June 2020

Better Living through Freestyle

Okay, I’ve gotta pick it up from my last post myself: Understanding that LIFE IS A FREESTYLE is based on Cycle, rather than Path, means that this metaphor isn’t going to help you get from point A to point B.

The view of life here is that of recurrences: natural cycles like days and years; the cycle of the week with work days and a weekend; cycles within a day such as preparing a meal, eating it, and cleaning up or taking your dog for a walk. Part of the insight here comes from the first comment dropped on our blog, comparing rap freestyling to improvisational cooking. Like many cycles (such as that of day and night), cooking has its build-up and release, getting the ingredients together, heating the oven or skillet, applying that heat to transform the food from its raw state, and putting it on a plate. But it isn’t like a grand journey, where you complete it and you’re done. You need to eat again—the cycle continues.

The FREESTYLE that I’ll talk about here draws on both common understandings of freestyle in rap: The idea that it’s a rapper’s own, unconstrained style, and the idea that it’s spontaneous or off the top. The LIFE that I’ll discuss is a human lifetime that has cycles of recurrence within it.

Here are my mappings:

The freestyler is a person living their life.

The context of freestyling (for instance a cypher) corresponds to the context of life. An entailment of this is that because freestyling is social, relying on listening to others as well as putting out words, life is this way, too.

The indefinite length of a freestyle maps to the indefinite length of a life.

The freestyler’s ability to deviate in beautiful ways from form, tradition, and expectation maps to a person’s ability to do the same as they live their lives.

The beat to which a freestyler raps maps to the progress of time during our lives, which like the beat is external to us and not directly under our control.

A beat provided by a beatboxer* or by a DJ* who extends a breakbeat indefinitely maps to some unit of time we can control with the help of others: The duration of a project we and others decide to work on, for instance.

A beat provided by a track or playlist, or by a DJ who is antagonistically changing up the beat, maps to some unit of time we cannot directly control, such as a week or a schedule imposed on us.

A verse (or one single run of bars) maps to a higher-level cycle of accomplishment, with build-up and release, within life. For instance, a whole project or a year with plans and resolutions.

A bar (or a pair of rhyming bars) maps to a lower-level cycle of accomplishment, with build-up and release, within one of life’s higher-level cycles. For instance, a day if the larger framework is a monthlong project, or a month if the larger framework is a year.

Dropping a gem* maps to a particularly successful lower-level cycle. If this recurring part of your life is cooking a meal, you cooked a really awesome meal this time!

Reading the room* and figuring out what types of topic matter, tone, flow, and rhymes will be best appreciated by the people around you maps to our contextual and situational awareness in life.

Keeping the dice rolling,* even if some rhymes are better and some worse, maps to persisting through life’s cycles and routines, even though each day (for instance) may not be equally good.

Blacking out* maps to having a powerful intuition about how to live your life, moment to moment, that allows you to take ethical and effective actions without thinking about it.

* These of course are all their own metaphors! Actually if you go deep enough, even “verse” and “bar” probably have a metaphorical basis. More on all of that later…

Finally, handing the mic (almost never literally!) and letting someone else freestyle—but also asking someone else to freestyle—maps to generously listening to others in life, but also to asking someone else to help out during the next low-level cycle, to participate in that social process of life. I told you what I think, what do you think? I cooked us dinner last night; will you do it tonight? I wrote a blog post today—will you write one tomorrow?

[Cycles in the night sky photo by Patrick McManaman on Unsplash, thank you!]

Cycles within Cycles

Underlying the very common metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY is one particular image schema, that of the Path. Life has an initial state, a desired final state, and consists of a sequence of action in which the person progresses from the former to the latter. This schema is described in detail by Mark Johnson in his 1987 book The Body in the Mind, who writes that it “is (a) pervasive in experience, (b) well-understood because it is pervasive, (c) well-structured, (d) simply structured.” We have all had direct experience of Path, even when we were babies crawling toward something that caught our eyes. This allows us to develop a conceptual metaphor that is built on this image schema: LIFE IS A JOURNEY, which you can see broken down for you on the MetaNet Metaphor Wiki. This representation doesn’t emphasize how essential the Path image schema is, but everything there on that page is consistent with that. In this formulation of the metaphor, your main life goal is the overall destination of the journey. Your short-term goals are stops along the way. Life companions are companions on the journey, and so on.

The MetaNet Metaphor Wiki doesn’t yet have an entry for LIFE IS A FREESTYLE, the metaphor we are developing here. Before we get to filling in each of the specific mappings, we should ask what image schema is the basis for LIFE IS A FREESTYLE. Let me throw this out there: Perhaps it’s not Path, but another very pervasive image schema that Johnson discusses, Cycle. He writes, “a cycle is a temporal circle. The cycle begins with some initial state, proceeds through a sequence of connected events, and ends where it began, to start anew the recurring cyclic pattern.” The seasons, the week, and the day are examples of course, but also: “We come into existence as the culmination of a reproductive cycle … We experience our world and everything in it as embedded within cyclical processes.” Johnson also notes that cycles are not simple circles, but have patterns of “build-up and release.”

It’s no accident that freestyling often occurs in a spatial circle, a cypher, which supports temporal cycles within temporal cycles, some overlapping. A rapper jumps in to begin an improvisational process, not heading toward a grand goal but repeating the fine-grained cycles of bars and rhymes and reveling in them for a while. Then a higher-level cycle is complete as she passes the popcorn to someone else who is ready to spit. Some beats are being produced, sometimes by beat boxers whose rhythmic cycles are the same as the rappers, sometimes by a playlist that proceeds on its own way. The point is not to have a far-off destination, but to get in sync with others in the circle and better appreciate the many cycles of life — I think! You tell me. Here’s the mic.

A Life of Freedom

bluethegreat panting a mural for Juneteenth 2020

We live in very interesting times to be a person whose people did not always have freedom and agency. Celebrating Juneteenth in 2020 is bittersweet, considering it’s still not an official national holiday in the United States. We celebrate Juneteenth annually on June 19th to commemorate the official Declaration of Independence to enslaved people of African descent (reluctantly, by their captors and slavers, and most notably, the very government originally claiming ‘freedom’ in 1776). But many descendants of those freed people still suffer, and by now it’s well-documented.

That said, let’s discuss freedom of lifestyle. Perhaps ‘FREE’ IS A LIFESTYLE. Living with freedom means not being afraid to be one’s self. Constraints have been regular for black people all across the world for hundreds of years. When we as poets and rappers have constraints on our work (which, in many cases, is our very livelihoods), we have to be creative about fitting our styles into those constraints. Generally, in living through the freestyle of life, there are definitely creative parallels with the everyday process of an artist of social justice, but the circumstances of those life constraints are generally more dire and subjugating than simplistic artistic ones.

When a person has to second-guess most of their public actions and interactions, there’s no opportunity to explore the fringes of one’s expression. This is an inhumane situation that no one should have to live through. Creative expression of life has given the world a more complete view of what life is, and what it means to be human. We all benefit from extending the limits and methodologies of our expression.

Expression that differs from the norms and mores of society can be openly and lovingly debated, with learning being an outcome on both sides of the debate. Incidentally, this idea begs a few questions for me: do those who oppress even know that they’re limiting the extent of human expression with their imposed societal constraints? Do they care? Is it out of fear of what might happen if everybody had an equal standing in society? For many people celebrating freedom on Juneteenth, LIFE IS A PRISON STYLE. Or at least it has been for insanely too long.

Today, with all of the aforementioned turmoil boiling over into the streets (literally, even), black people are doing what we’ve always done: taking scraps (an unofficial holiday) and magically converting them into something that can serve us. Today, black lives begin the tradition of having our oft-mentioned ‘cookouts,’ to which our non-black brethren may or may not be invited, depending on terms and conditions defined internally. Ironically, the organization of such things is where you’ll find some of the greatest expression. Spiritual, creative, social, personal, entrepreneurial, and otherwise cultural lifestyles are the order of the day, because 2020 has been a perfect storm of conditions to break the social chains of living in a world built against you. Pressure busts pipes and makes diamonds.

Shout out to Afropunk, Essence Fest, Black Expos, and other mass gatherings of black expression around the United States for providing countless examples throughout the decades. But the time has come for us to get a national holiday so that we can reserve a nationwide consciousness for the importance of free living. If you would like to contribute to the petition for a national holiday for Juneteenth, the celebration of black people getting their [kinda] freedom 155 years ago, click this link to go to Change.org and have your vote counted. Also shout out to artist @bluethegreat for his amazing mural in the lead image of this post.

Until then, I guess we should do our best to stay healthy, in whichever ways work for our bodies. So, while mass gatherings might not be the wave right now, perhaps digital spaces for these types of important large-scale celebrations need to start popping up. Owned by black people, of course.

Reading the Room

A woman hiding in a hoodie, photo by Talen de St. Croix on Unsplash

When it comes to freestyle, reading the room is an essential practice. It’s a form of situational awareness that greatly affects maneuverability as an emcee and as a man. As I enter certain establishments and situations, I instinctively analyze the environment because this will determine the actions that follow.

For example, when at a restaurant, will I be more comfortable being stared at inside while I wait for my food or will I be better off just waiting outside? Can I touch the miscellaneous items left around for customer engagement or should I stand there anxious and inactive just so they won’t think I’ll steal? When waiting in line and an older white woman cuts in front of me should I say something? Will the combination of my irritation and vernacular come off as ghetto? Will I be another example of why they don’t like people like me? Do I just let it slide? Even though people like me have been letting it slide for centuries? Which version of me am I allowed to be at this moment? The version with a bachelor’s degree that speaks to White people like I grew up in THEIR neighborhood? Or the version that doesn’t mention a degree because it shouldn’t matter if I have one for you to treat me with respect? When we protest and see an excessive use of force by those sworn to protect and serve, can I help de-escalate the situation? Will I be handcuffed and paraded down the street or will I never see my son again? The answers elude me.

Life is indeed a freestyle, but who says that freestyling is easy? Freedom is a luxury that everyone isn’t allotted. Every moment is layered with decisions. What kind of decisions do we need to make to really be free?

[Photo by Talen de St. Croix on Unsplash, thank you!]

Black Lives Matter

Protest, Photo by Chris Henry on Unsplash

Freestyling is for everyone, and provides a way to think and speak flexibly. In rap, it’s essential to acknowledge these two things: (1) anyone can and should freestyle, and (2) the liberating and powerful practice of freestyling was brought into the world by African-Americans, specific creative human beings in the Bronx and Harlem in the 1970s, who developed hip hop and rap as we now understand it.

You can’t freestyle if you can’t breathe. To understand your life as a freestyle and use this metaphor to improve it, you need to be allowed to live. It’s now 65 years after the Civil Rights Movement started in the US and blacks continue to be subject to constant, systemic racism. And senseless killings continue, constantly. Just to once again remember three instances from the past four months:

  • Ahmaud Arbery, going jogging near his home in Brunsick, Georgia as he often did and of course unarmed, was chased down by three men and shot to death on February 23.
  • Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician, was shot to death on March 13 in Louisville in her own home by three police officers who entered while she was sleeping.
  • George Floyd, handcuffed, in police custody, not resisting, and lying prone on the street, was killed by a police officer in public in Minneapolis on May 25 while three other officers stood by.

Since freestyling is about voice, and about the ability to think and speak freely, it is very appropriate for those undertaking this practice, or even inspired by it, to speak the names of our neighbors and American family whose freedoms have been crushed in this ultimate way. There’s an even simpler way to start using your freestyling voice in support of freedom. Say, loudly and in public, the name of the human rights movement that started seven years ago and that aims to end racial profiling, police brutality, and mass incarceration — Black Lives Matter.

[Philadelphia protest photo by Chris Henry on Unsplash, thank you!]