Secret City Cyphers Celebrate a Year of Music and Dance in Unexpected Public Spaces

In Music Stories, Program Notes by Jack Evansleave a COMMENT

Jason Hart can’t contain his excitement until he gets out of the car. “Oh my god! I’m already having nostalgia,” he yells out the window of a dark gray Mazda6 as it turns into a parking space on the top level of the Market Square Parking Garage.

Hart, 34, is the founder of Secret City Cyphers, a series of pop-up events that falls somewhere between performances and workshops. He started the series as a way for musicians to create and network after performing his own music (he raps under the name Mr. Ill) on Market Square and at open mics and deciding to do something different. Wednesday, June 17, marked the Cyphers’ one-year anniversary and Hart celebrated it with a rare return to a familiar location.

“We change locations every time,” Hart says. “This is the first repeat of a location that we’ve had in a year.”

The Cyphers often occur in unconventional public places: World’s Fair Park, Krutch Park, a swimming pool in Fort Sanders, a skate park. Hart says interactions with police and security have been minimal and friendly. Equipment manager and bassist Daniel Worley says these spots promote spontaneity; Hart says they add to a community atmosphere he’s trying to cultivate.

Wearing a Puma baseball cap and a pair of Adidas sneakers, Hart darts around the garage roof. He unloads water bottles from a blue drum emblazoned with the Bud Light logo and lends a hand to Worley and drummer Terry Weaver as they set up equipment. He chats with first-timers like Tara Craw, who drove from Asheville for the event, and Eric Bowlin, a 43-year-old break-dancer who prefers the Cyphers to the club scene.

“There’s so much more to life than this Babylon B.S., everybody wasting all their money and time to be stressed out and still barely getting by,” Hart says. “So why not have something where everybody can forget about all that for a minute, even if it is once a month?”

After seeing a successful first year of Cyphers, Hart is turning his career interests toward music. He recently left his general manager position at Fuddruckers—the job that brought him from Asheville to Knoxville in the first place. His planned ventures include an entertainment company, a record label, and a recording studio, he says. The Cyphers, though, don’t need to be moneymakers.

“This is for the love,” he says. “We need this.”

By 7:45 p.m., the Cyphers kick into gear. Worley, Weaver, and guitarist Travis Lakin lock into a groove, and someone backs in a Mitsubishi Spyder convertible with a beat machine hooked up to it. Hart and a couple of other MCs exchange bars. Two women with long curly hair start hula-hooping in an empty space across the drive, and there’s a strip of cardboard set out for breakdancers.

Many of the people who have gathered just watch, clapping to the beat or cheering when the moment demands. They range in age from very young to middle age. As the sun sets, a toddler escapes her father’s grasp and runs toward the musicians, but he scoops her up immediately, and she laughs as he lifts her into the air.

Just after sundown, a singer/guitarist named Ms. Lu finishes her second song just as a trio of blue-shirted parking-enforcement officers break up the Cypher. “Should’ve gotten a permit,” one announces.

An abrupt location change doesn’t pose much difficulty for the Secret City Cyphers. As the crowd begins to disperse, Hart yells out for someone to make a post on the event’s Facebook page; they’re moving to the Market Square stage. Some of the organizers pack up equipment, while others converse with the parking enforcers. (It’s another friendly interaction with authority, as Hart is quick to point out).

Six stories down and a block over, the gathering only gets bigger. Musicians set up along the back edge of the stage while the hula-hoopers take up farther down the Square. There’s more space for dancers, and someone’s brought out more cardboard, too—taped together with hot-pink duct tape, it’s a more appropriate terrain for breakdancers who share the space with pop-and-lockers and a young woman with a light-up hula-hoop. More MCs join, and before long, scene veteran Black Atticus is trading the mic with redheaded, fast-rapping 16-year-old Austin Lynn, who performs under the name Psych. Near the end of the night, the crowd on and around the stage totals about 100 people.

Before they left the garage, one of the parking enforcers had a suggestion: Secret City Cyphers should try Scottish Pike Park in South Knoxville—it might be a good spot for them, he said. Hart turned around and flashed a broad smile.

“Hey, we got a new park!”

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