a professor who was a scholar that documented the Black Arts Movement, and I took two classes from him. He was the only person who supported my hip-hop [aspirations]. I had a professor and mentors, but he talked about how he rapped back in the day and how important it is for us to protect our culture and preserve our art form and to value them. He kind of made me feel not crazy. Other folks were like, “Why would you spend time doing that? Why would you take rap so seriously? It's just rap.” His affirmation put in perspective the whole oral tradition, that poetry tradition and storytelling tradition.
In that same TED Talk, you take the time to distinguish hip-hop from the stuff some people are used to hearing in commercial radio. Do you ever find yourself getting frustrated that that's even necessary?
You know, I used to get frustrated, and now I just see it as a necessary step. It's like, I'm so immersed in hip-hop music and culture, I live it and I breathe it, and I realize how many other people live it and breathe it. But very few of these people are in the mainstream media spotlight. So the public doesn't know. I'm an educator at heart. I'm an artist and a teacher at heart. Those are the two things I've always done. It's a teaching moment. I think there's so much work to do that I don't allow things like that to frustrate me anymore. A lot of people, when you break it down without judgment, they realize they don't know. People generalize about rap, but you don't know. All you've heard is what's on the radio. I like to be able to let people know they are relying on the mainstream radio station to define jazz for you. They don't define black history. You don't take their definition as truth, so why do you take it as true for hip-hop?
In some ways we tend to think of the relationship between hip-hop and the government as antagonistic or critical or suspicious on both ends. How did you come to be a cultural specialist for the U.S. State Department and did you initially grapple at all with how to reconcile the two?
The hip-hop diplomacy work began with a phone call. I had done a really successful program in Virginia around using rap ... for HIV prevention. And the guy who was the director of the cultural arts program recommended me; he had done diplomacy work in arts and literature. And so for me, being a hip-hop diplomat and a cultural diplomat [means that] I’m a part of the same tradition as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
On my first trip to Senegal, I remember they had a press conference, and the whole national press corps showed up. It was totally overwhelming and I wasn't prepared for it. But you know, I paid for college. I was a scholarship competitor. And growing up in the church, you learn how to give speeches. I can deal with a little pressure. But it taught me some very valuable lessons in terms of how influential black American culture is around the world. And how much power black Americans possess once they leave the U.S. in terms of being able to impact culture and trends. And that trip to Senegal really solidified for me why it was important for an artist of conscious, the hip-hop artist, to take on those kinds of roles as a citizen diplomat. Otherwise if we don't, who else is doing it? Who’s telling the world who we are?
So that's how I reconciled it. There's no perfect country, there's no perfect government, there's no government free of corruption. I understand the U.S. history is seriously flawed, and my people have suffered in the hands of government policy. I remember being in South Africa doing a tour. [And someone told me] that “we love you in Africa, you do such good work for children and our culture and people. But we are absolutely confused as to why you would represent the U.S.” And I had to break it down. My grandfather and great-grandfather helped build this country. The U.S. is not their country, it's my country, too. One of the challenges is, we don't take ownership for our space, and we don't make demands. That's also a big part of it. I have a right to speak. Hip-hop is my passion; it's my love. There's a lot more going on under the surface of hip hop diplomacy. Some of the biggest critics have little idea of how programs are run. They've never been on a tour or a trip. Never interviewed anyone who's made the trip.
What does happen on the trips?
It's actually really simple. Whether you're rapping or dancing, DJing or beatmaking, we do lectures, workshops, speak on panels, and perform with local artists and work with children. The artist residency might have a theme, like HIV prevention or literacy. And then you do the art around the theme.
So, Wisdom of the Cypher. This is the world premier. But it sounds like this is what you've been doing your whole career. What should we expect?
The show is a hip-hop theater production. What I do is I just go take cyphers and a bunch of rappers to come spit and freestyle. So, the cypher that you are basically participants in the workshop. This is not a performance, this is not a show, this is not a talent show. When you come to the cypher, you're coming to work out your skills. This is like going to the gym or a jam session. It's like rehearsal. There are no stars in the cypher. You come to build your skills. For me, the bigger focus is to get audience feedback on what stories to tell and how do I make it a teaching course without making it feel like a class. For me, you're right, this is my whole career.
My mission is to facilitate cyphers around the world, to have a global movement. Imagine if we had, like, 200 ... in every city? I don't care what kind of stories you tell, I don't care how hardcore or hood they are, but make 'em good! You know, kill that shit! Stop repeating what you heard on the radio. Preserve the oral tradition. If you want to change the minds and the hearts of the people, you have to create work that inspires art. And that provokes new ways of thinking. So that's what I've been working on, and there are other artists that I know have been working on the same thing.
Obviously, the lure of the music industry is money. Do you think that there can be a strong enough lure on the cultural side to impact the industry to produce a shift where the kind of work that you're doing bleeds over?
I know that there are artists out there who are just as passionate as me, but they think that they're the only ones. And there's some super-talented artists that believe the hype that, “If I don't walk around talking about hos, clothes, and money, then I'm not gonna be able to be successful.” My intention is to create a platform for artists, like a community of like minds so they can develop their confidence and creativity to be true to themselves. The first intention is not money. There are a lot of people who don't rap for money. They rap because they love to rap. They rap because they need to rap, because it makes them feel good. Rap has been so commodified that we believe the lie that the only valid rap is that made by those who make hundreds of dollars, and that's not true. There's a spirituality in the cypher. We need art. We need music. It helps us stay grounded. My concern is not the people who want to become rap stars. You should be able to rap with your granddaughter on your lap. The industry would have you believe that once you turn 27, you should put the mic down. You're too old. Whatever. I think it's important for our survival as a people.... We need it. It's our connection to the Source. We dismiss our brilliance in the culture, we just throw it away.
This is my life right now; I'm trying to get my idealism back that I had 10 years ago.
Wisdom of the Cypher. Toni Blackman feat. D.R.E.S. tha BEATnik. $20. 8 p.m., Sat., Aug. 2. 2:30 p.m., Sun., Aug. 3. The Loft at Center Stage, 1374 W. Peachtree St. 404-885-1365. www.centerstage-atlanta.com.
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