Hip-hop artist Zhe the Free leads Calgary freestyle group through pandemic times on Zoom

When the pandemic hit, hip-hop artist Zoe Slusar, who performs as Zhe the Free, did not want to give up going to her weekly freestyle group. So she took it online, and The Cypher Club has been freestyling via Zoom ever since.

'We essentially share in something that's really organic, creative expression'

Hip-hop artist Zoe Slusar, who performs as Zhe the Free, has been hosting an online community of hip-hop freestylers since the pandemic began. (Submitted by Zoe Slusar)

When the pandemic hit, hip hop artist Zoe Slusar, who performs as Zhe the Free, did not want to give up going to her weekly freestyle group.

So she took it online, and The Cypher Club has been freestyling via Zoom ever since.

"We were already a pretty tight community and sometimes our groups were like 50 people in a living room or outside, so that obviously wasn't going to work," Slusar told The Homestretch.

"We started meeting on Zoom and our first two meetings, I think because Zoom was a novelty, we had like 60 people. So it's like this tiny little screen of people and everyone rapping. And it's been a really great platform for us to keep meeting every week."

Now, the group of creatives is feeling more energized than ever, and attendance is at an all-time high. Slusar describes it as a place for people to come together and practice the art of freestyle.

"We have poets, we have rappers, freestyle musicians, producers who are playing live beats," Slusar said. "And we've been meeting every Wednesday. We hold it down consistently and we essentially share in something that's really organic, creative expression, because you only experience it in that moment.

"And it's really good practice for rappers and artists because it's something you might use in a battle situation or when you're performing as well."

Slusar, who hails from Black Diamond, has been running the group for about four years and said it helps artists improve their abilities.

"I think that freestyle is something that allows not only your creativity to really rise to a new level, but also if you're ever on stage and you're performing and if you happen to forget a verse or something goes off with the music, if you can freestyle, it's such a beautiful way to kind of gracefully just maintain your space on stage and really bring the audience into that live moment," Slusar said. 

"If you can freestyle with them, they know that you're giving them something they're never going to experience again. And it's just for them, it's really unique." 

Over the summer, the group met outdoors at Rutland Park in Calgary, often attracting a crowd around their large, physically distanced circle.

"That was the really neat part of it … and sometimes teenagers would come over and they join in, or they'd be nervous, but they'd kind of feel that live energy, that to me is really the essence of hip-hop. It's really about unity."

Slusar said hip-hop started from Black and Latino youth who weren't seeing their lived experience shared anywhere. 

"So they said, we're going to tell our stories through hip-hop. And so it's that type of unity and young people and community coming together that I love about the genre," Slusar said.

"And I feel like we really felt that in Rutland Park over the summer. It was really special."

  • Listen to the full interview on The Homestretch here:

Growing up in Black Diamond, Slusar said there wasn't a big hip-hop community. But she managed to find her groove, and she wants to keep that going for the Calgary hip-hop community.

"I remember I picked up this Salt-N-Pepa CD at a garage sale, and I got introduced to the fact that women could also rap, and it just blew my world open because I love the cadence. I love the beat. I love the lyricism of hip-hop and the energy of it," Slusar said. 

"I think it was something that I always knew I wanted to do, but I didn't actually know that I could occupy that space. And as soon as I started to do that and experience what it's like to be live on stage, and if you're doing like a call and response or dropping a really rowdy beat, it's like a high that — there's nothing else like it for me."

New release

Last year, Slusar released The Love EP.

"I wanted to do something that was a little bit outside of kind of maybe the normal stereotype of what we find in hip-hop, because linking back to Cypher Club, it's always really been about the essence of love and what that can mean and how that adds depth to our lives as humans," she said of the EP, which she says is not about romantic love.

"With The Love EP, I really wanted to explore that depth and looking at things like unconditional love, things around self-love, kind of that gritty, hard part of it. If you're working through forgiveness or grief and navigating kind of the fullness of what it means to really step into that and how you can live when you're coming from a place of love."

It's all part of Slusar's message about life, and love.

"I think this past year has really shown us that there's a lot of systematic oppression in our world," Slusar said. 

"And so if we can try and put love at the forefront of how we're interacting with other people and how we're interacting with ourselves, I think that it adds an energy that we need to to do the work that needs to be done to make the world a better place."

With files from The Homestretch.