Doc Mofo

An MC who is also an experimental poet and a practitioner of the computational arts.

Freestyle and Building the Future

Hip Hop Architecture Camp

I argued back at the end of June that LIFE IS A FREESTYLE was not just a tagline, but was the name for a serious and detailed conceptual metaphor. Also, I gave some examples of how it can help people understand and live life better. A freestyler is aware to context, reading the room and responding to others, and someone who lives life according to this metaphor will be. A freestyler is able to deal with it when the beat changes, and someone who lives life according to this metaphor will be able to do so, too. This is not just an offhand and trivial idea. It means that when the context and the “beat” (rhythms of life) change radically because of something like the COVID-19 pandemic, a person able to freestyle, and able to apply that skill to life, will be better able to adapt and keep up a positive flow. In a situation like this, the metaphor provides more than the common idea LIFE IS A JOURNEY does. Being able to freestyle as you live your life can mean the difference between personal happiness and progress on the one hand, or stagnation and “choking” on the other.

But let’s consider what that means on a grander scale, beyond an individual life. Can freestyle, and this metaphor, help us deal with 400 years of racial catastrophe in the United States and a president who refuses to clearly denounce white supremacy? With climate change and a president who has decided to withdraw from a major agreement to work against it? With a possible constitutional crisis if a leader of a major democracy refuses to give up power, even if defeated in an election? In other words, is LIFE IS A FREESTYLE just an individual coping strategy, or can it actually help us confront major issues in life and work toward a better future?

There are two answers to this, as I see it.

First, even if LIFE IS A FREESTYLE does just add to our capabilities to deal with crises on an individual, family, and work level, as when COVID-19 disrupts our contexts and rhythms, that can still be pretty important. It can be a very useful complement to other metaphors. We use several conceptual metaphors together to understand very challenging target domains, such as LIFE. So we could bring in LIFE IS A FREESTYLE to give us some perspective that LIFE IS A JOURNEY or LIFE IS AN UNWRITTEN BOOK doesn’t offer. Those metaphors don’t highlight social context or the rhythms and cycles of life in the same way and may not be able to offer us the same personal help.

Second, it seems like there is more to LIFE IS A FREESTYLE. We can, if we choose, freestyle (in the “off the top” sense) as a way of beginning to compose verses. We can use a freestyle (in the sense of “goes all over the place”) as a way of exploring metaphor, allusion, and the musicality of language. We can learn from what we freestyle rather than just letting it be something in the moment. Eventually, we can build on that. If we think that LIFE IS DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION, or maybe LIFE IS COLLABORATIVE DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION, we can think of freestyle as a way to perform brainstorming, to intensely generate ideas. This process in design and architecture is called a charette, as was discussed by Mike Ford of Hip Hop Architecture in a recent Freestyle Friday.

The brainstorming is only part of the process of design. In creative writing terms, you follow a cycle (as Mike Sharples describes it) that goes through “engagement” and “reflection” repeatedly. First brainstorm, then be critical and revise and pare down, and then do it again and again. Wash, rinse, and repeat. In this way, you can use the freestyling process to develop something organized, honed, and highly effective.

To deal with the all the challenges of life today—not just the disruption of the pandemic, but also racial injustice, climate change, even the potential crumbling of democracy—we need to do more than freestyle a response and freestyle our way through life. We need to organize. We need to design solutions. We need to strategize beyond the next bar. LIFE IS A FREESTYLE is not the one absolute ruler of our concepts, some sort of dictator metaphor. It’s a contributor to the community of thought, one that can be useful if it’s taken seriously. It works alongside other metaphors that also have their uses and that highlight other important things about life.

[Photo of Hip Hop Architecture Camp by Urban Arts Collective, thank you!]

Rapping in the Shower

rappin in the shower keeps you clean/
you do it a capella, no drum machine/
the words are not written they are unseen/
just go with the flow let it mean what it means

Sometimes you don’t have other people to freestyle with—maybe you’re taking a shower, or maybe you’re in some situation where you expected a full circle, but it ends up being just you. Since a lot of freestyling is about the social context of the activity, responding to others and handing it off to them, is there any point to freestyling by yourself?

I say yes, and not just because it could be a type of training and make you better at freestyling when you do get into a group.

My much-missed colleague Prof. Patrick Winston, a computer scientist who died last year, worked to advance artificial intelligence and was also devoted to improving himself and others as public speakers. It was particularly special to me to hear his final public talk, and to let him know by email how much I enjoyed it in my last message to him. The insight I’m going to relate isn’t about public speaking, though, or about presenting results. It’s about speaking as you try to work something out.

Patrick said that the best way to solve problems was by talking to other people. If there aren’t any around, though, it’s a good idea to talk to yourself.

In programming, there’s even a name for talking to yourself about the code you’re writing: rubber duck debugging, where instead of going and asking a senior programmer about a problem, you carefully describe the problem to a rubber duck, perhaps one that you keep on your desk for this purpose. During the process of describing the problem carefully, you often are able to solve it, all by yourself.

Of course, I’m not claiming that LIFE IS COMPUTER PROGRAMMING. I would be interested to learn what exactly that metaphor is, but if the mappings are what I imagine, I think it has more than a few problems! Still, the basic insight is that you do learn from talking (or writing) to yourself. People who keep an entirely private diary demonstrate this all the time.

To put it in terms of the LIFE IS A FREESTYLE metaphor:

The freestyler who engages socially is able to learn from others and up their game. This maps to a person, living life, who collaborates, listening and responding to others, and as a result learns and improves.

Ideally, the social freestyler helps others up their game as well. This maps to a person, living life, who collaborates and helps others improve.

The freestyler who doesn’t have a social opportunity is still better freestyling than doing nothing. They can come up with rhymes and twists to metaphors that give them insights and provide beauty, even if they don’t take those directly, or even indirectly, to a stage or a cypher. This maps to a person, living life, who speaks out loud (alone) or writes (privately), using this external language to improve their lives.

I see this as consistent with the mappings I presented in the last post, including the ones related to cycles. But you tell me!

[will.i.am & Prof. Patrick Henry Winston in MIT’s Lobby 7, 2010.]

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.

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!]

Life is a Freestyle, and not…

We have a metaphor for you: LIFE IS A FREESTYLE.

This is a conceptual metaphor of the sort discussed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By, and by Lakoff and Mark Turner in More than Cool Reason, which deals with poetic metaphor.

LIFE IS A FREESTYLE is just the name for it. There’s much more to how specifically this lets us understand the target domain, LIFE, in terms of the source domain, FREESTYLE rapping — which is actually more than one practice.

Imagining that LIFE IS A FREESTYLE can help us deal with difficult experiences, times when we don’t have a script, circumstances when the best response isn’t closely adhering to a theme or trying to devise a single coherent story.

Before we get on to saying some about what LIFE IS A FREESTYLE means, here, on behalf of Full Circle, are a few things that is isn’t:

LIFE IS A JOURNEY is a famous metaphor discussed in both Metaphors We Live By and More than Cool Reason — and in other writings by scholars of metaphor. Part of the idea is that you start your journey at a SOURCE, follow a PATH, and end up at a GOAL. You cover ground. You may or may not have traveling companions; they’re optional. This metaphor may not be inconsistent with LIFE IS A FREESTYLE, but we’ll go on to explain how it isn’t exactly the same, and how we believe our metaphor has some different, positive perspectives to offer.

Our metaphor isn’t LIFE IS A WRITTEN, which would means things are predestined, either by you or your ghostwriter. Similarly, it isn’t LIFE IS AN ALBUM.

It doesn’t see life as constraint, or hold with LIFE IS A BOX or LIFE IS A CHOKEHOLD.

The metaphor doesn’t come down from above like LIFE IS A COMMANDMENT or LIFE IS FATE.

It doesn’t mean the same thing as LIFE IS A PERFORMANCE ON TOUR or LIFE IS A REHEARSAL FOR A PERFORMANCE.

It isn’t compatible with life being perfect, programmed, completely prepared, or even always practical. And even one of my favorite metaphors, LIFE IS AN UNWRITTEN BOOK, is not the same as LIFE IS A FREESTYLE, because a freestyle doesn’t have to be book-length or written.

[Mic photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash, thank you!]