When the founding members of Cypher Cure first got together to plan what a hip hop outreach program would look like, their first instinct was to turn to the people they’d be serving: the at-risk youth of Portland. So for the past several months, local MCs Talilo Marfil, Jesse Gardner, and Quincy Davis have been meeting with a handful of teens and young adults between the ages of 12 and 24, to participate in a hip hop freestyle circle, also known as a “cypher”.
“When we create this circle, it’s with the intention of equality and respect, no matter what,” explains Davis, “Because just to step up and to express yourself takes courage, so no matter what you do, we’re going to support you.”
The first cypher was made up of a hand-selected group of students, and has since grown by word of mouth. A recent meet up attracted close to twenty participants, who gathered around a bucket with a speaker on top and took turns singing, rapping, and sharing stories about their identities and struggles.
“Some of them are gang-affiliated,” explains Marfil, “One cat was in the circle rapping about some gang stuff and I chopped him up after and was like ‘Bro come on man, you know you want to get out of that lifestyle’”
Even though they come from diverse backgrounds, what they all have in common is a passion for hip hop and a hunger to express themselves through music. One young man, who took the bus from Troutdale, arrived two hours early and was found waiting outside the venue for Cypher Cure to start.
“He was like ‘Dude I was up all night practicing my freestyles, do you have any water? My throat’s sore!’” says Gardener, “Dang man, he’s like hungry to come. He got in the circle and he was rapping so hard he forgot to breathe.”
The three founders are regulars on the hip hop scene and have found free styling to be a healing experience. They developed the idea for Cypher Cure with guidance from Solomon Starr, creator of local hip hop showcase Division Street Stories. Using their own experiences working at nonprofits and with disadvantaged youth, they plan to develop workshops, incorporate outdoor activities, and ultimately hire the program participants into leadership and mentorship positions.
“They’re cats who are right on the edge after high school, like what are you gonna do?” says Davis, “There’s not a lot of opportunities. A lot of them are smoking a lot of weed, drinking a lot or whatever. We just want to give them an environment to come to so they can maybe get a little something with community, a little guidance, or just support each other.”
The cypher is also a time for the group to discuss heavy topics like police brutality, broken homes, and incarceration, issues that Marfil is all too familiar with after having spent a number of years living on Portland’s streets. Finding conditions in the local youth shelters to be subpar, he slept on rooftops, elevators, and restaurant alcoves until discovering Outside In, a local non-profit specializing in helping homeless youth. His perspective on life began a dramatic shift after getting off the street, which ultimately brought him to hip hop.
Inspired by Tupac and Tech N9ne, Marfil started by writing poetry but never rapped until he was encouraged to put one of his poems to a beat. He can still recite his first rhyme, and has since then strived to embody the transformative power of hip hop. A turning point came when he convinced a local shelter director to give him money to throw a hip hop fundraiser for homeless youth. He had heard about Quincy Davis through a friend and reached out to him to participate in the event. Davis introduced him to Gardener, and soon after they started their own small cypher with no plan other than just getting together to rap. Since then the three have collaborated on numerous projects, including “Purify Me”, a track Davis and Marfil released as part of the #HipHopForFlint effort to raise money for the people affected by lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan.
The first class of Cypher Cure is already performing in public, taking the stage at a recent showcase which incorporated all five elements of hip hop: BBoy/BGirling, MCing, Graffiti, DJing, and knowledge of self and community. There was a performance from a Franklin High School dance crew, as well as an artist who created a graffiti piece outside during the show.
For the members of Cypher Cure, however, the fifth element, knowledge of self and community, is the most important one. “It’s the glue that holds it all together,” says Gardener.
“Like people don’t think hip hop can teach leadership skills, business ethics, and how to respect one each other,” Marfil adds, “hip hop does all of that.”
Cypher Cure meets every fourth Saturday from 2pm to 4pm at My Voice Music. Even though the program focuses on at-risk youth, anyone aged 12-24 is encouraged to attend.
“Cypher Cure doesn’t discriminate against what someone’s been through or where they’re from,” says Marfil, adding “Our main focus is awakening genius in all youth.”