Undergrad hip hop enthusiasts find a home with Undergrounduates
By Marlena Chertock
Published first in The Writers’ Bloc.
The first time sophomore Ari Goldfarb showed up to an Undergrounduates meeting, he was too nervous to rap. At his next meeting, members told him he had to give it a try.
The on-campus hip hop and rapping group is now his family, said Goldfarb, who became president of the group this year.
“The first time I did it, it sucked, but no one booed me,” he said. “They just accepted it and it was a really inclusive environment.”
Undergrounduates members gather weekly on Wednesdays in front of Stamp, Jiménez Hall or at Howard University, circle up, plug in their speakers and start rapping and rhyming in what is called a cipher.
The group mostly freestyles, rapping off the top of your head with the end words rhyming, or battle raps, battling an opponent and insulting him in a verbal duel.
It is a communal experience, according to Eric Owusu, who has been involved in Undergrounduates since September 2010.
“Everyone raps,” said Goldfarb, who is also a student in the Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House living and learning program. “Rap is the expression of oneself through lyrics, the cosmetic description of rhyming. But there’s so much more to it; there’s a message. And a majority of people do it without even realizing it. Everyone raps because everyone expresses themselves, so everyone has the potential to express themselves through rap.”
In hip hop and rap there are 18, 20 or 30 bars of music, according to David Porter, a member of Undergrounduates who graduated from this university in December.
“In R&B you can only say so much because there’s only a certain amount of bars that can fit into a song,” he said. “But in hip hop you can use 18 bars as a message. It can reach so many people and say so much more than any other genre of music can.”
Porter often puts comedic raps with his younger siblings on YouTube and some have gotten many views. His rap name is Paperboy Prince of the Suburbs.
“I just wanted to express myself,” he said.
The cipher gives members the opportunity to rap about a bad week, get political or tell jokes, Goldfarb said.
“On any given day, anyone can be the superstar of the group,” Goldfarb said. “Some people have an off-day. Some haven’t rapped before come and progressively get better.”
Undergrounduates is inviting and encouraging to members and people who want to join, Goldfarb said.
“It’s not competitive,” he said. “It’s an environment where we encourage everyone to be witty and build people up instead of bringing them down.”
Owusu agreed, “It builds camaraderie.”
“Anybody who comes, tall, short, senior, freshman, you don’t go here, a worker, a professor, we’re not exclusive,” Porter said. “The more the merrier, that’s our motto.”
Undergrounduates is a mixture of hip hop, being lyrical, having fun and being with people who love doing the same thing, according to Owusu, who also does stand-up comedy and tries to incorporate comedy in his raps.
“It’s on the spot and improvisational, it builds creativity,” he said.
Rapping in the cipher is honest and playful, according to Owusu, who graduated in May 2011.
“It’s the perfect exercise of the First Amendment rights, I think,” he said.
Goldfarb is working to make Undergrounduates even more inclusive. When members rap in a cipher, they form a circle around a microphone and their backs face the audience, which he said can look exclusive.
“It can be intimidating for someone to come in to try,” he said. “But that’s not what we’re about, we’re really encouraging and accepting. We’re working on ways to look more inclusive.”
There are a few female rappers in the group, and Goldfarb said it’s important to increase this number.
Undergrounduates often goes to Howard University for a cipher because of the different, more accepting atmosphere, according to Goldfarb.
“It’s definitely different, mainly because it’s a historically black college,” Owusu said. “There are a lot fewer white folks there and it’s smaller and more intimate than Maryland. (At Howard) there’s a lot more people who listen to hip hop.”
When the group has a cipher at Howard University, students bob their heads and join, “because they know they can,” according to Goldfarb.
“Rapping is like everything else in life: the more confident you are, the easier it is, the better you get at it,” Goldfarb said. “Rapping is a very easy thing to get decent at. Once you’re at that level, you can just keep getting better.”
Undergrounduates is going to James Madison University for the 13th annual hip hop and break dance battle event, Circles 13, on March 31.
View more photos of Undergrounduates here.
View part of the March 7 cipher: