Jon Ivan Gill is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College and Cross-Community Coordinator at the Center for Process Studies. He also co-owns Serious Cartoons Records and Tapes in San Bernardino, Ca. with Michael Adame. His 2019 hardcover monograph, Underground Rap as Religion: A Theopoetic Examination of a Process Aesthetic Religion, releases in paperback June 30, 2021 through Routledge. He edited a Claremont Colleges student volume on Afrofuturism and philosophy of religion entitled Toward Afro-diasporic and Afrofuturist Philosophies of Religion which released in April 2022. Under the alias "Gilead7," Gill raps in the collectives Tomorrow Kings, Echoes of Oratory Muzik, and Crystal Radio.
Music by: @siryalibeats
Portrait Illustration by: Olivia Lim
Patrick: Hey, what's going on, it's Pat here, ready for another episode of the Sound of the Genuine. And man am I excited about today's episode where we are actually going to get a sound. I got Dr. Jon Gill here, who's not only a professor, but he's also a producer, a record label owner, an MC. He does it all! He is such a cool dude and brings all the spirit and wisdom from all of his communities and ancestors and I am so excited for you to learn a little bit about Jon here on the Sound of the Genuine.
Dr. Jon Gill. I'm so excited to have you here. It's good to see you dude.
Jon: Man it's really, really good to see you. And I'm really, really glad to be with you both here - very very glad. Thank you for having me.
Patrick: I don't think our listeners are ready for what's about to happen. We've invited you to tell your own story in a different way, because you are an artist. I mean, aside from being a scholar and a teacher, you're also a producer, an MC - I mean, you are just, just one of the coolest humans I've ever met. So we've invited you to actually tell your own story.
I want to set folks up, as they get to know you. So I got a couple of questions I'm just going to throw at you first just to get them ready for it. So you are about to give us an experience. You're gonna take us on your life journey through music. How did music even get into your life?
Jon: Wow. That's a great question, Pat. I have parents who were devout music listeners. My father was a big jazz head, that was his biggest thing. My mother used to listen to everything from jazz to a bit of blues, to a bit of music from South America, Central America - she used to listen to everything. So I got an appreciation for music very, very, early, and that never left me. Even though my parents were charismatic Pentecostal and they, many times, used to try to keep me away from secular music, I would go to my grandmother's house and all the records my mom left were there.
So what was I doing? I was going through everything from James Brown to El Chicano, like everything was in my mom's collection. And my dad was a big jazz head. So even though he was a charismatic Pentecostal, when I was in the car, he would listen to Coltrane, Miles, I mean, Tito Puente, like everybody. So yeah, that's kind of where it starts.
Patrick: That's what's up. And as folks will hear, that's infused by the many backgrounds that you bring and I can't wait for them to hear that one definition of terms before they get into this storytelling.
Patrick: The four elements of hip hop. What are they?
Jon: The four elements of hip hop - that's one of my favorite questions. When we always think about hip hop as synonymous with rap, but the elements of hip hop are…the first element being a graffiti, which starts in the way we talk about it in hip hop in the late sixties, um, corn bread and Taki 183, who were artists who kind of popularized this, the stylized use of spray cans to produce identity on private property. Then there's b-girling or b-boying, which is known as breakdancing. What some say developed as gang dances in the Bronx, which became this way of expressing oneself to the breaks of the records or the breakdowns in records that had these drum parts that DJ Kool Herc, in his wisdom, said he wanted to extend. So he took two records of the same and he just played the breakdowns, these heavy drum parts of the records, and people would do these crazy dances. Dances that have roots everywhere from Brazil to China. And so that's the second element. The third element is deejaying or this creative playing of records – it’s not just playing a record, but it's playing with a record. So looping certain parts of records, recreating the sounds of the record. That's deejaying. KRS says that deejaying is what the human does to technology.
And then rapping is the fourth element, which came about as really a way for the DJs to hype up the break dancers. And then that became a profession because at first the DJs were the MC's. Then the DJ’s said they found people to do this and those people took it seriously. And then when commercial record labels got a hold of hip hop, they kind of extracted that element from the rest of it.
And then I would even say the fifth element is, as Afrika Bambaataa would say, is knowledge and understanding. So who are you as an individual? What do you bring to the table? How does where you come from influence where you are? Knowledge of self as the 5% Nation would go on to call it. But those are the four elements with the fifth, knowledge and understanding.
Patrick: Okay, now that the listener is prepared for the Sound of the Genuine that is Jon Gill, you are going to get some of those elements in this story. So anything you want to say to set them up?
Jon: I just want to say peace. I just hope they enjoy the listen. So thank you for taking the time to check me out. I really appreciate it.
(Music and Story from Jon Gill)
Patrick: Jon, we've just listened to your life story, basically the sound of the genuine, your soundtrack, plus your life journey; the many confluences and backgrounds that you bring. And I just have a couple questions around, like you have this way of bringing all these different parts of the world together through music, through your story. And as I think about this as a lay person, as someone who's trying to discern my vocation, and I try to put these things together as a job, that's like 40 jobs. You're like you know a researcher, a producer, a label owner, writing books. I mean, you're doing it all. So tell me a little bit about how you navigate this life in such a creative way because you handle it so well. Like I don't see a person who's like trying to scramble to get all this stuff together. This seems to make sense, like this is your call. This is what you do.
Jon: Yeah. I guess the way I look at everything I do is passion. And I think sometime the institutions teach us to bridle our passion, cause our passions take us in several directions. But sometime the system that we've been introduced into whether by force or by volition, they strip us of that. And so for me, it's always been important to maintain that. When I started my MC'ing journey, I was still very interested in theology and philosophy. When I started that journey academically, I was still interested in music and then other interests began to develop as I kept doing it.
So…because my father would say you’re going to have to pick something and my question was always, why? I'm interested in all of these things, why should I pick one? I'm also a process thinker and as process thinkers we believe in multiplicity and we are good at it.
Well everything is a multiplicity. Some people admit it, some people don't and some people live as if it is some people live as if it's not. So for me, it's always been important to live as if it is. There were times I would be leaving class and going to perform at a show and after the show I'm going to do a radio session.
And then I may be getting a few hours of sleep and then I'd be going to work at a library. It never seemed like anything was out of place for me, this is just the way things flow. And maybe that has to do with who I am also. Yeah, ancestrally. But, yeah everything flows together and that's kind of the way I see it.
Patrick: Part of what I love about this is, as you told the story, as we get towards the end, the importance of naming yourself as part of this journey. Being able to identify how you want to identify, but it also comes, which I thought was just like a beautiful way of putting all this stuff together is tied to an album The Third Shattering. That somehow this naming yourself, the same time you're talking about vocation and coming to your own sense of self, comes at the same time you're making something that has shattering in the word. Tell us a little bit about that.
Jon: Yeah. Yeah. Cause as I said, my father is from Belize and his family is from Belize and Honduras. And my mother's side of the family is from Chicago with roots in Mississippi and Arkansas. And I always thought that the labels, not just for me, but I always thought that the racial labels, because race and ethnicity and culture are different things. I think race is over here for me, ethnicity and culture is over here. So for me, I always used to think as a kid, why have we caused ourselves to look at the world through the lenses that the colonizers have given us? Race as we know didn't always exist. It's Theodore Walker's Mothership Connections. There were no black, white, Hispanic, Latino, Native American, Pacific Islanders before the middle passage. So the question would be well who were you before that? And what are the issues if there are any?
I ask these things as questions. I kind of live my life in my way but I pose them as questions to others. Well what does this mean for you to siphon your identity through these categories? And sometime we use them in liberating ways, but the question is well can race ever not be racist? So, because race inherently for me, in many ways, if we look at the history of race is a system of hierarchy. So for me, it's very, very important to understand myself through culture and ethnicity, which is why I brought up the Choctaw Nation, which is where my mother's from. Nigeria, which is where she found that her ancestry is from on my other side. There's several parts of the continent we now call Africa. There’s also Spain, Portugal…indigenous, what people refer to with indigenous since my family is from Belize, probably Maya descent. They're all those things that converge. So I'm going to stick toward, well I'm a Belizean Honduran Chicagoan of Afro-diasporic and other descent. And that's problematic, but that's where I am right now. So I think it's very, very important to name ourselves and that's kind of what I try to do in that song. And I just ask people the questions about it. You know, here's what I do, but maybe this could help you in your own process, wherever that takes you.
Patrick: What I love about the way that this is coming in, with this sound of the genuine, I would just say this episode, as opposed to some of the other interviews we've done as opposed to looking at titles like Pastor, Reverend, Professor, what I see in you, Jon is someone who's saying all of those labels are kind of…they're a thing, but none of them matter more than any of the other things. It's really about what we make and do with them, which is why your sound was such a gift. It was a literal sound that we got, as you were navigating this, and I felt more invited into someone's life journey than I've had in a really long time.
You give us a soundtrack and we know from the science the, you know, our mind…the number one hits when we're 17 gets stuck in our head for a long time, because of the point of our brain development, that's when the music is coming and you've really brought the music of all your people, to really bear witness on what you do in the world. And as you think about your vocation, your role, how would you describe what you do?
Jon: That's a great question. I think of myself as a tour guide and a mediator. As it's pretty obvious in what I've presented, I went from a place of Western Christianity, filtered through my cultural and ethnic experiences to a point of humanism, but not everyone may wind up there. I think that my role really, or calling if you will, is to encourage people wherever they are to think about their vocation, think about where their understandings of theological matters are. So I tell my students, look, I'm not here to convert you to what I think I'm here to help you think about how you see the world. Don't lose your perspective.
All you need to get from me is that you need to think critically about yours. And I always have an appreciation for the theological academy, because it's supposed to, now it don't always do that, but it's supposed to cause us to re-imagine who we are.
This is why I really stay engaged with theology. For me, this exercise and not just an exercise, this practice of thinking about what we need to do in the world is very important for those who study theology and those who don't. So yeah, I think that's kind of what I offer.
Patrick: And as you think about this, as you teach students to do this in the world as you have listeners who are experiencing this, how much of this sense of tour guide…I mean, that is accompaniment and navigating life and journeying with people, how much of that sense is driven by your own sense of call? Like this is who I am, this is what my gifts are, my talents, and how much is, impacted from the sounds that we heard, which are so eclectic. Yeah, you're bringing the heartbeat of so many different communities and so many of your ancestors - how much is it driven by community and how much is driven by self? This is who I am. This is what I've been called to do.
Jon: The way I see it, self is community for me. There is a responsibility, Noble Drew Ali said this: After you study everything else, study yourself. And then I'm reminded of the Mayan In Lak'ech. I am you, you are me. So I think about that when I do this work and I do think that my responsibility is to the communities, which is to myself. It's really powerful for me to look at the world that way. And I do feel a responsibility to represent the voices who are me, but sometimes people don't understand that those voices can converge in one people. I'm not the only person that they converge in. I think that we all have that in us.
My responsibility, I believe, is to the community because the community is me and I'm understanding the community through myself and vice versa. So I'm very cautious, especially now when I'm MCing, well “what am I saying?”, in a way that I wasn't before. You know, when I was young, I was like, well, you know, um, I might not mean what I'm saying, but I'm going to say this and don't take it literally, but this is kinda what I'm saying. And in battling, we used to do that. But now I say, well, you know what - the few people who listen to me and what I impact, I have to be conscious of that because these are community decisions. What am I saying to ground and further what my community needs?
Patrick: Jon, I'm so inspired by that. I'm inspired by you. I mean, just to think of all the things you're putting together Primo, it just blows my mind. And the way that you are thinking about self and community together, I think is going to provide, at least for me, kind of a backbone of how I've really been wrestling with this. I mean, the question is dualistic in nature in the way that we've been asking it and a lot of people have tried to do a both/and, but that right there is, it is relational. It is the sound that you have so graciously shared with us mixed with the voiceover that you gave us. This has been a gift. So thank you.
Jon: Wow. Well, you know, the gift is yours because you have given me a gift to be able to do this. So this has been great. I needed it. Like I said, I really did. Thank you all for the opportunity.
Patrick: Jon, I appreciate it.
I just want to say thank you for listening to another episode of the Sound of the Genuine. If you liked this episode, share it with a friend. I want to give a special shout out to my team at FTE, Elsie Barnhart and Heather Wallace are design managers who help make this episode come alive. And @siryalibeats for his music. And a special, special gratitude to Dr. Jon Gill who mixed, mastered his own story for this episode. Thank you again and we'll see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.