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'Cypher, Cypher!' UNC artist collective celebrate expression, togetherness every Wednesday

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UNC seniors and Cypher members Justis Malker (left) and Michael Spragley rap near the Old Well on Wednesday, April 5, 2023. 

As the weeks on UNC's campus are filled with long nights of studying and long days of classes, some students look forward to gathering in the Pit at 9:25 p.m. every Wednesday to celebrate both family and freestyling. 

For UNC Cypher, a collective of musical artists, the midweek meeting time is known as its “9-to-5.” 

Each meeting begins with a person yelling “Cypher, Cypher!” — a phrase repeated by the rest of the crowd. After the calling response, the members begin to rap. 

First-year student Justin Jenkins said the group gives people of all skill levels an opportunity to express themselves while relaxing and hanging out. 

“Getting out there and freestyling is very tough," Jenkins said. "It's kind of daunting at first because you don't know what's going to come to your head. Sometimes you might fumble or mess up, but it’s just being able to be comfortable making mistakes, putting yourself out there and seeing what happens.”

At UNC Cypher, Jenkins said there are people from all sides of the “spectrum of rap.” He believes that good music can bring a lot of different styles together. 

The group is working on releasing their latest album by the end of the school year. The album composition process began with sessions called “office hours,” which were opportunities for producers and rappers to brainstorm ideas for songs. Afterward, approximately 30 Cypher members rented a house in Cary for four days last month and converted its rooms into studios.

Co-president of UNC Cypher Nori “Shaggy” West said each room was designed to have a different “vibe," based on the style of the creative process behind “Revenge of the Dreamers III” by Dreamville Records.

West said holding meetings in the Pit is a powerful way to celebrate rap's role in Black culture, especially in the context of a historical lack of equal treatment for Black students on campus and the recent memorial dedication for James Lewis Cates Jr

For a period of time, West said the Cypher was attracting over 100 participants to its meetings. 

“People just felt safe to come celebrate," West said. "After the Cypher and after people quit rapping, people would start playing their own music and dancing. That's exactly the goal. That's what I think is so important.”

Justis Malker, co-president of UNC Cypher, said Wednesday nights are a great way to calibrate the week and infuse a bit of celebration and relief into a life that can sometimes be mundane. 

“Those Wednesday night Cyphers keep my spirits up, and they give me something to look forward to, even if that's in the winter where the sun's barely out,” he said. “It starts to make me happier.” 

With students leading busy schedules, Malker said he thinks getting caught in the “rat race” of being a college student can be easy. However, he said that consistent meetings form a community aspect, especially when other familiar faces are present. 

“Whenever you get in those spaces and you're making music — a very personal thing — the intent can be to make music, but you're always going to end up having honest, vulnerable and very intentional conversations about you, your life, your experiences and your perspectives,” Malker said. 

Last Wednesday, UNC Cypher engaged in various activities to showcase its work and promote its album release to other students. After auditioning for the spring Jubilee Concert at Tar Heel’s Got Talent, the club held a pre-release album listening party at 1922 by Carolina Coffee Shop. The group then walked to the Old Well to shoot their album cover and to make music together. 

Ultimately, Malker said he hopes others will see UNC Cypher as not just a group for rappers. 

“We have people that stop by and sing. We have people that harmonize in the background. We have people that play instruments. We have people that perform poems, so it's not just rappers freestyling,” Malker said. “I think larger than that, we're a creative community.”

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