How Freestyle Rap Can Help Grieving Kids Heal

We’re excited to share with you Soul Food Cypher, an inspiring non-profit that leads workshops and performs freestyle rap and lyricism to transform individuals and communities. We were lucky enough to have Soul Food Cypher staff members visit Experience Camps in Pennsylvania to lead a workshop a couple summers ago, and they’re visiting our camp in Georgia this summer! Below, founder, Alex Acosta, shares more about their work and why it’s so meaningful working with kids.

First, we’ve got to ask: What’s the meaning behind Soul Food Cypher?

 There’s a lot that goes into our name, including the reference to Black-American soul food. A cypher is a community of rappers, beatboxers, and/or breakers in a circle making music together. Emcees (rappers) are sharing messages that are “food for the soul.” 

What is healing about the freestyle rapping that you’re teaching, and how is it different from song-writing, poetry-writing, etc.?

Freestyle rap is about expressing oneself in the moment. It’s a high ly skilled form of improvisation. I often share that freestyle rap is one of the greatest displays of faith. When a rapper is improvising on the spot, they must have the faith and confidence to know and trust themselves that what they are saying not only makes sense but also rhymes.

To listen to an emcee freestyle is also witnessing how an individual solves problems. It’s amazing to witness someone meet the moment and explore the limits of their thought and mind with rhyme. Additionally, every emcee has their own style, flavor, and voice. Each emcee approaches a beat differently, and this makes a cypher interesting because you never know what to expect.

What’s the most challenging aspect of the workshops for kids? 

The element of improvisation is often new and can be intimidating. Schools traditionally condition kids to find the “right” answer–but freestyling is about play with words and finding your answer. We strive to allow our students to break through boundaries, artistically but personally as well.

When you lead workshops for young people, do you find the majority tend to jump in or hold back at the start? 

Younger kids tend to jump in a bit quicker than pre-teens. I’ve actually been amazed at the new flows and approaches to rap that younger students have innately. They are so creative! Teens usually start off a little more reserved. They are more conscious of other people’s perceptions and thoughts. We’ve found that teens who have previous exposure and interest in rap and hip-hop culture dive very deep into our workshops. For others, this is their first experience of learning about the culture outside of entertainment.  

How do you break through to kids who are self-conscious about being vulnerable and putting themselves out there?

We meet the children where they are. Instead of forcing teens who are self conscious to freestyle, we build the cypher around discussing topics and allow them to add in non-rap ways. The cypher is a microcosm of our community. Like all communities, everyone has a part to play. We have various word games, and there are opportunities for feedback on the words, themes, and topics. Not to mention, there’s the opportunity for interaction through call and response and even ad-libs. Everyone helps make our cyphers complete.