Black History Month Khodi Dill Interview
"Rappers can make the world a better place"
In honor of Black History Month, we asked spoken word artist and educator Khodi Dill about his book WELCOME TO THE CYPHER (Annick Press, October 12, 2021).
And while we *may* have got our requested word count mixed up when we asked him to answer our questions and suggested he write 250-500 words per question instead of the entire interview, in the end we left all his wonderful words here for you--it's just too good to cut. If you like what you read here, you can preorder the book in Canada here, and in the US here. Enjoy!
Annick Press: Why is it important that Welcome To The Cypher is in classrooms and that librarians/teachers have access to it?
Khodi Dill: I think the most compelling reason to stock Welcome to the Cypher in libraries and classrooms is that it will engage young readers authentically. This book truly offers something new in centering rap as the driving force, and really framing it in a broader context that speaks to the immense power of art in general, the magnetism of it, the liberation it affords, and the unleashing of passion that can fuel personal transformation. This is a rhyming book with punch and with an edge. Too, Awuradwoa Afful’s illustrations are warm, whimsical, broadly representative, and often interpret the text using dream-like metaphors that will wow readers of all ages. The combination of rhythmic, motivating language and Awuradwoa’s colourful, intense imagery is sure to excite the imagination of anyone who reads this book, or is read to from it.
Welcome to the Cypher brings the power of the spoken word to the page, and is one of so few picture books focused on the transformative power of rap music, and its ability to instill in people both confidence and playfulness in their creativity. For too long, rap music has been wrongfully suppressed, even banned in many cases, especially among young audiences. Welcome to the Cypher places this engaging art form in the hands and the minds of children where it belongs, right next to the other more Eurocentric forms of music that school systems across North America have typically favoured. Obviously, this long standing practice that schools have had of privileging mainly one cultural interpretation of music creates inequity, and effectively snuffs out the potential for more diverse expressions of music to take hold there, or perhaps anywhere, should young people never be properly exposed to them. Rap belongs in the elementary school classroom right alongside recorder lessons. That’s what real equity would look like. Hopefully this book will be a small step in that direction.
AP: Are there any educational (or general) objectives you had while writing this book?
KD: Well of course I wanted people to see rap for what it truly can be – not just, in one sense, a simple musical medium that holds potential equal to all other musical mediums to facilitate powerful expressions, but, in another sense, I wanted to show folks how rap can be innocent, kid-friendly, fun, and, yes, transformational. I guess one of my educational objectives with this book was un-teaching the negative perceptions of rap music that I know are still prevalent in our society. Where I grew up, rap was never on the radio; it’s still hard to find on that platform actually. In my youth, the hip hop section in music stores was always a little smaller and a little less updated than the sections for most other genres, even when hip hop was dominating popular music as it began to fuse heavily with R&B in the 90s and 2000s. Thankfully, today, young people have more access to the music they love through online platforms and other means like satellite radio, but they rarely have access to it in educational or other public settings. And the small amount of rap that does get radio play nowadays is usually a sanitized or appropriated version of the art form, and one that often ignores its roots in Black culture and in social protest especially. Certainly, some manifestations of rap music may not be palatable to a general audience, but that’s partly because rap music often revolves around difficult social conditions, which have not been at all palatable to the music’s creators. When these rappers decide to use their authentic voices to try to tell the stories of injustice in their communities, they are often met with condemnation and charged with things like inciting violence and promoting the use of bad language. But the consequence of this condemnation is that the injustices at the heart of the artists’ (and communities’) discontent are never given the light of day among the broader populace, and so the suffering continues. While Welcome to the Cypher doesn’t specifically address these deep social complexities, it does serve as a counterpoint to the wave of suppression and banning that still keeps rap under wraps. This book says, see here; rap can be many things, not the least of which is some good old innocent fun, and perhaps you should try it some time. Maybe this book will help open the door for folks to listen more closely to other stories being told using the same art form.
AP: What do you hope people will take away from the book?
KD: I hope people will finish reading this book with a sense of wonder or intrigue around the art of rap music and its potential to inspire and engage young people. For those who already know, I hope it will validate their understanding of this powerful mode of self-expression. I want folks to get a glimpse of what it can feel like to truly free your mind. This is the sensation I get when I’m freestyle rapping in a cypher. For context, freestyling is an extemporaneous expression, and a cypher is a circle of rappers all supporting each other to achieve this. Freestyling is transcendental, very comparable to mindfulness. When the flow hits, I enter a state of separation from myself, where I’m simply observing what my subconscious can do and what it has to say. There are times where it feels like I’m channeling rather than rapping. A lot of artists have had this experience, whenever they are in intense moments of creation that seem to come out of nowhere. For me, freestyle rapping holds the greatest potential for me to be absolutely in awe of the creativity flowing through me and the others in the circle. In the cyphers that I’ve been a part of, the other rappers and I have coaxed each other, motivated each other, challenged each other to be better and reach higher. We create a synergy around the multiple creative expressions that are coming out, like a fountain of reciprocal energy and support.
In the book, I talk about the cypher creating a storm cloud of musical thoughts; this metaphor attempts to describe what I experience while in the cypher; what I really want is for readers of this book to be intrigued enough by it that they’ll try and engage with freestyling and cypher circles, and experience the storm cloud for themselves. Short of that, perhaps they’ll become energized to create or to continue to create in whatever art form they please, and I’d be happy with that too. The world needs more art and more artists, especially in the current epoch.
AP: What was the writing process for Welcome To The Cypher like for you?
KD: Writing the first draft of this book, which is at its heart really about the art of the freestyle rap, occurred much like a freestyle rap does. Hip hop legend KRS-One too has said that writing is the same as freestyling; it just might be a little slower sometimes. Well, in writing Welcome to the Cypher, the only thing slowing me down was my ability to physically write down the fountain of ideas that were seeming to flow through me. I find I write in this way whenever I’m trying to process something that’s been weighing on me emotionally for a time, or whenever I’ve come to a new realization about something. In this case, what was weighing on me and what my realization was, was that I wanted my own kids to be able to share in the boundless creative energy source that I’d found in rap music, and in a way that could engage them. I mean, I’d already witnessed my toddler dancing to Drake songs like there was no tomorrow, but I knew there had to be a way to reach my kids in a language and a format that spoke to them more directly.
When it finally hit me that there really wasn’t much out there with which to accomplish this task, I started to realize how, even in my own childhood, there was this glaring absence of rap music. It made me grieve for the years lost where I could have been starting to already spread my wings in this art form and mold it into something personal and use it as a tool for self-understanding and self-expression and social change, which is what I use it for now. Realizing that I wanted my kids and young people everywhere to have earlier and easier access to this art form made writing the first draft easy, immediate, and cathartic for me. Working with Claire from Annick who edited the drafts with me was also a really great process. It was my first time working with a professional editor to that extent on my work, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found Claire’s feedback, insights, and suggestions to be supportive, constructive, illuminating, and even motivating for me, as we both worked to make the manuscript as powerful as it could possibly be.
AP: As an educator yourself, how do you feel like rhymes play in part of students learning? Do you hope that teachers can implement more creative and fun ways of teaching when reading Welcome To The Cypher?
KD: In my career, I’ve mostly taught senior secondary English Language Arts and rhyme plays an important role for us in learning how to engage with poetry, but it can go far beyond that. I have a memory of teaching Grade Nine, and we would play this game where I would make up riddles for students to guess the answers to. The answer would always be a student’s name alongside something that rhymed with their name. I would get the students working hard on their guesses and coming up with some great rhymes for each other’s names. I hardly thought of it as really educational at the time; it was just a fun thing we would do sometimes – the students loved it. But looking back, I understand that learning that feels like fun is when the most learning gets done. Did you see what I did there?
Now, when I was a high school student myself, we’d occasionally get this substitute teacher in Moose Jaw where I grew up. Not many students even really knew his name, I don’t think, because everyone just called him the singing substitute. What he’d do is he’d bring his guitar to class, and he’d say that if everyone was good for the whole class, he’d sing us a song at the end of the period. Only, he wasn’t singing covers or even previously written originals. He would ask for two or three students to come up and chat with him near the end of class and then he’d spend about two minutes writing a song that incorporated all their names and all their interests and personality traits in a way that rhymed, and he’d sing a song of it all with his guitar immediately afterward. It was some of the goofiest fun we ever had in a high school class. I am sure that the singing substitute had something to do with what I started doing years later as a teacher. I took what he did and I made it my own, using rap as my vehicle. I think that’s what everybody, teachers especially, ought to do. Take whatever it is that inspires you, and make it your own. Absolutely, get your students playing with rhymes and writing and speaking out loud. Besides, rhymes are anchors for rhythm; they can teach about timing and they can cue physical movements. And certainly, they are fantastic mnemonic devices. There are certain rhymes, certain rap lyrics, that just hit with such power and such specificity that I for one will never forget them, nor the often awe-inspiring personal and social messages they’ve been known to deliver.
AP: What inspired you to write Welcome To The Cypher? Was there a singular experience?
KD: I mentioned before that I really wanted to find a way to share with my children this art form, of rap music and even spoken word, that I’d fallen in love with and which had become such a big part of my life and a part of my holistic wellbeing. Well, I decided to go to my favourite local bookstore and see what children’s books they might have that could help me do the trick. I mean, I knew this bookstore had books about everything, every hobby or pastime or art form you can imagine, even a whole section on picture books about music and the arts. Well, I searched high and low, and in the end I even went up to the front desk and asked if they had any children’s books about rap music. Keep in mind, this wasn’t a small bookstore either; the place is huge. I was a little bit deflated when they told me, “No, we don’t.” But the staff member who helped me said one thing that I think might have actually nudged me a little bit to write Welcome to the Cypher. She said, “That would be a really good idea though.” It sort of got my wheels turning.
I started doing some more searching online and just didn’t really see much of anything out there for children in this specific area. I was sort of shocked actually – considering we were living in the twenty-first century and all – and I just couldn’t let that stand. Rap and spoken word meant the world to me; they still do. Black music in general helped inspire my own racial identity formation and social awakening; hip hop would become the foundation of my self-expression whereas, in other art forms and even other areas of my life, I’d felt silenced or excluded from participating in authentic communication processes, let alone artistic endeavours. As an adult, I established a friendship with someone I met through my local spoken word scene, and he sort of revealed to me this whole new world of the freestyle; my experiences with freestyle rap then excited in me an entirely new and again transformational relationship with my art that I didn’t know existed or could exist. And what a travesty to have had to wait so long to bring that to fruition, to even be exposed to the art of the freestyle in the first place.
The lesson: schools have so much potential to do better. Today, my family, my young children and I, we freestyle together all the time. My daughter continues to amaze my partner and me with her rhythm, her use of rhyme, and the wit she applies to her creative expression. At the time of writing this, she’s not even four years old yet. I am just so happy that she will not grow up in a world where this art form that is rap music, this particular avenue toward liberation, is hidden from view and completely absent from her life. And I sincerely hope that her schools and her libraries will one day be full of validations in this regard.
AP: How important is representation in children's books and literacy in general?
KD: I want to answer this question in two parts. I’ll speak first about representation as it pertains to racial and other identities. Folks have likely heard it said that it’s important for young people to be able to see themselves represented in their books, films, and other media. I want to add to that that it’s important for young people to be able to see themselves as themselves. That is, regarding race, for example, it’s important not just for race itself to be represented in these media, but for free racial and cultural expression to be represented as well. As a consumer, I want to be able to see myself and my culture represented in a variety of affirming and interesting ways. If people only ever see, from a young age, extremely assimilated representations of themselves and their race, or extremely stereotypical representations, they are not likely to understand that they have the freedom to express their identities in all manner of ways, and strive for all manner of goals, including some which they may find deeply satisfying and affirming to who they are inside and what their passions are.
We know that the representation of Black characters and indeed Black authors is extremely lacking in children’s literature. But to round out this response, we can look at the representation of hip hop music within the same literary genre. It’s so lacking that it’s almost non-existent. How can this be? How can it be that one of the most popular, widespread, engaging, broadly consumed, and highly profitable modern Black art forms is nearly absent from kid-lit in our society? I assume it might have something to do with negative stereotypes about rap music that are so prevalent even today, but the consequence is that Black children are cut off from one of the most vibrant sources of modern cultural representation available, and all children are cut off from experiencing rap music’s many potential benefits. At any rate, I’m hoping to push back against those negative perceptions and reveal to a wide audience “new” possibilities that were really always there, only suppressed, of what rap can be and why it should be placed in the heads, hearts, and hands of today’s children of all identities. Rappers can make the world a better place; I think we need to make more rappers as soon as possible.