Dante Winslow, known by his stage name ZENtheRapper, grew up in Kankakee before moving on to a journey filled with exploration, creativity, and growth. His background paints a vivid picture of a young man exploring his identity, talent, and purpose. An alumnus of the University of Illinois with a history degree, Dante’s academic pursuits never stopped him from exploring various creative outlets. During his time in Norfolk, VA, he briefly worked as a cable technician but found his true passion in writing, journaling, and connecting with creative minds like Rachael Switzky and the Siebel Center for Design.
His childhood consisted of contrasts – attending a private Catholic school while growing up Baptist at home, an environment that influenced his morals and values. This mix of influences led him to experience isolation and alienation at times, but it also provided him the space to develop his interests and skills. After graduating from college and spending time with family in Norfolk, ZEN began writing. However, it was more than just words on paper; he was exploring ideas, meeting creative individuals, and setting his feet on a path that would eventually lead him to a hip-hop career.
ZEN’s eyes lit up as he shared his love for history, spirituality and philosophy, and how he channels these influences into his art. His Facebook profile features more images of book passages and personal notes that inspire him as it does of him performing. He spoke of how the wisdom of ancient civilizations like Egypt and Greece has profoundly impacted his music, turning it into a deep and enlightening experience. “I think I found history and philosophy to be so deep and so dense,” he shared with me, with an intensity that resonated in his voice. “It’s so deep and enlightening that I want to present it to the world.” This isn’t a mere artistic expression for him; it’s a personal mission.
ZEN’s experience at the Siebel Center for Design holds a significant place in his journey, reflecting his innovative approach to music and community building. His involvement began with an invitation to collaborate on a project that aimed to combine technology and art in innovative ways. As part of this endeavor, he participated in workshops where he interacted with a diverse group of individuals, including engineers and designers. Together, they embarked on a creative journey to explore the intersections between different disciplines, resulting in a unique blend of artistic expression and technological innovation. His work not only gave him a platform to expand his artistic horizons but also led to meaningful connections and collaborations with professionals from various fields. While talking about this experience, his voice filled with enthusiasm as he explained how the experience provided the platform to explore his creative side, and the beauty of community and collaboration, emphasizing their support and the creative freedom they offered. It’s clear that his work with the Siebel Center for Design has left an indelible mark on him, one that echoes his artistic integrity and his dedication to creating art that speaks to the human condition.
Interestingly, this passion extends far beyond his own musical journey. As an educator, ZENtheRapper has brought his love for hip-hop into the classroom, using his rap skills to connect with students and teach them the empowering feeling of expressing oneself creatively. His face softened as he recalled the joy of engaging young minds, connecting them with subjects that might have otherwise seemed dry or uninteresting. “I think about how much more engaged they could be if there was something like rap lyrics involved,” he explained, the excitement palpable in his voice. He takes immense pride in seeing his students grow, but he also emphasizes that their fresh perspectives and eagerness to learn continually inspire him. The joy he gets from teaching was palpable as he spoke, making it clear that this role isn’t just a job for him; it’s a passion that aligns with his artistic soul.
But this drive to educate and enlighten isn’t confined to the four walls of a classroom. ZENtheRapper’s music reaches out to anyone willing to listen, inviting them on a journey of growth and self-discovery. He expressed a sense of responsibility, and a desire to help others think about things more deeply and grow through his unique blend of hip-hop and historical insight. “If I can help people find that they can come to their own conclusions, then I’ve done my job,” he said, his voice filled with sincerity.
Half House Studios has been another significant collaboration in ZEN’s musical journey. It’s a space where he feels at home, surrounded by like-minded artists and professionals who share his passion for pushing the envelope in hip-hop. He spoke warmly of his experiences working with Mousepad and the team at Half House Studios, describing a supportive atmosphere that nurtures creativity and innovation. Whether working on his own projects or contributing to others’, ZEN feels that the collaboration with Half House has enriched his music, offering him the freedom to experiment and grow. It’s a relationship that goes beyond just making music; it’s a collaboration that fosters artistic growth and opens doors to new creative possibilities.
He emphasized the importance of collaboration and the beauty of bringing people together, not just for his own success but to build a community, to create something larger than himself. His words resonated with a sense of purpose, a vision of a world where artists and creatives unite to share and grow. “I want to bring it to light because other people that have similar skills or might need to join to expand their creative expression,” he reflected, his voice firm and determined.
As I left the interview, I found myself reflecting on the many facets of ZENtheRapper. More than just a hip-hop artist, he’s an artist with depth and vision, one who’s crafting a unique narrative through his music, his teaching, and his community work. His blend of hip-hop, history, spirituality, and philosophy offers listeners a chance to explore new horizons, to grow and evolve through sound and rhythm. Whether it’s his collaborative spirit, his philosophical insight, or his desire to educate, there’s something about ZENtheRapper that feels fresh and invigorating. His music isn’t just about beats and rhymes; it’s a vehicle for growth, learning, and community building.
Listening to ZENtheRapper’s work, you might find yourself on a philosophical journey you never expected, guided by an artist who’s not afraid to challenge boundaries, inspire, and dream. His enlightening sound is a testament to the power of music to transcend societal norms and politics, connect minds, and touch souls. It’s a reminder that hip-hop, like life itself, can be a path to growth, understanding, and fulfillment.