By Mandile Mpofu
Boston University News Service
The grassroots hip-hop event returned to where it all started, creating a night of togetherness to Cambridge.
It’s the kind of thing you seldom see in Cambridge, Massachusetts: a diverse crowd huddled in a circle, each person bopping their head to a hip-hop beat booming from two hefty speakers, looking on as one brave soul raps passionately in the center. This was the scene at Graffiti Alley on Saturday, April 9, as passersby and community members stopped to join in on the action of the latest installment of Bridgeside Cypher.
When Aaron King started freestyle rapping for fun on the mean streets of Cambridge, he had no idea his high school hobby would become what it is today: a robust community and refuge for many. After finishing college, King was “hungry” to get back to his freestyle cipher roots. So, he and a friend started Bridgeside Cypher (shortened to BridgeCyph or Bridgeside) in 2017 as a monthly, casual event in Central Square.
Whether or not you’ve heard of a cipher (or cypher), chances are you’ve seen one or even participated in one. It comes from the Arabic word sifr which means “zero” or “nothing,” and despite its cryptic-sounding name, the elements of a cipher are simple: one person raps, sings, or dances in the center while the audience, standing around the performer in a rough circle, observes and cheers.
This dynamic circle is an integral part of hip-hop, playing a critical role as a vessel for community discourse in the history of the genre. Back in the day, battling it out in the cipher was how you proved you were the top dog. BridgeCyph’s circles aren’t at all competitive, but they’re essential in their contribution to community conversation and engagement. In 2020, King, 32, and his colleagues incorporated BridgeCyph, giving birth to the Cambridge Hip-Hop Collective, a nonprofit for artists.
BridgeCyph, the beloved event, returned to Graffiti Alley for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, and the vibes were right. King — dressed in a black hoodie, dark jeans, and a black beanie — stood behind a low table, hunched over a MacBook and a soundboard, smoothly switching between hardcore instrumentals while the mic switched hands. For almost three hours, 50 individuals — some strangers, others friends — gathered in front of Hilton’s Tent City, throwing out “AAAYYYE”s at the end of every hard bar and jumping in on call-and-response moments.
“When I say ‘Bridgeside,’ you say ‘Cipher.’ Bridgeside!”
The BridgeCyph roots run deep. One of its primary organizers, Jillian Girardin, who’s Cambridge born and raised, started as a supporter in 2018 and was drawn to the welcoming atmosphere.
“Cambridge is so small, so it’s all locals, it’s all community here,” she said. “One of the things that brought me to Bridgeside originally was the community aspect.”
At the time, she was only one of a few women participating in the ciphers, so she decided to stick around to maintain that “female presence.” Hip-hop has a misogyny problem. It always has. So, Girardin’s status as a community leader in the space cannot be understated. She’s at the forefront of the movement to “build bridges” through hip-hop.
To onlookers who are unfamiliar with the concept of a cipher, the ordeal may seem trivial or unnecessary, but for many individuals who showed up that night, BridgeCyph is more than just an event; it’s a home.
“A lot of people such as myself in certain times of my life didn’t have people to talk to. So rapping was one of the only ways that I [could] express myself. And I know that there are a lot of young adults that are in that same predicament. It is such a powerful tool to keep people engaged and in the right state of mind,” said organizer Giovanni Duran, whose rapper name is Gio DaVinci.
That participants come from all over New England just to attend the event speaks to its reach. Brandon Livingston, whose rapper name is B Liv, traveled from outside the city and said rap saved his life. For him, having a space where he can continue to express himself in community is symbolic. “The love that’s here” is what he appreciates.
“Everybody’s inclusive, and I think that’s what we need right now,” Livingston said.
Sam Jensen, 28, agreed.
“Everybody here is not trying to put the other person down. There’s no mic-hogs. Everybody gets a chance to jump on,” he said. “It’s the best part.”
Jensen discovered the community when he was getting groceries from across the street one day and noticed a group filming a music video, which BridgeCyph does at the end of every event. On Saturday, he was one of the first people to show up and one of the first to pick up the mic and spit bars.
Even though most performers were in their 20s and 30s, the cipher attracted all kinds of characters, including an over-40-year-old man who writes spoken word about “reality turned into metaphorical positivity” and wanted to challenge himself to rap his verses instead. That’s part of BridgeCyph’s goal: to show that there are “so many different flavors and backgrounds and types of artists and sounds out there,” according to Girard.
Alexis Richardson wore a fuzzy red and black jacket with a matching hat tucked over her pink and yellow braids. While everyone else mostly stood in place that night, the 25-year-old switched positions periodically, weaving through the crowd to hug familiar faces. She heard about BridgeCyph through her Uber driver, who turned out to be Jason Bottiglio, a producer and live beatmaker known as Flowttiglio who regularly performs at the ciphers. Since then, she’s been a part of the community and has witnessed, first-hand, its challenges.
“When you’re trying to rent out a venue, there’s still a lot of criticism for hip-hop and rap music because it’s still so linked to a lot of [misogyny],” she said. “It’s linked to a lot of violence, and it’s linked to a lot of drug use.”
Richardson, who is King’s partner, stressed the importance of the event, saying it unites everybody “who doesn’t feel heard or represented in the music scene.” King said BridgeCyph wouldn’t be able to fulfill this function without the support of the local government, which has come in the form of grants from the Cambridge Arts Council, Mass Cultural Center, and Live Arts Boston. The Boston Foundation and the Multicultural Arts Center also supported BridgeCyph in bringing their outdoor events inside.
“If you provide a cipher, there’s a lot of rappers in Boston and Cambridge who will come out,” said King, but the success of these grassroots movements is largely contingent on the officials and community members who understand their significance and do what they can to keep them alive.
To observe the cipher from the outside is to witness something truly joyful: an impromptu family reunion of sorts where some reconnect with old friends while others make new ones. It is a space that asks of its performers a vulnerability like no other — that they put themselves in the unstructured limelight and bare their souls to strangers and friends alike — and demands respect and safety from its audience.
Achieving this atmosphere was a labor of love. King said when the ciphers first started, it was hard to anticipate what “energies” would be drawn to the event and it was challenging to get people to understand that the ciphers weren’t battles; they were about “lifting each other up.”
“Since we’ve been able to establish that culture, it’s actually kind of self-managed a lot,” he said. “And now it’s just a lot of people who know us and they know what we’re about and they know what we’re trying to do. So, they’ve been really supportive.”
And it showed in the way the crowd welcomed every rapper, singer, and dancer that entered the circle, cheering them on when they messed up and offering up enthusiastic “woo”s as the mic moved from one performer to the next.
The bass blasted through Massachusetts Ave, drowning out the whirrs of passing vehicles and competing with the occasional firetruck siren. Late-night shoppers leaving the nearby HMart and travelers heading to the red line experienced the soul of hip-hop. That night, as Cambridge began awakening from its winter slumber, the BridgeCyph and its beats ushered the neighborhood into a new and vibrant season.