The Cipher: Youth led nonprofit takes hip hop back to its activist roots
During her freshman year in 2007 at Reagan High School, Te'aunna "T-Fly" Moore took a beat making class with spoken word artist and community activist Gidon, co-founder of the east side hip hop collective The Cipher. "One day I came to him with this corny love poem, and he was like, 'Oh, man, that was dope — we're starting this hip-hop project, and I think you'd go great with it."
Moore wasn't quite sure about the organization when she and three other students attended the first meeting in a small room at Southwest Key, a youth services non-profit in East Austin. "We were like, 'What is this?' We didn't really know what to expect." The room featured a long table with some pens, a couple of snacks and some notebooks. The Cipher — which is well on its way to becoming an Austin institution — started small.
With 18 members and hundreds of performances under their belt, the organization has grown into both a creative group and a non-profit that hits all of the sweet spots: socially conscious messages, good beats, powerful rhymes and total credibility.
Their mission, “to unite youth across Austin through music, poetry and activism,” keeps both the adults and the young people in the group strongly committed to each other and to bringing hip hop back to its activist roots.
The other co-founder, Shannon Sandrea, based The Cipher on the already established Hip Hop Project in New York City. While working as a counselor for high school students, she saw a documentary about the Project at a film festival and was inspired, saying, “I felt like I was floating.” She traveled to New York to get permission to start a model in Austin, and The Hip Hop Project not only agreed but helped build The Cipher's structure and visited Austin to offer support and encouragement.
The Cipher includes young people ages 16 - 21 who come together once a week at the East Austin Space 12 to talk about life issues and goals and to share and write music. They produce an album every year and have given over two hundred and fifty performances at festivals, community events, concerts and schools.
“We rehearse like we're going into battle.” The Cipher's Artistic Director, Zel Miller III, encourages members to tackle diverse subjects in their music, and to stay true to the group's message. “We try to instill in them that we are a group and that no individual is bigger than the group. The brand of The Cipher is what has to be given to the public and if we say that we're an organization that stands for [social justice], then we can't let it slide on a song or a single line. We have to be authentic with our messaging. The worst thing that we can be is a hypocrite."
The strong group ethos provides a support system for members like Moore, who has stayed with The Cipher since that first meeting. She says, “It's like an escape... once you come in [to Space 12] it's like a whole 'nother world with no worries. You're around a bunch of people who understand you musically and emotionally. That's what keeps me going.”
Both Sandrea and Miller run The Cipher on a volunteer basis, putting in about 20 hours a week while they balance full time jobs, families and other commitments. Miller is a writer and performer as well, and he says working with The Cipher “keeps me current as an artist. In a healthy way, it's nice competition to hear what they do... it makes me want to pick my pen up and write too.”
As members turn 21 and age out of the group, they're still part of The Cipher family, coming back for events and meetings and branching off into their own artistic endeavors. Moore, along with other Cipher members, founded their own group called Minds of a Different Kind, who will be performing in Austin area clubs while staying close The Cipher's roots of social consciousness. She wants to keep hip hop alive in Austin and support other women rappers the way she's been supported. “I think that a lot of females feel intimidated because it's such a male dominated industry but I feel like it's all about your skill... as long as you still got breath in your body and are able to make an impact, [you should] make good music and have fun with it.”
To see The Cipher in action, watch this video or check out their website to learn more about how to get involved.
The Cipher is a member of I Live Here, I Give Here. You can donate to The Cipher directly from our site using the new donation tool below.