Wordsworth could have never kept up
Freestyling a mix of high velocity poetry and social commentary has spread to schools and cafes across US.
From afar, it looks like trouble brewing. A throng of onlookers gathers outside the Red Vic movie theater on Haight Street, three dozen bodies swarming around a young man and woman who, arms flailing and voices raised, appear to be engaged in irreconcilable dissent.Skip to next paragraph
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But closer to the eye of the storm, the situation proves far less dire.
Four or five young men are cupping their hands over their mouths and breathing loudly, using their lips as a makeshift rhythm section to spit out a funky tempo. The onlookers nod their heads and sway their hips, and the animated couple in the center is actually smiling. Their words come out in a form somewhere between speech and song, and their intonation is punctuated by rhyming phrases.
The couple is "freestyling," a phenomenon born out of the hip-hop movement that, unbeknown to many Americans, has been thriving along the outskirts of most metropolitan areas for more than two decades. High school students and middle-aged performers alike freestyle, but what began predominantly in Oakland and Brooklyn has moved to cafes, high schools, and community street corners across the country.
Only recently have freestylers booked performances in venues like the Justice League, a San Francisco concert hall, where the famed Medusa and De La Soul performed this summer.
"The particular form this verbal art takes now is deeply influenced by hip-hop culture especially rap music," says Michael Eric Dyson, a Penn State professor, Baptist minister, and author of such books as "Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur." "But there is a level of artistic and poetic achievement all its own, with an internal sense of rhythm, cadence, linguistic creativity, and vocabulary of oral innovation."
Freestyling revolves around two speakers communicating their opinions on such social issues as drugs, poverty, disease, and violence. On Haight Street, the couple discussed a wide range of topics in English and Spanish, jumping from the interim government in Afghanistan to Ralph Nader's refusal to release his tax returns. Freestyling has become the newest form of social commentary, spelled out lyrically with rhyme, rhythm, and incredible speed.
The talent required presents a challenge many have not found in school or at home. In a desire to master the verbal art, teens will start by reading dictionaries, then move on to newspapers, and then novels and poetry.
Why, then, has freestyling failed to seep into the spotlight of national media? Why does the term "hip-hop" fail to elicit images of freestylers discoursing with alacrity and speed on street corners, and instead conjure images of Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and Dr. Dre better known for their money and misogyny than for their music?
The Haight Street scene is quintessential freestyling by virtue of its spontaneity. It takes place outside a theater because people had traveled from all over California to see a much-anticipated documentary, "Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme."
The two hours of raw footage showcasing the nation's best freestylers moved the crowd to a frenzy, and the director and his camera crew wove in and out of the post-viewing "battle," the term used when two people challenge each other to freestyle in front of a crowd.
As usual, the challenge took on a second meaning: If someone wants to freestyle about poverty or injustice, fine. But they'd better have their facts straight or they won't win the battle. The quest is not merely to outspeak the others, but to outsmart them.
"When I was a kid, I realized that racism was something that society taught people, and as I grew up I realized that hip-hop was the voice that challenged this idea," says Kevin Fitzgerald, director of "Freestyle," his first film.
Alex Harris, aka "Otherwise," has been freestyling for as long as he can remember. Born in Los Angeles and raised by a jazz musician, Mr. Harris sang in his church choir until, at age 16, he began skipping church to freestyle with friends, drumming on tables at Burger King and rhyming about the woes of adolescence. "I've always been a verbal thinker," says Mr. Harris, who became famous at age 19 when he outperformed Eminem in one of the country's fiercest battles, Rap Sheet Olympics.
Today, he makes a living traveling the country to perform with other talented freestylers, and he sells CDs of his songs, most of which are pre-written and then recorded, not improvised.
Harris is always grabbing his dictionary to look up words he doesn't know. "The competition forces you to practice, and when you're amongst people who can freestyle real well, it brings out the best of your abilities."
"It is tremendously helpful to youth involved to elevate their intellectual and linguistic skills through such practice," says the Rev. Mr. Dyson. "It spurs serious insight, underscores the benefits of verbal battle, and teaches them to redirect and channel their energies in edifying fashion."