On the blog this week, meet #CCIsuperstar, Alex Acosta, co-founder and executive director of Soul Food Cypher and a 2016 Civic Innovation Fellow. Alex is a photographer, community leader, and arts advocate. While teaching media production to at-risk teens, Alex saw such brilliance and spontaneous ingenuity in his students and saw an opportunity for them to improve themselves and their communities through their words. Shortly after, Alex formed Soul Food Cypher and has taken it into classrooms, arts centers, and communities across the city.
Tell us a little more about yourself. Where did the idea come from for the work you do? How did you get to where you are today?
I am a native Atlantan. I know I am a rare breed—one of the few actual ATLiens. I recently read an article about how black millennials are really interested in moving back to the South, and my roots are primarily in the South. Both of my parents are from Florida, and they were interested in moving to Atlanta because Atlanta represented a place of progress, a place with traditional black mayors. This is where they wanted to start and raise a family.
I was born August 11, 1986, which interestingly coincides with the birthday of hip hop. Hip hop is said to have begun August 11, 1973, so I was born on the 13th birthday of hip hop culture. I guess my stars aligned and I knew I had to do something related to hip hop culture.
I’ve had a wide range of experiences growing up in Atlanta. We came to Atlanta from Tampa, Florida when I was in kindergarten. We lived primarily in Eastside/Stone Mountain. Growing up in Atlanta, particularly in Decatur/Stone Mountain, compared to growing up in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. In elementary school during Black History Month we would make huge banners of African American figures, so as a kid I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and about Rosa Parks, XYZ, as well as the lesser-known black figures like Madam C.J. Walker. I learned so much history just growing up around the Eastside of Atlanta.
When I was going into the sixth grade, we moved out to Conyers. This was my first time I lived in a community where I was considered a “minority.” In high school, my mom and I moved to Alpharetta, which I consider suburban. I was going to school with kids who were driving the latest models of cars, and here I am driving a little Honda Accord from 1989. I was going to school with kids whose parents either had money for generations or new money. Their parents were lawyers or senators, that kind of thing. It was a completely different socio-economic bracket, and I was exposed to a lot of new things.
I went to Milton High School. One of the great things about my experience in Alpharetta was meeting two friends, Austin and Wahid, that introduced me to hip hop culture. I had seen hip hop; I heard about it, but I had not really experienced hip hop culture. Wahid is of Middle Eastern/Persian background, and Austin is Caucasian, but because of our shared appreciation of hip hop culture we came together as friends, and it was like we didn’t even see colors. And that’s when I really realized the power of hip hop culture. And then we would start going to hip hop events, we would go to B-boy shows, breakdancing events - Breaklanta in particular. I remember the first time I went to Breaklanta and I was like, “oh my god, this is what I’ve been missing in life!”
Breaklanta was a huge event bringing together all of the elements of hip hop - including turntablism, emceeing, and graffiti art. Others consider a fifth element- knowledge. You’ve got to know about your history. History and knowledge is very important to hip hop culture, because you’ve got to know where you come from before you know where you’re going. And each of those informs the other elements of hip hop.
Breaklanta was a huge inspiration. I knew I wanted to do something with hip hop culture when I attended – I saw all the people who were there and they were just vibing. In Atlanta, who you are matters – but what mattered at Breaklanta was your skills and what you could bring. I think hip hop culture is the embodiment of American culture — it’s an amalgamation of so many different cultures. That’s one of the common themes in my life and in my experiences with hip hop culture: bringing people together.
Tell us about the venture you are working on. Where did the idea for your venture come from? How are you driving impact?
In 2011, I was teaching media production and mentoring some at-risk kids at the Whitefoord Intel computer clubhouse in Edgewood. The space had a recording studio and equipment, and pretty quickly I realized I was able to connect to the students through hip hop.
We all had a shared appreciation for music and hip hop culture. I started a cypher with the kids, and I saw that that was how I could hear their stories. These were not easy stories. These were stories of abandonment and hardship... but at the same time I heard stories of optimism. These kids had hope and positivity to get out of their circumstances. The schools that they went to—the statistics there were saying that these kids were going to end up in jail or become teenage parents. Their life trajectories were capped.
The idea for the cypher came from bringing the community together and creating a space for people to gather through their shared appreciation for freestyle hip hop. Soul Food Cypher is a community arts organization that uses the power of speech, specifically freestyle rap, to transform individuals and communities. The way we do this is threefold—through our membership program, through our monthly cypher events, and through community engagement. Each cypher event has exercises where we test our emcees through wordplay. These are not simple words—rather these are historical figures or complex vocabulary terms. Our emcees must integrate these words into their rhymes, and kids or others watching then see these words being used for the first time, and have context on these words. We build community leaders and people that can move crowds, but we also have created spaces to bring communities together and grow the minds of individuals. The cypher is a way of centralizing communities in a way that church historically has. What is in the name? Soul Food. Cypher. Soul Food? Food for thought, for the soul. We have our cyphers on Sundays, continuing the tradition of bringing people together. We are rooted in storytelling as well, because and emcee is the modern-day storyteller in the same way that the griots of Africa carried a community’s oral tradition.
A cypher is a circle where a bunch of people, taking turns, share who they are and where they are from and the essence of a community. It is also the purest form of democracy, where everyone takes time to listen to the power of each other’s message. The cypher is a place for sharing and listening, and we need these spaces and experiences now more than ever.
We are building out our membership program and community outreach, training members to take these exercises into schools and other community spaces. The members help train emcees, stretching and growing them. In the classroom, the cypher helps educate and supplement the typical curriculum. These emcees can then take up the mantle, going into other classrooms and communities, raising test scores and nurturing leaders.
How has CCI supported you in your work?
I love CCI—I really do—because of the peers that I have here. It is led by millennials, young people that are energetic. But CCI has people that know Atlanta, know its history, and know where they came from to see where they want to go. CCI treats its fellows and residents as peers, and there is respect and dignity for the work that we do. If CCI sees us as equals and bets on us, then maybe myself and Soul Food Cycle are great as well. That is something that is really special about this place. It respects and values the people doing the work, and helps bring out the best in us.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Atlanta today?
One of the biggest issues in Atlanta currently is gentrification. I am working on a book right now that explores the relationship between hip hop and gentrification. My thesis is that parts of cities that hip hop artists have talked about in songs are now some of the most gentrified parts of those cities. Consider the Bay Area, or Williamsburg in New York City. These places are now the center of gentrification after being shouted out by artists. The cityscape that Biggie so vividly painted in his lyrics does not exist anymore. The projects and other centralized communities - those do not exist anymore.
I look at redlining as well, where the federal government and housing authorities marked off certain African American parts of cities and prevented investment from flowing into these areas. This was a big reason for the asymmetric nature of development during housing purchases and wealth generation from things like the G.I. Bill. Today, you can go on maps and see the redlined parts of cities, which is where gentrification has been occurring. These are things I have learned about in the book. There are echoes of these issues in hip hop music. Atlanta has some of the highest income inequality in the nation; these are issues we see coming to life here in our city.
Atlanta is filled with incredible people and organizations doing meaningful work throughout this city. Their efforts change the way our city designs solutions for the challenges we face in education, art and culture preservation, criminal justice and reform, workforce development, and food security.
The Center for Civic Innovation aims to be a place that supports and showcases these community leaders to the world. This blog series will highlight one entrepreneur or organization from Atlanta every week. We hope their stories will inform and inspire.