Conceptual

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 that 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.

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.

A Modern Global Pandemic: The Turning Point?

sun peeking from behind cloud

It’s possible that this is a once in a lifetime scenario we’re in today, with the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the planet. Perhaps what it’s ‘sweeping’ is our complacency with the way the world we’ve built together (but mostly at the whims of dictators and capitalists) operates. Clearly this is not advanced civilization if a disease such as this can do so much damage in so many disparate places, but it’s got it’s shining moments. Underneath it all is a self-correcting mechanism that has begun–likely sometime around 2012, and well before this new coronavirus.

We were apparently warned by the ancient Mayans that the world was going to end around what we called ‘2012,’ but of course that number was agreed upon for nefarious reasons I won’t waste your time with here. But even since 2000 with the Y2K crisis, we’ve seen swells of political unrest, dramatic climate change, social adaptation to digital methodologies, and many other phenomena that we could list under the category of ‘the end of the world as we know it.’ Some people may think that the ‘end of the world’ means that the planet would be hit by some kind of space object or that somehow things would just blow up. Still, more see biblical apocalyptic scenarios with winged, horned, red demons with pitchforks swarming the countryside, slinging fire and brimstone. However, while we’re still here, and it’s not quite Armageddon (the movie or the prophecy) outside, we have a unique opportunity to shift the arrow (or, since I’m a rapper, Turn the Point) of human progress away from the fear, despair, and doubt about our future.

A magnifying glass has been placed over so many aspects of society in the last decade–but especially during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown–that some long-awaited, severely painful healing processes are beginning to happen now on a personal level, a social level, and even all the way up to a civilization level. Our collective existence is a little too easily threatened for MY personal liking, but regardless, human beings have shown that we’re capable of unifying against a common threat. We may not know exactly how we’re going to get through the next 10-50 years together knowing that we were almost wiped out by a lack of pandemic preparedness, but I’m confident that there are enough people formulating and activating better systems, infrastructure, and plans for the future despite the shade of this dark cloud of negligence currently hovering over our livelihood as a species.

As it’s been alluded to before, one of the missions that the team here at LIFE IS A FREESTYLE wants to strive to achieve is the mental flexibility to problem solve in situations when it seems like all is lost. And if there’s anytime to test out your mental flexibility, it’s at a time like this when social distancing, raging debates over the validity of pandemic vaccination, and political absurdity is the new norm. Constraints are only filters of expression. Now is the time to peek behind the veil of constraint and see what one’s true makeup consists of. Many people are hitting the reset button on the lives they once led, whether it be because they’ve lost their previous jobs, or because technology is allowing them to learn a new skill while at home, or because they are beginning to reassess what their choices really are in the grand scheme of things.

As long as our freestyles are coming from a place of love, we just might be okay after all.

Be Water

Bruce Lee statue in Hong Kong, CC BY-SA 2.0 photo by Benson Kua

Today I found out that in June, ESPN will air a 30 for 30 episode on Bruce Lee, highlighting his philosophy on what it means to have a fighting style. Its title, Be Water encompasses the foremost concepts of Bruce Lee’s teachings, which is to be adaptable — in fighting and life. Adaptability is, of course, crucial to off-the-top freestyle rapping, and thus his message and methods are compatible with LIFE IS A FREESTYLE.


Bruce Lee is known mostly as the actor who spawned the popular kung-fu movie genre, but he was first a freestyle fighter and a student of philosophy who preached the usefulness of freestyle concepts into everyday life. Ironically, his teachings, called “Jeet Kune Do” (meaning “Way of the Intercepting Fist”), are often mistaken as his style of fighting, rather than his intended prescription for living. Certainly, Bruce Lee was a fighter. But for him, LIFE IS A FIGHT, and he taught that the best approach to dealing with its challenges and unknowns was to be adaptable, to be style-free; something that traditional martial arts, with its memorized forms and patterns could not offer. As he says in his book, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do:


“Jeet Kune Do is the art not founded on techniques or doctrine. It is just as you are… (it) is not to hurt, but is one of the avenues through which life opens its secrets to us. We can see through others only when we can see through ourselves and Jeet Kune Do is a step toward knowing oneself.”


He felt in in martial arts that one should not use a certain style of punch or kick if it is not useful them — but to do this one has to find out for themselves what is useful. Ultimately in his teachings, one has to know oneself to successfully make it through a fight, and through life.


For Bruce Lee, freestyle was a way to deal with life. But it was also life itself. From Tao of Jeet Kune Do:


“Truth has no path. Truth is living and, therefore, changing. It has no resting place, no form, no organized institution, no philosophy. When you see that, you will understand that this living thing is also what you are. You cannot express and be alive through static, put-together form, through stylized movement.”


For a freestyle rapper or battler, or for anyone looking for useful insights on life, there is no shortage in his book. Also, check out his 30 for 30, coming out in June.

[Bruce Lee statue in Hong Kong, CC BY-SA 2.0 photo by Benson Kua, thank you!]

They’re All Perfect…

Most expert freestylers will agree that their expert status came through learning. They weren’t born with the ability to drop bars on the fly — they developed the craft over time through practice and study. If life is a freestyle, then certainly learning must play a crucial role in freestyle, because learning is crucial to life. This begs the question what changes take place in us as we develop freestyle skills? A recent study published in Neuropsychologia begins to answer that question.

Dr. Keith Cross, a professor of Multilingual and Multicultural Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, also known as Doctabarz, recently published a paper on the aesthetic judgement and neurophysiological processing of rhymes in expert freestyle lyricists. When compared to non-lyricists, he found that although both groups performed identically in their ability to judge whether rhymes were perfect (i.e. sleet vs. sheet) or non-perfect (i.e. sleet vs. sleek), expert lyricists were twice as likely to “like” non-perfect rhymes. He also found that using an electrophysiological measure called “contingent negative variation” (or CNV for short), freestyle lyricists use similar neurophysiological processes when determining their phonological and aesthetic properties. Non-lyricists, on the other hand, processed these tasks quite differently. 

Taken together these findings are interesting because it suggests that expert freestylers use similar cognitive processes when judging technical perfection and artistic validity. While behaviorally their ability to judge the technical perfection of a rhyme is no different from non-lyricists, perfection and validity are less distinct in their brains. Non-lyricists, however, have two distinct processes when making these judgments. 

To put it more practically, I think it’s evidence that through honing the freestyle craft, one learns to find the beauty in the non-perfect. And this makes sense — non-perfect rhymes are prevalent in freestyle, and the trained ear appreciates them no less. Just as in life when things are seemingly not perfect, sometimes it takes some learning to recognize the worth of what is there.

You can find Doctabarz’ music and freestyle journal on Instagram @doctabarz.

[The “Tank Brain” photo is by n0cturbulous and licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, thank you!]

Variables

The art of freestyle comes in many forms, some being more free form than others. A common misconception of the average rap listener is what they define “freestyle” to be, some assume that it can only be “off the top” meaning the rapper is coming up with words, subject matter, flows and delivery on the spot with no prior structure to the piece. This leads the listeners to skew the scale in terms of what they consider to be a good freestyle, often mistaking written verses as off the top. Although freestyling off the top is considered to be the highest form of freestyle, kicking a written verse still comes with its challenges and shouldn’t be discredited for what it is.

In a controlled situation for example, a radio show freestyle, the rapper is usually aware that they will be asked to perform the feat, they might even be aware of the exact beat or instrumental that they’ll be rapping on. This allows the rapper to prepare beforehand for the variables he or she has control over. However, this in itself comes with its own set of obstacles, the rapper has to adjust his performance based on the microphone and space being performed in, there also may be added pressure if the show is live on the air. Rather than being comfortable at home or in the studio with numerous takes the rapper is now facing a constraint that is more so make it or break it. In the classic situation of a “cypher” which is where a group of rappers freestyle, the pressure is usually exerted by the other rappers, whether or not it’s considered to be for fun, the competitive nature of rap and freestyle pushes the rappers to do their best to outwit and outdo the rest of the competition. This adds the variable for sudden change in the mix, for instance, the rapper could have a number of verses floating around in the back of their head, and based on the prior verses rapped, the rapper can adjust and choose to rap a different verse than he had already planned for.

Freestyling is the art of adaptation and in every instance of freestyle, the ability to adjust to circumstances and variables in the moment is a fundamental necessity that every person must deem crucial to the success of their performance.

[Photo of the man with the mic by Harry Swales on Unsplash, thank you!]

Off the Top

Over the years, the definition of freestyle has varied in the Hip Hop community. Originally, freestyles were written rhymes meant to showcase skill, but they lacked any real thesis; they don’t need a particular subject matter. This view is closest to its denotative meaning. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “a competition in which the contestant is given more latitude than in related events.” This definition is often used in sporting events which have a variety of categories, such as BMX, swimming, or dancing. If we look at rap as a competitive sport, let’s say swimming, a love song could be a breaststroke and a song of triumph could be a butterfly-stroke. Freestyling would be the only competition that gives to you the freedom to utilize both styles or something else entirely.

Today’s definition of freestyle has a new connotation. It represents the idea of spontaneity and inventiveness. Some say that it’s only a “true” freestyle if it’s improvised on the spot, much like Jazz. In this way, freestyle is often prevalent in our everyday lives. Walking the unbeaten path, answering interview questions, “going with the flow”, an “off the top” rhyme, and last minute decisions are just a few ways to freestyle. A series of random reactions can be deemed a freestyle, but it is also something that can be developed into a skill, with practice. Everyday we face a mixture of both calculated and random events, how we weave through these situations can define us. You can flow with it or against it. Either way, life is a freestyle.

[Photo of “Cypher from Scratch” in Antwerp, Belgium by ChaseMusicBE, licensed under CC BY 2.0, 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!]