context

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!]

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!]

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!]