How Hip-Hop Informs Philosophy at GustavusAssistant professor (and MC) Jon Ivan Gill meshes classical theory with modern real-world creativity and opens minds to possibility.
Posted on May 1st, 2023 by

Jon Ivan Gill, AKA Gilead7, just released a new album, Art/Space.

One of the main challenges for many liberal arts faculty in the 2020s is how to make classic, often ancient, wisdom and theories relevant to the modern world and the undergraduates who inhabit it. Gustavus assistant professor of Philosophy Jon Ivan Gill has accomplished this by infusing his field’s eons-old scholarship with contemporary elements such as race, sexuality, and most uniquely—hip-hop.

In his three years at Gustavus, Gill has twice taught Philosophy & Battle Rap, a course that examines how traditional philosophical principles intertwine with hip-hop music and culture. Gill is unusually well qualified to make these connections, as he’s an accomplished battle-rapper and emcee who goes by the handle Gilead7; he and producing partner Boricua Sandy just dropped an album, Art/Space, under the moniker VirgoTwins. The duo performed a record release show in Chicago on Friday, April 28, ahead of a tour this summer.

So just what is it about hip-hop that meshes so well with philosophy? Gill credits the work of Alfred North Whitehead — a principal figure in process philosophy, which “identifies processes, changes, or shifting relationships as the only real experience of everyday living”— as being highly influential to his own academic work. (This has included two books to date: Underground Rap as Religion: A Theopoetic Examination of Process Aesthetic Religion, and Toward Afrodiasporic and Afrofuturist Philosophies of Religion.) “Whitehead is saying everything is in motion; everything influences everything else,” Gill said. “And [when I first encountered it] I said, well, that kind of sounds like hip hop to me, all the elements of it: graffiti, DJing, breakdancing, rapping. Scrambling words and recreating worlds… is what this [art form] is doing.”

In addition to the Battle Rap class, Gill also has taught courses at Gustavus on race and sexuality and oppression and privilege, among others. He said he’s been pleased with how much freedom he has here to explore teaching stereotypically staid subjects in forward-thinking ways. “I love the atmosphere,” said Gill, who arrived at the College during the pandemic and only has been teaching in person during this academic year. “I love the freedom to explore ideas and to do philosophy in ways that aren’t necessarily conventional. Because in some programs and at some universities, you really can’t do that.”

His approach has resonated with students as well. “One of the biggest comments I’ve gotten from students is, ‘I didn’t know that that could be philosophy,’” he said. “I’ve been getting enough traction to where people are saying, ‘Maybe I could be a philosophy major if this is what we’re doing here.’ I feel that people have seen in my class, and in all our classes in this department, that there really are things that connect this stuff with the students’ real-world goals,” such as entrepreneurialism, social work, and other potential careers.

Gill applies the entrepreneurial spirit to his own work, and not just with his hip-hop career. This summer he plans to open a record store in downtown Saint Peter, his third such outlet, after ones in Southern California and Tijuana, Mexico. “I like being [in Saint Peter] because it’s such a quiet place away from everything,” he said. “The Cities aren’t that far, but they’re not that close. I like the community here and I’m able to do creative stuff, and the record store is gonna be another part of it.”

As Gustavus and its community navigate some encroaching changes, Gill’s focus remains on showing current and prospective students why this is such a special place to be. “The people who come here are trying to really create their own ways in the world, and I think that that’s what we offer,” he said. “We offer skills that are very useful in jobs that exist, but also in jobs that can be created. We’re often taught to think, ‘Well, you can’t make money doing that’, or, ‘You can’t change the world doing that’. But I think we just have to really show people how we do. That’s going to be a challenge in the coming years, but we have good people in this department who I think are up for it.”


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad


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