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20 People to Watch - Alexander Acosta

Soul Food Cypher bringing freestyle fellowship to Old Fourth Ward

Ask Alexander Acosta about his earliest connection to hip-hop and he'll trace it back to his birth.

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"I was born August 11, 1986," he says. It happens to coincide with the date in 1973 that hip-hop's founding father, DJ Kool Herc, threw his first notable block party in the Bronx. "So I always tell people I was born to do this shit."

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For nearly four years, Acosta has been throwing house parties of his own, with a twist. Every fourth Sunday the members of Soul Food Cypher meet religiously in a basement in Reynoldstown to exercise their faith in freestyle fellowship. But this party has a purpose. SFC's mission is to bridge cultural gaps and spark community engagement in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward neighborhood through pop-up cyphers. Six months ago, the organization got a huge boost in the form of a $50,000 cultural placemaking grant from ArtPlace America. That's some serious gift rap for the city of Atlanta. For Acosta, it's also the fulfillment of a calling imbued with spiritual significance.

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While mentoring teens at Edgewood's Whitefoord Community Center in 2011, he began harnessing the power of rhyme to promote social change. "Here I was a mentor, kicking rhymes with them," he says. "But then I realized these kids are ingenious — their ingenuity, their spontaneity, these kids are gifted."

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Instead of settling for raps about guns and girls, he'd challenge them with verbal exercises by throwing out SAT-level words for them to incorporate into their rhymes. It gave him the idea to "create a safe and nurturing environment for Atlanta's MCs to practice the craft of freestyle emceeing," Acosta says. He went on to co-found SFC with Mark "Markmont" Montgomery, Wahid "DJ Source One" Khoshravan, Eric "Zano" Ludgood, and Majorca "DJ Acrojam" Murphy, who left the organization early on.

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Acosta traces the deeper meaning behind Soul Food Cypher to the evening of February 26, 2012.

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"The first cypher actually coincided with Trayvon Martin's death," he says. On the same night that Acosta hosted the first Soul Food Cypher in WonderRoot's basement, the fatal encounter in Sanford, Fla., that would eventually spark national outrage occurred. "After I learned that, I felt like there is something that is God-given here. Because essentially Trayvon was stereotyped. He was walking home and George Zimmerman just saw a black man."

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In a city where rap rules, Soul Food Cypher transcends the stereotypes often attached to the genre. Instead of waging competitive freestyle battles, the MCs at SFC engage in the collaborative spirit of creative improvisation to harness something Acosta describes as divine.

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"God is in the cypher," he says. "They're building energy from each other and that's nothing but God. I know that for a fact. To find the next word, you have to have faith. The cypher is really hip-hop church, man. It really is a spiritual thing."

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Soul Food's pop-up cyphers are similarly unorthodox. During October's A3C Fest, the group turned the Atlanta Streetcar into Streetcar Cyphers for several hours. Two weeks before Christmas, SFC popped up at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market.

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"There are so many changes going on in Old Fourth Ward as we speak. It's home to Ebenezer Baptist Church and it's home to Church the bar. And those two places couldn't be more representative of the dichotomy that is Old Fourth Ward," Acosta says. "It's testing the resilience of the neighborhood, the soul of the neighborhood. So we're interested in using a narrative form of the cyphers to be able to have some of those conversations and bring people together."

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Soul Food's transformative work in O4W this year will include more workshops, conversations, educational opportunities, and pop-up performances. The organization is also piloting a program with WonderRoot to reduce recidivism among juvenile delinquents.

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It's all part of SFC's philanthropic approach. "Here at the cypher you can have people from all different walks of life come together and share meaningful experiences with each other," Acosta says.

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In a sense, it's the definition of soul food.