by Colleen Hanson ’19 and Ariela Tubert
In November of 2016, University of Puget Sound welcomed Hip-Hop artist Olmeca to campus for a concert. In addition to being a Hip-Hop artist who brilliantly merges English and Spanish to create a powerful narrative regarding identity and expression, Olmeca is a civil rights activist and scholar. He graduated from California State University, Los Angeles, with a degree in Philosophy. Two Philosophy students from UPS, Conor O’Keefe ‘18 and Steven Baptiste ‘17, had the opportunity to talk with Olmeca about several issues surrounding his philosophy education and activism. Olmeca said:
The ongoing joke with [Philosophy] is that when you can’t make up your mind, you end up in Philosophy, so that’s what happened with me. I started as a Math major, English, Chicano Studies, then Music, then History, and then I ended up in Philosophy. And I guess what I found in doing all that was that I liked the critical thinking aspect that I found in Math, for example, and then I also liked the other aspect which was the analysis behind theories, concepts, social norms (like you could find in History or Chicano Studies), the understanding as to why people did what they did. So I couldn’t find anything that had both until I found Philosophy. You had something open like Metaphysics or Determinist Theory and stuff like that. Or Logic – yeah you had a little bit of math, which I was horrible at; Symbolic Logic was horrible; it was the worst class. So yeah I found that with Philosophy you can actually do both while also being able to talk about the “now” issues, connect to reality which in some philosophy departments you don’t get to do, but in mine, I was able to do. So it became very much a constructive major that I was taking, it was helping me develop things as I went along.
Olmeca further discussed how Philosophy has informed his ability to recognize and understand the points of view of others. In doing so, he has been able to apply this skill to his activism:
>>Olmeca: Philosophy really helped me articulate a dignified anger that I had, and so I found the language for it through philosophy. I found intentions behind things that were being done to a particular community, I understood that law goes beyond what’s already written in the book – that we have to look not only at the history of how that was developed but Philosophy also allowed me to then ask the questions, “What are the conditions that The Constitution or the law was written under? What were the intentions behind writing these into law?” Do you see what I’m saying? So Philosophy allowed me to not only look at that and ask those types of questions but then actually also look at what people’s philosophies were. Like learning about white supremacy – I learned that in Philosophy. I didn’t learn it in a History class. I learned about white supremacy even though it wasn’t called “white supremacy.” Philosophy allowed me to look at that. You know, like John Locke and the notion of property – versus indigenous notions of communalism. Then I was able to look at two different philosophies and two ways of being: one that was a colonizer and one that was pertinent to nature. So then I learned. Europeans follow this type of line. That’s what we call white supremacy and white privilege and that’s what US foreign policy is built on, right? So it was easier to actually look at it.
>>Conor: That’s really fascinating. I really admire that ability to be hypercritical of not just your own point of view but other peoples’ points of view. But in doing so you have to be somewhat understanding of their point of view and the history that comes from that.
>Olmeca: One thing that happened in my course was that I encountered a lot of racism without professors even knowing. So for example, I had to write papers where you read two philosophers and you look at their discourse – how are they different, how are they the same – and then what I would do is bring a third party which was indigenous ideologies. And so what my teachers would say is, “This is a historical based paper, not a philosophical paper.” And by saying historical, it basically implied that indigenous people no longer existed. So I brought that to attention in my classes. Little by little, the Chair even allowed me to do that. I was kind of known as the student that if you have him in your class, you know that he’s going to bring in this other thing that we should be looking at instead of pushing away. And then what did that do? Well, it allowed me to say okay I understand myself well enough to explain it to someone else but if I’m going to counter this argument with him, I need to understand him and where he’s coming from. So everything that he’s saying is maybe not what he really means. In order to do that I have to study him. And again, Philosophy helps with that shit because it’s asking you to do that, no? If there’s an argument placed on the table, you have to look at where the theory comes from, where their principles came from, what that person said. John Locke for example, when he’s talking about property: where did it come from? What was his upbringing so that I can actually understand why he came up with that. It’s a much better argument and it makes you much smarter when it comes to an argument because you’re studying the person as well. That’s what I thought anyway and that’s how I took Philosophy – as just making me a much better person to contend with when it came to arguments.
Conor and Steven followed by asking Olmeca about the connection between philosophy and activism. Olmeca reflected on what activism means and what he cares about:
I’m always gonna be supporting people’s efforts to live in dignity, as opposed to issue driven activism. It’s less romantic, it’s not a spotlight, but it’s obviously the most important one. Cuz it’s longevity. It’s a long-term commitment when you have that. And that’s what I’ve been doing with the indigenous peoples and Mexico, and here, the Zapatista movement, I lived out there for about a year with them, I take students out there twice a year. The immigrant rights issue right now is important, not as a way to achieve reform for undocumented folks, but again so that people can live in dignity. And that’s a long-term commitment to do that. So yeah, people of color issues, identity issues, are major for me and in my life. They dictate a lot of what I do. Here’s the thing, no one wants to be political. I don’t wanna wake up every morning and go, “… am I gonna go get arrested at today?” I think if people wake up thinking like that, they’re thinking about shit the wrong way.
After talking to Olmeca, Conor and Steven reflected on the interview:
Conor: Olmeca had a lot to say about indigenous philosophy – a realm of philosophy that we don’t have much -if any – exposure to here at UPS, so I learned from Olmeca that we should be paying more attention to indigenous philosophy. He also beautifully linked social activism with philosophy in a manner I hadn’t encountered before – we learn to be critical of all of these famous philosophers and their theories, so we should turn that attitude towards the government regarding the issues we want to see reformed.
Steven: What I learned most from my conversation with Olmeca is the value of a righteous anger in challenging the epistemological and aesthetic dismissal of non-European philosophies. Those which played a significant role in the development of what we now call “western philosophy”. That is, philosophy should be regarded as a globally human endeavor. In this regard, for Philosophy to call itself “the love of knowledge” and then limit its scope of love to such a narrow set of philosophies is a hypocrisy. This growing recognition within the field makes me hopeful and excited for the subject that I already enjoy and love so much.
Throughout the interview, Olmeca reflected on how philosophy affects his way of thinking and his music:
I am in a room with someone that studied philosophy, and then I do hip-hop, so you best believe that when I look at hip-hop, I’m looking at the layers of that shit…. That’s the thing about philosophy, is like you know, you’re studying thinking, it’s dope to me.