DVULI Summer Series Part 2: Empower Youth Expression with Hip-Hop Workshop

Posted by: DVULI | June 27, 2022

Urban POV by Randy Mason; Photo credit Eric Mason

by Randy Mason (Newark 2021)

If you’re looking for a fun way to connect and empower youth this summer, try achieving that through Hip-Hop. (To read part one of this blog series, click here.)

In Hip-Hop, there is what’s known as a cypher. It’s where artists physically come together to participate in a dynamic exchange of ideas and experiences. A cypher forms a human circle where everyone is visible and in it together–equally.  It’s an in-person community that thrives on communication where everyone contributes–even if it’s just a head nod or a facial expression. 

When a youth group functions as a cypher, the possibilities for learning and meaningful engagement are endless. The cypher is not limited to rapping and can include extemporaneous rap, dance, beats, conversation, writing, or another activity. The idea is to employ the principles of Hip-Hop, which are peace, love, unity and having fun, within a cypher to encourage, educate, and empower youth. 

1. Create the cypher.

  • Choose a facilitator. Connect with a local Hip-Hop artist who either has experience or is interested in working with youth. You can also empower someone in the youth group to help facilitate the cypher. The majority of youth-centered cyphers which I’ve been part of include youth with little to no experience in rapping. Don’t feel you need to be an expert to facilitate or participate in a cypher.  
  • Bring a beat or become the beat. A beat isn’t always necessary but it helps keep rhythm and pace. I like to use a cajon drum for cyphers but you can improvise with a speaker, drum, bucket, table, or your body. Hand claps, finger snaps, foot stomps, and beatboxing are viable options to develop a beat to help drive the cypher.
  • Plan the cypher activities. Be prepared with prompts or cypher topics to help guide the experience toward the youth group goals and objectives. Strategically steer the cypher by introducing ideas and perspectives that may be helpful–even transformative. To help with buy-in, invite youth to come up with cypher prompts and topics. These topics have worked well for me with youth:
    1. How do you define mental and emotional health?
    2. Today I feel…
    3. Hopes, dreams and greatest fears 
    4. Freestyle Five: Choose 5 keywords for students to include in the cypher. 

2. Conduct the cypher. 

Below are some cypher warmup activities to help kick things off and build confidence:

  • The Alphabetical Adjective Activity: The youth form a circle and the first person begins by saying “I am…” and then includes an adjective describing themselves that begins with the letter A. The rest of the group responds by repeating the sentence. The next student does the same only using an adjective beginning with the letter B. If/when youth are stuck they can take suggestions from their peers. For example:
    • One person: “I am amazing.”  Whole group repeats.
    • Another person: “I am brave.”  Whole group repeats.
    • And so on…
  • The “Yes, and…” Improvisation Activity: The objective is for the group to collectively create a story improvisationally. The youth form a circle and the first person begins by making up a scenario with just one or two sentences. The next student will affirm the previous statement and build on that scenario by saying, “Yes, and…” then add a sentence to the story. For example:
    • One person: “This morning I woke up late and missed the bus.” 
    • Another person: “Yes, and I decided to ride my bike instead.” 
    • And so on…
  • Build The Beat: The youth form a circle and the first person begins by making a simple beat. They can clap, snap, stomp, or beatbox. The next person builds on the beat by adding a new sound to the beat. This continues until eventually everyone is contributing to the beat. Next, you can ask a student to conduct the beat by raising or lowering their hand to increase or decrease the volume of the beat. They can raise or lower the volume of the whole group or one particular student sound. 

3. Cultivate the cypher

Care for the cypher by leading and listening well. As youth workers, I challenge you to listen to understand. The cypher is a great opportunity to learn more about your students' hopes, dreams, fears, successes, and failures. Moderate the cypher as needed to ensure it’s one of encouragement, support, fun, creativity, and real! A competitive cypher is fine, but it must be kind. 

Above all, prayerfully aim to love and lead the youth in your life well. Thanks for reading. 


Thrive Collective is an NYC arts non-profit that creates hope and opportunity in and around schools through the arts and mentoring. R.H.Y.M.E (Rhymes Help Young Minds Excel) is Thrive Collective’s educational Hip-Hop music and mentoring youth program. 

R.H.Y.M.E is an educational Hip-Hop music and mentoring youth program. Through it, we encourage, empower and equip youth with mic and life skills by teaching the art of rap. Youth learn character-building communication, collaboration, creativity, cognitive thinking, critical thinking, and self-confidence. 

Follow us at @ThriveNYC @R.h.y.m.e_NYC and me at @RandyMasonMusic

Heashot photo by Eric Mason.