Che “Rhymefest” Smith has dominated many different fields. He won a Grammy for his work on Kanye West’s song “Jesus Walks,” and is nominated again this year for the song “New Slave,” also performed by West. He co-founded the youth program Donda’s House that focuses on the arts, health and wellness, and literature. Smith also ran for 20th ward alderman in 2011. Now, Smith has his own radio talk show on WVON 1690AM on Mondays from 6:00-9:00 pm, where he will discuss politics and social issues facing the Chicago community. We talk with him about his career, nonprofit work and the new show.
Read an interview with Smith and view a slideshow behind the scenes of his radio show.
You have a new radio show called “Speak Up.” How did this idea come about?
It came about because one of the things I found in our communities is that people complain about problems, but they don’t complain to the right people or look for solutions. It is about examining the “who” and the “what,” and examining the “how” – how to fix some of these issues.
What is the format?
It is a call-in format with some investigative elements. We are creating partnerships with the Tribune and Sun-Times to follow where money goes and where money comes to build things, how is it used and why communities look the way they do if we have grants and TIF funds. Where is it all really going?
What issues are covered on the show?
It’s general. We will be focusing on political and social issues, some entertainment issues. Next week, we are having a show on the violence in rap music. We will have Chicago hip-hop artists Common and Lupe Fiasco on the show to talk about bridging the gap between kids and adults. This is what kids are listening to and what you can do to be involved.
Your first show was January 6?
It was Monday; it went well. We spoke to a group called Detroit 300, which is a guardian angel-type group that aids the police to find criminals - perpetrators who hurt women and children, that kind of thing. Could we get community action groups in Chicago to fight crime like that?
What are your thoughts on current Chicago politics?
I think voters are as apathetic as they have ever been. People have given up. People say: “I don’t like Mayor Emanuel’s policies but there is no one else to challenge him so we will vote for him again.” People have gotten so mired down. One example: I had to get on a payment plan just to deal with all my parking tickets from the city. What about minimum wage earners? How do they deal with this? People are not even thinking politics, they are thinking survival. Voters are so depressed that crooked politicians are able to stay where they are and continue abusing the system.
I think politicians are doing what they can. The problem is that when we talk about gang violence or the murder rate, it’s not their job. It’s the community’s responsibility. For instance, the Detroit 300, unless the people in the communities and the families of victims stand up and we all unite, there is no amount of money or any politician who can solve the problem. The only thing I rely on politicians for is to ease the burden. The speed cameras – what is the reason for these? Show me the data and the accidents that resulted in a camera being up. I look to them to be fair.
What are your thoughts on the murder rate? It’s fallen this year; does it feel that way?
Well, if you tell me I no longer have pneumonia, but I have a high fever, do I feel relief? No. I realize it’s election season and it’s cold out so people are inside. If you tell me 400 murders are better than 412, it doesn’t feel that way for those in the community. It’s on the community to lower crime in the area. But I also don’t feel it’s fair for politicians to skew numbers for their benefit during an election year.
We need progressive politicians in the hood like [Ald. Bob] Fioretti. Ninety percent of the City Council votes in step with the mayor. And this was the same issue with Mayor [Richard M.] Daley. It’s time to help the people. When you look at schools in black and brown areas, test scores show they are not doing better. We need politicians to be independent and progressive. Constituents need to elect someone different but they are so beaten down. So that’s what we want to do on my new show: electrify people to care again.
Where does Mayor Emanuel stand with the black community?
People are apathetic. They are not satisfied because they feel he is disconnected from them. Visiting one or two churches in the area is not enough. As much as people complained about Daley, they want him back. As much as he financially ruined the city, they want that character back. He was a Chicagoan and people just don’t feel that way about Emanuel. He isn’t a part of the city. He is corporate. He is an elitist. People are looking at Rahm as a machine and are feeling hopeless against that machine. We had freezing cold temperatures and the school board came out too late. I’m not holding water for the union either though. They should have picked the candidate in the last election but they didn’t.
The documentary The Field has been receiving attention online through social media, like Twitter and message boards. How were you involved with the project?
In the documentary The Field, Donda’s House is featured. They came to the house and filmed the work we do. You will see me teaching one of the rap writing courses.
You are the co-founder of Donda’s House. Tell me about that project.
Donda’s House officially started last year. It was created and founded by myself and Kanye West to teach youth art and development. We have health and wellness programs on the weekends; kids can do yoga and get in touch with their inner selves. They can also record music for free and take classes to learn about song structure. We have partners; we’ve collaborated with Second City. We teach kids what they need to know and give them arts development before they get scooped up by record labels. Guys like Chief Keef haven’t been given those tools first before getting famous on YouTube.
What are your goals for 2014?
I have an album called “Violence Is Sexy” that comes with an anthology, including writing from Dr. Cornel West and others. I have the new radio show; and then Donda’s House.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I will say this about Kanye: people didn’t like Muhammad Ali either. It takes people time to catch up with what big mouths are saying.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
~Photos by Brandis Friedman