By Katrice L. Mines
Soul Food Cypher utilizes the power of speech to transform the lives of individuals and their communities. Founded by Alex “Cost One” Acosta, the organization showcases the positive aspects of rap through its cypher events, membership program, and community outreach to provide Atlanta’s lyricist (rappers) community with a nurturing environment where their voices and artistry can grow. In addition, SFC looks to solidify the art of freestyling as a genuine aesthetic to the wider artistic community and carry this rich tradition to the next generation. Acosta, for his vision, has been selected as a fellow in the Center for Civic Innovation program.
The Center for Civic Innovation launched the Civic Innovation Fellowship, a leadership and business development program for social entrepreneurs in Atlanta, to support individuals with innovative, outcome-driven ideas to tackle social challenges in Atlanta. Acosta is one such innovator and SFC is set to challenge the city’s social challenges.
A community, the cypher is a place where lyricists, under the guidance of meter and rhyme, share stories, exchange knowledge and speak freely. To add to the spirit of camaraderie and display of skill, cyphers consist of a series of exercises which test an emcee’s ability of teamwork, mental agility, and creativity. Writing assignments also make up a big part of the program, which challenges lyricists’ writing techniques and encourages exploring content outside of their comfort zone to present to their audiences. The membership-oriented SFC offers participants the forum to gain knowledge, experience, and eventually become experts in the fields of multimedia, business operation and event coordination.
SFC understands the importance of the individuals’ role in transforming their community. In recent years, organizers have noted a growing gap in education, local activities, and after- school programs for inner-city and at-risk youth in Atlanta. One of its aims is to diminish this gap and lack of attention to the youths’ needs by current community programming and by offering workshops which can be designed to fit community-based programs, classroom lesson plans or corporate retreat goals.
Atlanta Tribune: What inspired you to create Soul Food Cypher?
In the Summer of 2011, my friend and local artist Sean Fahie introduced me to the Whitefoord Intel computer clubhouse in the Edgewood neighborhood in East Atlanta. He had been working with teens there and invited me to volunteer as a photography instructor (my background is photojournalism). No pun intended but at that time, the teens in the neighborhood had a bad rap because of the schools they went to and the violence and drugs in the neighborhood. This was a false narrative, as these teens were some of the wittiest and most talented youth I had ever been around. However, because of where they lived, they didn’t have access to some of the same opportunities teens in more affluent neighborhoods had. At the end of our sessions, we would spark freestyle cyphers and in these cyphers their creativity would blossom and I connect with them on the love for the culture.
At the same time, I would spark freestyle cyphers outside of Whitefoord with some of my friends. These were young professionals with unique skill sets who also wanted to meet other emcees and give back through their talents. Why not create regularly held freestyle cypher events where emcees from all over Atlanta could congregate? I had the perfect place in mind … the basement of WonderRoot. With my friends Wahid Kosraean, Mark Montgomery, Majorca Murphy, and Eric “Zane” Lodged we formed Soul Food Cypher in 2012. Our intent was to create a safe and nurturing environment in which the craft could prosper and showcase the positive aspects of hip hop culture while passing the torch to the next generation.
AT: How did you get involved with The Center for Civic Innovation?
I had the opportunity to speak during Art Leaders of Metro of Atlanta in the Spring of 2015. Bem Joiner, who is a staff member at CCI, was in the audience and introduced me to the center, and told me I needed to come to the center to see what they had going on. When I arrived, I meet the center’s founder and executive director, Rohit Malhotra. I instantly connected with Bem, Rohit, and the rest of the staff. I began taking all the classes I could. It was amazing being able to connect with other entrepreneurs and community builders. I have learned a great deal from being a part of the Center for Civic Innovation Family and am forever thankful Atlanta has CCI.
AT: What has been your biggest “win” this far?
Our biggest win is the family and community that we’ve fostered over the year. That includes the members that make our cypher complete … That includes the volunteers who make our events possible… and regulars who attend all of our events. We showcase some of the most talented individuals in Atlanta and share this amazing art form on stages and classes room near and far. It Is always a win to be able to touch people at these events and inspire them to use their words to make who they want to be and their communities where they want to be.
As far as opportunities, last year, Air Serenbe named a focus fellowship after one of our fallen Emcees Shy Jones for their residency program that centered on freestyle lyricists doing work for children. One of our longtime members and singer/songwriter Bright Son had an opportunity to fulfill this residency in Shy’s name. This opportunity brought things full circle and keeps Shy’s memory alive. That’s wins all around!
AT: In this atmosphere of escalated political activism, where do you see the SFC in this space?
The cypher is a place that welcomes all that enter it with respect. Hip Hop culture, and particularly rap music, is now America’s mainstream music. Young and old, black and white, rich and poor, have heard and been inspired by the music to take action or hit the dance floor. With this in mind, we provide a place for people to connect in an environment that cares little about all the superfluous things and more about your energy, message, and skill. The cypher by design is one of the purest forms of democracy as everyone in the circle is eye–level and the emcees are getting feedback in real time about their message.
The true potential of the cypher is to break down the walls of communication that divide individuals. The cypher helps people realize that there’s something unique in each of us and we all have something to say. Also, through shared dialogue, we realize we are going through much of the same things and are all very similar.
AT: What is your gauge for being able to bite the impact you have and are making?
On a personal note, I gauge our impact on how those same young men I started mentoring at Whitefoord are doing today. Many still regularly attend the cypher and have joined our membership program. I see the young men they have grown into and the positivity and awareness they are spreading in their community. One in particular, Cliff Icon, understands that being an emcee means to be a leader in his community and has taken responsibility to use his voice to speak about the issues affecting his community and promote awareness. To me, that’s the point in all of this: Empowering emcees to use their voice to empower themselves and their communities. Because when you think about it, as Rakim so eloquently put it, “Emcee to me means move the crowd.” In addition, Emcees have the power to move the classroom, move the community, and ultimately move the city. AT