Jeff Turner, a.k.a. Freeman Flow, in front of a crowd at God Level Fest in Chile, Santiago in 2018. The San Jose-born rapper says touring in other countries helps open his mind. (Courtesy Jeff Turner)
My first encounter with Jeff Turner, also known as Freeman Flow, was watching him conduct an impromptu freestyle exercise. It was a couple months ago, at a gathering at San Francisco’s District Six event space, where Turner hadn’t expected to perform—but when prompted, he was ready: I watched as the rapper/singer built an off-the-dome verse around any word suggested by an audience member, knocked his knuckles against the body of his guitar, strummed its strings and beat-boxed.
I took my opportunity to get involved, and yelled out “Graduation!” since I was only about a week away from completing my undergraduate degree.
Turner came back with:
Graduation! Oh my gosh, yes it’s time! Graduation, finally you’ve reached the finish line So congratulations, and yes indeed we’re gonna search You did all of that motha motha effin homework
This interaction sums up Turner as an artist: a master of instruments, freestyling and live street performance, whose music evokes a sense of community—with a focus on audience interaction.
“I’m interested in keeping the soul in (music), and the human element in it, the more digital it all becomes,” says Turner. “I’ve always been interested in live performance that evokes the best out of people and makes real-life memories.”
Turner grew up in San Jose, where he was in the foster care system from the age of 7—an experience that had a “profound effect” on his passion for poetry, he says. Growing up in that system created “lots of intense feelings, and you need a place to put them,” says Turner.
In high school, he was introduced to rhyming on a beat when he noticed two groups of students facing off against each other in a hallway. Turner walked over to the groups, expecting to see a fight, but what he witnessed next changed his life.
The students launched into a cypher—a collaborative, freestyle rap session—with one person beat-boxing and another rapping. “That piqued my curiosity,” Turner says. “The cypher is a place that you can say anything, and that’s a rare place for young people.”
Though his first time hopping into a cypher “didn’t go so well,” Turner says it lit up a conviction in him to perfect his performance skills.
He did just that every week for five years. From ages 21 to 25, Turner would meet up with other freestyle artists at a bar called Johnny V’s in downtown San Jose on Wednesday nights, and rhyme back and forth in front of crowds for five hours straight. Turner says those sessions “made me an excellent live performer because I understood what it was to perform with others, and in front of people.”
His street performance grind paid off when he joined the professional cypher circuit with the San Francisco group Team Backpack in 2012. The verses Turner spit as part of Team Backpack garnered millions of views online, and attracted fans to his produced music. Soon, he was getting booked to open for acts like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Andre Nickatina and Atmosphere.
Now 34, Turner says his love for connecting with others through live performance is stronger than ever. In part, he says, his passion was relit by feelings of isolation brought on by the pandemic.
“I think we're feeling a little stuck still in one spot. Maybe from being inside, we all got inside our heads. I know that I definitely was up in my head a lot, especially in the last couple of years during COVID,” Turner says. “This is my way of being my own therapist, and coming out of my mind and out of what I think, and learning about myself through others' stories.”
Don Budd, a music producer who has collaborated with Turner for 11 years, says Turner cares deeply about how his music will translate to a live audience; in fact, that’s “always a major portion of what he’s thinking about” when making music in the studio. “I wish more people would think that way,” Budd says.
Turner’s latest album, WAMO, was released in 2021; the title stands for We All Make One. That phrase “sums up a lot of what I see myself and my music doing in the world: reminding people of the ways that we are connected,” says the rapper.
This philosophy has recently taken him to some far-out places to spread the WAMO gospel. Turner speaks highly of his experiences performing in Chile, Spain and Italy, where language barriers presented an extra challenge.
“There's a level of conviction that you have to have, but also humility,” he says of performing in another country. “I have a lot of love in my heart, but I still have a lot of (difficult) things that I'm dealing with as well, and I think that they could feel that. I wasn't too soft or too hard, just strong, like a peaceful warrior.”
He also learned a lot from his fans abroad. “I think expanding our world and learning (about) other cultures and languages is an obligation as an American because we're so in our own little bubble,” he says. “It widened my ideas on what rhythm and flow is, and what hip-hop is.”
Soon, he’ll return to Europe to perform, including stops in Sweden, Spain and Italy. Until then, he’s giving back to the Bay Area community, as a “professional expert” teaching youth ages 11 to 24 music production and songwriting three times a week at the REACH Ashland Youth Center in San Leandro.
“Jeff Turner brings his full self to every class that these young people experience with him. He never phones it in,” says Joaquin Newman, the arts program manager at REACH Ashland Youth Center, adding that it’s sometimes tough to fit his schedule when Turner is touring the world—but they make it work because he’s so passionate about mentorship.
“He doesn't come to our classroom flexing and showing what an amazing performer he is,” says Newman, who’s been working with Turner since 2015. “He brings his talent to these young people and it kind of sneaks up on them by just having a really strong relationship … he really sees the importance of everybody having the access to learn a creative craft. He sees it as an important element of building equity in our society.”
Turner echoes this sentiment, noting that he wants “to highlight the purpose of music”: to bring folks together.
“Before there was celebrity people used music—and still do use music—to tell a story and to channel what they're going through,” Turner says. “I think that music is pretty much a fire to gather around so people can see each other.”
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