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!]

Happy To Be Nappy

My hair is nappy, yeah, my hair is free/
I’m super proud of how it grows up out of me/
A lot of people, yeah, they wanna hate/
‘Cause they don’t know that nappy is what makes me great/

You see to tame out my crown, would be like taking it down/
So while I’m making these rounds, no need for sating these clowns/

I can construct it, yeah, in many shapes/
Although sometimes I got them beadies in my nape/
They’re my antennas, yeah, they’re my transistors/
Just like my brother’s and my sister’s and resistors/

People forget that DNA is curled up just like these coils/
The N-A-P’s of the OG’s are much more precious than oils/

They mine for mine, yeah, that melanation/
A pharmaceutical could never be replacement/
That’s why I’m happy, yep, just to be me/
My hair is nappy, yeah, my hair is free

Every hair that grows out of my head seemingly has a freestyle story of its own to tell. Some don’t live to tell their stories because of inevitable uprootings while detangling, some because of breakage. Some are WAY straighter than you would expect based on their direct neighbors. One day, some traitors will decide to change colors on me in my sleep (let’s hope that day is far away, although I know there’s one or two alien gentrifiers — greys — gathering intel up there right now).

The point is that the anti-gravitational, non-deterministic behavior of my hair (individually and collectively) exudes freestyle. Yours too, even if it’s not tightly coiled like mine. Looking at hair, and how it flows or bounces, sways or droops, rustles or silently wisps through the air, one can see evidence of life. The actual cross-section of a hair is fascinating if you’ve never seen one. It looks like a kaleidoscope image, and somewhat unlike most cells in the body. To imagine that each hair is just a physical kaleidoscope image projected into 3-dimensional space is a fun mental exercise.

The foundational structure from which freestyle expresses is always perceivable, even if it must be microscopic (or macroscopic). We just have to be able to understand that the output has just as much tacit structure built into it to make it all make sense. Coils exist in nature; it’s not as though my hair makes a bunch of right-angle turns, although I’d like to imagine there’s some dimension of reality where that is a thing and those folks have awesome styles.

So the output is understandable in naturalistic terms. Maybe it doesn’t always make *sense* but there’s rhyme and reason hidden in the unknown when you really bring out the magnifying glass and the sleuth getup. Locs? Sure. Or just a poof of magic; that works too! However you slice it, just don’t slice it off.

Tearing the colonialism out of my psyche to love the way my hair naturally grows, and seeing what kind of experiments I can do with it when I have space to freestyle it, is such a liberating experience that many people will never get to have. This is why I’m happy about it: because Joy can be gleaned from unlikely sources. And some of us have a duffel bag full of joy to discover once we decolonize our minds and set ourselves free.


An Analysis Of The Concept Of Freedom & Its Usage In Black Thought`s 2017 Funkmaster Flex Freestyle

free·dom /ˈfrēdəm/ noun

The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.

Constraints & barriers take many forms when working to identify where flexibility is/isn’t present in any given situation. More of than not, we find ourselves considering as many options as possible to not only maximize our return, but optimize the experience towards the return as well. All of this micro-calibration finds itself at home in the minds of those whom welcome dynamism with open arms whilst understanding the risks associated with falling short of the preset expectation.

A premiere example of this concept is characterized by the Recording Artist, Performing Artist, Poet, Author, & Activist Tariq Trotter, more notably Black Thought. There are dozens of excerpts that display Trotters’ will power & resolve to utilize the constraints presented to his advantage. It is in these excerpts where a deeper meaning can be extracted, reviewed, & processed in order to reach for a heightened perspective towards the approach being taken. In this post, I intend to touch on Trotters’ 10 minute 2017 Funkmaster Flex Freestyle & the ironic usage of the word “free” only once throughout the entire presentation.

“I’m not crawlin’, I’m a free man like Morgan, seeing manhood in the hood is a damn good bargain”

Whilst being mesmerized by the sheer capability of ones mind to execute such a display of skill, 8:05 seconds timestamp the first (& only) use of the word “free”. Not only is the explicit use of the word within the context of the high-level presentation make it interesting, but it is also the frequency at which it was used, the effort being put forth, & the cost/benefit analysis. When unpacking the freedom of ones style, accessibility comes to mind. When a concept, information, product, or expression becomes accessible by anyone, it can being to undergo multiple mutations & transitions, keeping the ideological cost low. This enables a free input to translate to a free output when expressed from an individuals unique perspective.

The limiting variable here is the individuals ability to compile, process, & execute these resources to inject quality control into the output. Thus creating different levels of output from what was once the same input. Trotter finds himself well within his comfort zone as he takes a tangible, accessible, & economical resource known as Hip-Hop & provides his iteration based on the information he has at his disposal. Topics ranging from war, politics, domestic mismanagement, personal drive, uncertainty, & hope (to name a few of the several) become valuable components that the listener can draw a deeper basis of understanding from. Not only are the words being used free to access, but the platform where the freestyle is being viewed is free to access as well, alongside the free replay value as well. The Cost/Benefit ratio here is incredibly high, thanks to the senders resolve to focus on the accessibility of the entire package as a whole. Overall, Thought could have gone any direction previously traversed by any artist when the DJ queued up the instrumental, however it is the MCs’ unique resolve that makes a highly accessible narrative truly priceless.

Style Is Free.
Cost Represents Dominion.
& Therefore Freedom Is Priceless.

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!]

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.