If you’ve walked past the Bell Tower on a Friday afternoon recently, you may have seen a noticeably large group of people gathered on one side or the other. Throughout the past few weeks – weather-permitting – this crowd has grown larger and larger.
The attraction? Freestyle Friday.
This end-of-the-week event, which begins around 1 p.m., has created quite a buzz on Main Campus, attracting students as they walk to and from classes.
In the center of the huddle is usually a pair of students sharing ideas and views by hip-hop freestyling.
Michael Stewart, a sophomore mathematics major who goes by Mic Stewart when he’s freestyling, said it all came about through divine intervention.
“One day, I was just standing in the Bell Tower looking up,” he said, “and God appeared to me and said, ‘Mic, if you spit it, they will come.”
In reality, it began one day outside Master Wok, said Matt Berman, a senior liberal arts major, also known as EMC Karma.
Berman, Stewart and junior criminal justice major Max Cuddy were discussing the state of hip-hop in Philadelphia and what a shame it has become.
“Philly has an incredible hip-hop tradition, but here we are, loving and breathing hip-hop all on our own but not sharing it with each other,” Cuddy said. “We decided we needed to do something about that. Originally, it was going to be a few guys that were just meeting up and networking, but one Friday at the Bell Tower, it turned into a cipher, so we just went with it.”
There are a handful of regular participants, including Stewart, Cuddy, EMC Karma, Turbo, Verbatum Jones and Lee G, but Freestyle Fridays are open to all.
“Anyone who wants to come up and spit a few lines or even play a beat or something [is welcome],” said Garry Dorsainvil, a freshman science and technology major better known as Verbatum Jones. “We’ve had guitar, harmonica and drums. It’s definitely not a battle. It’s more about respect than anything.”
The guys agree there is an energy that forms in the circle and with the crowd, which is part of what motivates them to spend their Friday afternoons freestyling on campus.
“Sometimes, I just can’t believe how good the vibes are,” Cuddy said. “It’s something that is completely spontaneous and student-driven.”
“It’s therapeutic and cathartic,” Berman added. “It allows these other people to be a part of it. Someone who’s never tried to freestyle has an opportunity, and we can help people remember hip-hop wasn’t always diamonds and guns.”
“It’s also an opportunity to showcase talent and spread real hip-hop culture,” Stewart said.
Freestyles tend to include common themes such as the economic challenges of being a college student, politics, love, war, religion and generally “how fly” participants are.
Regular participants said their abilities to piggyback off one another is what keeps the vibe going, along with the genuine support and respect they have for each other.
“It’s a collaboration, and everyone brings something different,” Dorsainvil said. “I think one of the coolest things is that the guys who initiated it can leave, go to class and come back, and it’s still going. And they can pick up where they left off. The crowd always promotes our enthusiasm.”
“It is sometimes hard to imagine that anything as raw and informal could be happening,” Cuddy said. “When people think they know what rap is, and they see us, it throws them off. But they really dig it because it is different and fun.”
And their audiences seem to agree – enough to stand around the Bell Tower for an afternoon, even in the rain.
Sophomore university studies major Brian Quindlen is a regular on Fridays.
“They rap about relevant issues, not the same stuff on the radio,” he said. “What’s going on here is more interesting than what you normally hear.”
Erin Maley, a freshman biochemistry major, said she appreciates the enthusiasm as much as the guys in the circle.
“They get really into it, like it’s a sport,” she said. “It’s cool how it just keeps going. Sometimes, they’re hilarious.”
“We’re pretty funny,” Dorsainvil said. “There’s an entertainment appeal.
“One of the coolest things that’s happened was when the evangelist, who sometimes preaches on the other side of the Bell Tower, actually stopped preaching, left all his stuff and came over and joined the crowd for a while, listened to a few freestyles.”
Christina Ciammaichelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.