We Cyphered Our Symposiums.

“Spit, Lil’ Cuz…”

 – Qadir Jones (aka Hellstar), my beautiful and brilliant autodidactic cousin

 

“… Keep it Real.”

– John Gillespie Sr (aka Unorthodox), my complex and clever autodidactic father

 

These were the maxims that marked my introduction to philosophical study.

Spit: /spit/ (verb) – to rap, to make words make melodies, to make rhythm and poetry, to make music from the percussive tenor of your voice box, to create concept out of sound and song, to theorize with a boom box, to philosophize to an 808, to a kick-drum, to a snare, to a boom bap. 

 

Spit, Lil Cuz,” the words still ring in my ears to this day, and every time it is time to approach philosophy, to write, to seek out the answers to questions asked before and to questions yet to be asked, I am brought back to those moments, those circles, those cyphers that explored everything about everything.

I came to philosophy through hip hop. It was through cyphering ideas with my father and cousin through rhythm, beats and lyrics that philosophy first became a possibility for me. It was the times that I would freestyle about the smoothness of my flow, the coolness of my multi-syllabic rhyming, and the freshness of my attire that I was, in fact, introducing myself to questions at the heart of ontology. What does it mean to be? What makes a person a person? A Thing a Thing? What makes you who you are? What it is like to be-in-the-World? It was the times that my Father would challenge me, critique me, in consistent syncopation with the beat about the Realness of my claims that I was, in fact, introduced to questions are the heart of epistemology. How do you know what you think you know? How do we obtain the Truth, the Real? What is the Truth? What is the Real? And who has access to it? It was the times when we played a melodramatic instrumental with slow pianos, soft strings, and light drums; when we talked about the struggle of being black, of being broke, of having to hustle, of having to grind and of trying to do right under those conditions that we not only introduced ourselves to questions at the heart of morality, but we expanded the implications of such questions. What is the good? What is morality? How can one sustain ideal morality under non-ideal circumstances? What is justice in a world so unjust to black people like us? These hard questions were first approached over the microphone – freestyled and free formed. Yet, it was not all free. We had one rule, and one rule only: Keep it Real.

Keep it Real: /kēp it ˈrē(ə)l/ (verb) – to speak the truth, to complete no sentence that is not verifiable, to utter only that which one considers to be objective, to share reality with one’s words, to paint realistic pictures with syllables that are both eloquent and error-free.

It was my Father who insisted on reminding my cousin and I on the importance of Keepin’ it Real when we spit. My Father then, in this sense, is very much the Plato of my philosophical journey, insofar as the safest general characterization of my philosophical trajectory is that it consists of a series of footnotes to this very specific remark of my Fathers[1]. Contrary to the assumptive logic of the Philosopher Alfred Whitehead and many institutionally trained philosophers today, the search for wisdom, the journey for truth, and the citational practices that center that adventure are multiplicitous, variegated, and uncontainable. Sincere philosophy knows no borders, and it is most certainly not confined within a specific geographic terrain known as Europe.

I read Plato for the first time in undergrad. Hence, Plato was not the beginning of my quest for Truth and he most certainly was not the end. Yet, I could only imagine had I been told earlier in my life that to seek the Truth is to start with Plato, that philosophy is equivalent to what Plato does or the format that Plato has laid out, that I would have run from philosophy. I would have quit before I even started. And this is not because the ideas generated by that brilliant Athenian are without value or that there is nothing interesting or citation-worthy in the work of Plato. On the contrary, I believe had my Father been given the opportunity to be institutionally trained in philosophy rather than systematically devalued by the World that he might have found an intellectual ally in Plato. For my Father, loves the Real, and believes in the transcendent qualities of the Real and the liberatory capacity of knowledge in much the same way as Plato does. However, had I thought that all philosophy was simply footnotes to Plato and that what my Father, my Cousin and I had been doing was not and could not be considered philosophical, I would have opted for an intellectual endeavor that appreciated the concepts critiqued and created in our every verse. Or, I would have devalued those moments we spent making theory out of soundtracks, concepts out of choruses.

The purpose of our Symposiums was to cypher and share ideas about anything through a very specific kind of “speaking” – the cultural-linguistic medium known as rapping. To rap was to mix normal or “prose” speech with poetic speech. It was a method of sharing ideas very specific to a culture of people who had been ostracized, debased, enslaved and murdered all throughout this country and around the world. Every time these hip hop symposiums occurred, a new topic was considered and we were forced to tackle the topic with whatever knowledge we had prior to its proposal. I read dictionaries, I read thesauruses, I read Tupac, Biggie, Nas, Lauryn Hill, Eminem, Lil’ Wayne, The Diplomats, Lupe Fiasco, Outkast, T.I., and more. Our philosophy, our music, our ideas were inspired by our culture and the political circumstances of our lives.

My philosophical quest started at home with my father, my cousin and an instrumental. But, the more important fact is, all philosophical questions start at home. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Hegel, Nietzsche, etc. are no different. The only difference is that their work has operated in and through an assumption that their home is the universal home, their specific home and the specific questions and answers that that home has generated has been “overrepresented”[2] as the home of us all. It is for this reason that philosophy must begin to recognize that this house of philosophical questioning is not owned and possessed by Europe. Philosophy must recognize that demarcating what is and what is not philosophy, or what is “proper” and what is “improper” philosophy on the basis of a false universalization of Europe as the home of the World has only lead to circumscribed possibilities, creative erasure, and recycled questions and answers.

Academic philosophy must work to unbound the boundaries it’s placed around the format and flow of philosophical thought. For I am not the only one thinking the hard questions in a rhythm and register outside the normative construction of Western philosophy. In fact, we are legion. We are on street-corners, in strip clubs, in Mama’s basements, in dirty alley-ways, at dead-end jobs, in studios, in project buildings, in prisons, at barbershops, at basketball courts, etc. spittin’, keepin’ it real, and cyphering our symposiums.

[1] This is an allusion to the following remark made by the English Philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, “The safest general characterization of European Philosophical tradition is that it consist of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Alfred North Whitehead, “Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (DR Griffin & DW Sherburne, Eds.)” (New York: Free Press, 1979), 39.

[2] For more on this “overrepresentation” see the work of Caribbean theorist and scholar, Sylvia Wynter.

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