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Rhymefest drums up campaign for alderman seat

Grammy Award–winning rapper Che Smith, a.k.a. Rhymefest, who co-wrote the Grammy-winning song “Jesus Walks” with Kanye West, hopes to become the next Alderman of the 20th ward.

Photo: Jonathan Lai/The Chicago Maroon
Hip hop artist Rhymefest is running for alderman of Chicago's 20th ward.

Grammy Award–winning rapper Che Smith, a.k.a. Rhymefest, hopes to become the next Alderman of the 20th ward.

Smith, who co-wrote the Grammy-winning song “Jesus Walks” with Kanye West, said he wants to make history as the “first rapper to ever win an elected office.”

Smith wants to connect constituents with the resources available to them. “We have to connect the village with the ivory tower and the ivory tower to the village. There’s no reason that people born on 63rd Street [never go inside] the International [House] building. There’s no reason that they don’t know the resources before them. So my priorities are to connect the legislature of the aldermanic office and the community back together, to connect the University and the community back together.” 

Smith cited disenfranchisement, disengagement, violence, and people losing their homes as critical issues in the 20th ward. “There are a lot of services that people aren’t receiving. Our ward is one of the largest foreclosures of homes,” he said.

The hip-hop artist announced his candidacy October 21 in Woodlawn. The aldermanic election will be held February 22.

Smith said he wants to use his unconventional background as both a hip-hop artist and a former community correctional supervisor to solve problems in his community, and he believes his music background will open “the door for people who are creative to come in to have creative solutions to common problems.”

Some of that creativity may come from the U of C; Smith hopes to encourage a more cohesive relationship between his constituents and the students of the University, whom he sees as very valuable resources to youth in the 20th ward. “I want to make sure that a little girl in Englewood, that is born in the ghetto of Englewood, can get a degree from the University of Chicago.”

Current 20th–ward alderman Willie Cochran told the Chicago Sun-Times in an October 21 article that Smith wouldn’t advocate for the community. “The voters of the 20th Ward know the difference between a professional public administrator doing an outstanding job for them…as opposed to someone who is a known hip hop artist who degrades women and promotes violence in his videos,” he said.

Cochran couldn’t be reached by the Maroon for comment.

But Smith said he would do all he could to represent the 20th ward. “We have to make sure they are receiving the services and attention that they deserve,” he said.

To address the high rates of foreclosure in his ward, Smith wants to draw attention to programs offered by both the public and private sectors that help people keep their homes.

Another of Smith’s goals is marketing the community and letting businesses know what services the Woodlawn area needs, and he said he would draw upon his celebrity connections to improve retail options in the area.

Smith said he wanted artists he had connections with, like Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, and George Clinton investing in local businesses to build community, not just having a concert or two. “For our first fundraiser, we might have Lupe Fiasco. But none of it is going to matter if we don’t get on the ballot,” he said to a group of volunteers at a meeting on Sunday.

“More than that, I’m going to try to bring them out here to open a business. We need Kanye’s Emporium of Oils. We need Fiasco’s Tabasco Chicken and Waffle Spot, Common’s Boutique of Books. I’m going to call my friends to community-raise. Not for me, but for the community. Those are my politics.”

A third–generation resident of the Woodlawn community, Smith said his candidacy stems from his love for this community.

“My son asked me if he can go to the park and play by himself and I’m like, ‘No, because I can’t go with you and it’s dangerous,’ and he started to cry and said ‘I feel like a prisoner in my own home.’ Well, I’m helping people all around the world. As Rhymefest, I’m helping people all around the country. But I have to start outside my front door, before I can help anybody anywhere else. So if you ask me what prompts me to run, I would say it’s personal responsibility and love for my community.”

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