freedom

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!]

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!]