For anyone who has taken a Lyft ride, the signature bell sound announcing the driver’s arrival might be the only sound they hear for the duration of the trip.
Ride-hailing can be a silent and somewhat awkward experience. But one Bay Area driver seeks to establish a human connection with everyone who steps into his white Prius, with some spontaneous entertainment.
Oakland-based Ashel Eldridge calls himself The Lyft Rapper. He asks his passengers to come up with a topic and a style of music, and he makes up a song, on the spot, while driving to the destination.
Riders often make goofy requests -- asking for songs about deli sandwiches, pizza or popcorn -- but Eldridge’s freestyle flows often gravitate into more complex commentary about social issues.
He says he loves it when riders request songs about immigration, gentrification or community health.
Elridge, who also goes by the emcee name Seasunz, says his mission is to elevate the consciousness of his community by helping people understand the forces that may be manipulating them.
His passengers say they’re startled at first when their Lyft driver begins rapping to them. But after the song, they admit the Lyft Rapper has turned a typically mundane trip into an unforgettable experience.
“Clearly I got to witness a very high level of creativity and being able to think on the spot,” said Tom Cheng, a UC Berkeley student.
Cheng, who was on his way to take the GRE, asked Eldridge to rap about anxiety and uncertainty.
“I think everyone has a very interesting life story, and [the Lyft Rapper] is definitely one that should be heard,” said Cheng.
Eldridge said he started rapping for his ride-hailing passengers a few years ago as a way to pass the time behind the wheel.
Eventually, he decided to turn it into a show for his YouTube channel called The Legend of the Lyft Rapper. The beats are all copyright-free. After the song, passengers give their consent to be recorded.
Eldridge draws inspiration from his family, starting with his grandfather, who was a minister. As a boy growing up in Chicago, Eldridge would sit in church each week and listen to his grandfather preach.
“It’s poetry,” said Eldridge, describing his grandfather. “How he [starts] the sermon, how he ends it, what he says and doesn’t say, his pausing, how he raises his voice, all that I was attracted to. ... It was the storytelling.”
Eldridge said he hopes the stories he’s telling through his songs provide his passengers with a greater awareness of the forces that impact their stress and well-being.
His activism extends beyond the driver’s seat: Eldridge is part of a nonprofit called Hip Hop is Green, which hosts dinners and uses live hip-hop to raise awareness about community health.
He says he learned about the importance of healthy eating from his grandmother, who died of diabetes, and his aunt, Geraldine Eldridge, who was a former member of the Black Panther Party. The Panthers are known in part for creating an array of community social programs, including free breakfasts for school kids.
Eldridge believes that new forms of in-person performance art will naturally emerge as workers are replaced by machines, including drivers for ride-hailing companies as companies convert to driverless cars.
While machines can replace drivers, Eldridge argues that companies won’t be able to replace the human connection that people crave to avoid loneliness throughout the day.
“It’s something inherently human to create art, which is based off the moment,” Eldridge said.
“It’s based off of the bumps in the road, the left turn or right turn, what we ate today. What’s going in the news, what’s going on in people’s personal lives. All those things are playing into the music.”