MC, writer, and educator Toni Blackman’s freestyle workshops help rappers hone their skills—and artists, in general, exercise their creative minds
Interview by Bret McCabe
In 1993 Toni Blackman was a Howard University-schooled corporate trainer with hip-hop on the brain. She attended Howard on a debate scholarship and couldn’t stop thinking about the Black artist’s groups she learned about from esteemed Black academics such as jazz scholar Arthur C. Dawkins, literary critic Stephen Henderson, poet and activist E. Ethelbert Miller, and early Black opera and Broadway singer Napoleon Reed. They introduced her to “writer’s collectives and groups of jazz musicians who got together to workshop pieces, and that always stuck with me,” she says during a recent interview. “Why don’t we study hip-hop like this?”
The following year Blackman started the Freestyle Union in Washington, DC, a regular workshop for aspiring rappers, such as herself, to develop their craft. Honing and fine-tuning those workshops over the years showed Blackman that her approach also helped artists and teaching artists, in general, with their creative practices. For nearly 30 years now, Blackman—spoken-word artist, poet, MC, educator, and the US State Department’s first Hip-Hop Cultural Envoy—has forged a unique career at the intersection of arts and wellness as the larger performing arts industry has started incorporating such entrepreneurial thinking into its business models.
Today Blackman splits her time between Brooklyn, New York, and Dakar, Senegal, performing and conducting freestyle workshops—better known as cyphers in hip-hop—for aspiring MCs, teaching and performing artists, and everyday folks who find a mediative process in hip-hop’s freestyle structure. She is also finishing a book, Wisdom of the Cypher. The Department of Music Engineering and Technology brings Blackman to Peabody September 26-30 for a residency funded by the Levi Family Distinguished Visiting Artists Fund, which includes a Wisdom of the Cypher artist talk on Tuesday, September 27; Science of the Vibe discussion on Wednesday, September 28; solo performance on Thursday, September 29; and a performance with student collaboration on Friday, September 30.
Peabody Magazine caught up with Blackman over Zoom.
What was it about hip-hop that inspired you to pursue emceeing?
It came from a pure love for hip-hop music and culture. The same way those Black writer’s collectives lifted up poetry, I thought we could use cyphers to influence the content and direction of the lyrics, and I thought more people thought that was important. If I did it again, I would do it differently, because I gave and sacrificed so much, but in a way it was like a church, with the same commitments and convictions that people bring to church. That’s when I knew I was onto something because the art mattered.
How was it starting up a hip-hop workshop in city like Washington, where homegrown go-go music is king?
I think that’s where the ignorance of youth can be helpful. There was a club called State of the Union on U Street [where we started], but the club didn’t work out because real MCs don’t drink. They’re coming to do their art. I went to [poet] Kenneth Carroll and told him what was going on. He found us a space at an art center that needed something new and different but it was in southeast DC. People told me I was crazy, this college girl from California heading into the heart of go-go to do a hip-hop workshop. Everybody told me nobody was going to go.
But they did, and after a month there were seven of us. One of the producers brought the boombox, and we rapped for two or three hours straight until we were sweating. It was that important to us. I was in a circle with these guys who were crazy good—if you want to become great, be around people who are greater than you—and I focused on becoming a better rapper and learning how to freestyle.
Soon kids from the Duke Ellington School for the Arts heard about it, and they came with their backpacks. And then came some skateboarders with purple hair, some white kids from Virginia, and some kids from the University of Maryland. And then the local folks started showing up. There was a mailman, an architect, and a lawyer who used to rap.
I was happy, and I was loving what I was doing. Now, I may have had no money in my pocket, but I was happy. I was also naive and didn’t know sexism was a thing, so I got a lot of bruises, a lot of heartbreak, and a lot of disappointment. That’s when I learned, I’m a woman and this is what that means—and this is not specific to hip-hop. This is the world and it really cracked my brain open. I will say it did help me uncover my humanity and to be able to honor the humanity of others.
You’re touching on something you mention in an online presentation where you talked about how freestyling opens people up to their vulnerability such that they have to be creative. How did you start to recognize that aspect of freestyling?
I had a surface understanding based upon my arts and theater training. I went to college on a scholarship for the competitive speech and drama team. It was very intensive. My third year a new coach made it mandatory that if you had a scholarship you had to do impromptu speaking—and that was a major breakthrough from the fear, paranoia, and phobia of unprepared talks. He gave us technique. And even though I was disobedient the whole season, when district championships came and one of my teammates overslept and we had to cover his events, my coach gave me impromptu speaking and I ended up placing third and fifth. I had technique. I was prepared. And that is the foundation of everything I do with my life’s work: if you have the technique you can do almost anything.
Also, a friend introduced me to new age content that I didn’t know about and I started to watch PBS—Wayne Dyer, Caroline Myss, Louise Hay, and these universal spiritual principles really were in alignment with my ideals, and I wondered, “How can that be hip-hop?”
So I started evolving the workshop over the years. I’d bring in a little bit of new thought, a little bit of the poetry mentorship from Ethelbert Miller, a little bit of what I learned in classical voice training with Napoleon Reed. [A cappella ensemble] Sweet Honey in the Rock was a big influence, because I was fascinated by the way they would facilitate participation. It was seamless, smooth, and energetic, and it heavily influenced me.
And there was an elder poet, M’Wile Askari, one of those stereotypical poets who had no money, was always walking around with his book he copied at Kinko’s, with a big staff and long white beard that everybody knew and loved. He came to Freestyle Union and gave me the most brilliant, unsolicited advice one day. He said, “Toni, those little girls over there, they’re maybe 15 and they’re looking at you and they’re watching you allow these guys to disrespect women.”
Next week, it’s stopping. I went in and pretended like I was a confident and said, “This is not a discussion. We will not debate whether or not it’s valid to call women ‘bitches’ and ‘hos’ and to disrespect women the way some of you are doing in your lyrics. If you’re a dope MC you don’t have to do that.”
Nobody laughed and they started to self-police. They had to find something else to do and I realized they were lazy. “Bitch” and “clip” are easy to rhyme. It’s saying, “My brain is empty so I’m just going to talk about bitches and hos.”
I also started to apply what I learned in college and corporate-training grad school to the Freestyle Union. I started to write little missives to distribute at the cypher because that’s what they did at the writer’s groups. I worked with a firm for a year and a half and they sent me to train the trainers, and in training development you create the right environment. You alter the lighting, you have ground rules, you sit in a circle—all of that is training and development theory.
I was also dating this man who was studying martial arts and was also in recovery, so martial arts became a part of his recovery. We had twelve-step literature around the house, martial arts literature, and I’m reading it because that’s what I do. And I start to approach the Union like Sun Tzu—I found that it resonated with young men in particular, this idea of preparing for battle so that you are lyrically superior to others, so that you have discipline in your mind and in your emotions, so that you don’t lose your cool.
The teenagers really responded to the guidance and I realized that rules work. So I said “There’s no battling in the cypher—this is not a battleground, this is a development ground.” And they were into it. I started a reading list, with The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and later The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, and that’s when it became evident to me that we could use this space to create better humans. That’s where my idealism solidified.
Is that when you started to realize that the Freestyle Union wasn’t merely a creative workshop but part of your own teaching and advocacy work in general?
I was doing that but I didn’t have the language. Melissa Bradley, who is one of the pioneers in social entrepreneurship, and another businesswoman named Lisa Sullivan supported me and introduced me to the concept of social entrepreneurship. That’s when I realized, Oh, you mean I could be an entrepreneur and be socially conscious?
There was this whole conscious capitalism movement that had a lot of critics but resonated with me, and Melissa helped me apply for the Echoing Green fellowship that changed the trajectory of my life. When I moved to New York from DC I kept the Freestyle Union going because I knew the work was valid. Then September 11 happened—all the funding left, all my gigs left, all my work left, and I was a freestyle artist who lived her life as one long freestyle. I struggled through it and I knew life had changed forever.
I appreciate how candid you’re being because, thinking about the title of your book, wisdom comes at a cost. Could you talk about realizing that other people could learn from this path you’ve carved for yourself, not only musicians?
That became clear because I was a voracious reader of self-help and spiritual books and I just felt like those books were missing something. I wanted to offer this other option. I had friends in the [music] industry who I’d go to for advice for years, and I realized their expertise is in identifying trends being followed and I was trying to get them to see something that hadn’t been fully revealed yet. I took their advice and it hindered me. I had an idea for how to do hip-hop meditation in 1999 but I didn’t start trying to do that until 2013.
The cypher workshops—not just for teaching and performing artists—I had a vision for a corporate model years ago but it wasn’t until the pandemic when I started to go in on the idea that freestyling is for everybody. In 2020, Polaryss[CQ], an MC and educator, and I offered a workshop for women who have always wanted to rap. I’ve always known that people wanted to rap for themselves the same way people might want to knit or golf and I preached it but I didn’t live it as a believer until then. We ended up having 20 participants—there was a screenwriter, a visual artist, a school teacher, a speech therapist, all joining us to spit bars and rhyme. And it reinforced to me that these beliefs and ideas I had deserve some airtime in the world.
What can musicians and performers in the classical performing arts learn from freestyling, from understanding how hip-hop can be a healing process?
I like to remind artists that they have to care for their creativity and themselves. Yes, you have to make a living, you have to get gigs, but you also have to feed the artist, otherwise you’re going to get sick of it.
I can say this from experience. I was wack for a while, then I was wack because I’m a charming performer who knew what to do to get applause and I felt like crap after every show. How you avoid those things is by doing your inner work.
That is something I’ve been saying to college student artists for years—don’t sleep on how important it is to do personal development. You can call it spirituality. You can call it personal growth. You can call it whatever you want to call it but you have to do your inner work. I don’t care how successful you become or how talented you are, all you need to do is look at the history of artists who died tragic deaths, lived with tragedy or crazy, dysfunctional relationships and marriages, substance abuse, and despair. Don’t skip your inner work.