Toni Blackman has a long and impressive history in both hip-hop and cultural diplomacy. As a respected emcee (rapper), educator, writer, world traveler and spoken word artist, she has contributed her artistic talents to numerous projects, including past fellowships at the Echoing Green Foundation and the Open Society Institute, as well as Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rhythm Road program. Her work as the founding director of Freestyle Union – a workshop that uses collective freestyling (improvisational rhyming) to build community and promote social change – ultimately led to her being appointed as the U.S. State Department’s first Hip-Hop Cultural Envoy.
Her current projects include research sponsored by the Harvard University Hip-Hop Archive on hip-hop’s relationship to the West African Griot tradition, and the release of her second book, Wisdom of the Cypher, which explores the political and spiritual potential of the “cypher,” the circle of participants in which many hip-hop performances take place. A true multimedia artist, she is also preparing the first volume of her Meditational Mixtape series of recordings.
In anticipation of her return to Senegal in January 2015 as a member of the Next Level Team, she took time out from these activities to talk about cultural diplomacy, hip-hop, and the healing power of the cypher.
In your opinion, what does hip-hop have to offer cultural diplomacy?
Hip-hop has an innate spiritual consciousness to it, because it is rooted in service and love and giving. And so wherever you go in the world, you will find this common theme: That hip-hop heads teach and tutor children. That hip-hop heads tend to be people of conscience and activists. That hip-hop heads read books and they share information. Hip-hop helps us to define our identity, and through doing that, it helps us to strengthen relationships with other people. And strengthen relationships with communities of people, with younger generations, and with other countries. It’s a powerful tool for building bridges and for building repoire.
What specifically does Next Level bring to the table as far as hip-hop diplomacy is concerned?
The brilliance of Next Level is in creating teams of hip-hop artists, so that the teams are combinations of the dancer, the producer, the DJ and the MC. And I think there’s something very smart about that because a lot of times it leans towards the deejay and turntablism, or it’s only dance, or only rhyming; it doesn’t include anything around production or understanding music. So it’s really important to provide the space for participants to see all of the elements. Because it’s very difficult to do just one of those things, and to extend yourself out to other things being connected to it. So it’s possible to do that by yourself, but it’s much easier when you’re able to work together with other artists.
And I think one of the failings of hip-hop culture is that it has allowed corporatization and the commodification of the culture to tell us what hip-hop should be. And to allow “the powers that be” to tell us what we were going to do next, which has lead to a lot of fragmentation. For years and years and years, a hip-hop event in the U.S. meant a rap concert, where the majority of the cats actually don’t know anything about deejaying or the other elements. There’s just like all these separate pieces. So one of the things that I love about going to other countries is that you have all of the elements at a hip-hop event. Our culture has survived, and part of that is because it’s global. It became a global phenomenon. International hip-hop kept hip-hop culture on life support, and it kept it breathing. And so it remains alive.
And now in this era we’re living in, where there’s economic crises, political crises, natural disasters – everything that’s going on – it’s very natural for human beings to want to find relief, and relief often comes through creative expression. And you don’t need a lot of equipment to do a lot of things in hip-hop. And you can also do it with a small group. You don’t need an orchestra or a marching band. And you can create!
That’s the essence of the cypher. In the cypher, all you need is your body and your voice. You show up. You don’t even need beats, you can make the music with your mouth. And that’s why I’m such an advocate of holding the cypher as a space for healing. Because it’s a space to let go, it’s a space to release stress. It’s to commune in fellowship with other people. And to basically feel better about ourselves. And when we feel better about ourselves, we feel better about the world. We think and behave differently. We treat others differently. Imagine if we had cyphers in congress, we might be better off as a country!
So this leads to your forthcoming book, Wisdom of the Cypher. On the most basic level, the “cypher” is simply a space for hip-hop performance. But you have found that the cypher environment opens up potential for personal and collective development. How do you address this in the book?
The content of the book is basically things I learned from running cyphers that people can apply to their every day lives. So basically from the mind of an MC: “Battle yourself, you are your own worst enemy.” “Don’t diminish your light.” “Focus on getting open.” “Surrender to the groove.” And then I have explanations for how that applies to our general lives. So it’s an inspirational book, through the lens of hip-hop.
For more information about Toni Blackman’s recordings, performances and books, visit her website, www.toniblackman.com