Oscar-winning rapper Che "Rhymefest" Smith wants his peers to be responsible for their communities. Credit: Chandler West/Sun-Times Media

Che “Ryhmefest” Smith has put out seven albums and three mixtapes, once beat Eminem in a freestyle battle, and is one of only three rappers in the world to have both a Grammy and an Oscar to his name—and he still lives in Woodlawn, the neighborhood he grew up in. It’s part of him living out a message of community he’s always believed in. A recent tweet from the rapper reads: “Stop teaching people 2 Leave ‘the hood’ make it, 2 escape it! Let’s talk making it to rebuild it. Gentrification is the fault of brain drain.”

In 2010 Smith ran for alderman of the 20th ward only to be beat by incumbent Willie B. Cochran. In the years since, however, he hasn’t given up on changing the face of Chicago, especially not in the current politically charged climate. But he wants to do more than rally and protest.

“The apathy based on a lot misinformation and no information at all has rendered the people helpless, so I can appreciate the protests because I think that people sometimes just don’t know what to do,” Smith says, “but protesting doesn’t get things accomplished in the same way that process does, getting involved with community organizations that already exist.”

On the same day that Black Lives Matter protestors marched through the Taste of Chicago in Grant Park, Smith was leading TIP Fest on Northerly Island, a gathering of more than 3,000 teens (most of whom were black) coming together to create and perform art together, enjoy music, participate in digital design labs, and connect with one another. “We were black lives doing,” Smith says. “We get better from police not by asking the police for better but by building better communities.”

Smith stepped up to run for alderman because he saw a need for members of his generation—and his profession—to “grow up” and set an example. “Rappers have to come out now and not just say I’m running a clothing or alcohol line—we have to be responsible for our communities,” Smith says. “We have to say we’re creating foundations, we’re running for political office.”

Smith himself is actively involved with Donda’s House, an organization started by Kanye West to provide arts education to Chicago youth. (Smith’s wife is the executive director). There he leads Got Bars, a music program that focuses on teaching creative writing, health and wellness, and studio recording.

While Smith doesn’t seem himself taking a run for alderman again, he said he might take a swing at being a part of the newly approved elected school board[THERE IS NO ELECTED SCHOOL BOARD]. In that position he can continue advocating for arts programs for youths and put out a plea for more civic engagement education. Until then, he’ll continue being as involved in his community as he can with the hope for a better tomorrow.

“All we’re waiting on now is for the damn asteroid to hit, every week there’s something new,” Smith says. “In Chicago if we can get it together, then we can be the example for the world.”

Rhymefest talks politics and more at WBEZ’s Campaigns, Conventions, and Comedy at Lincoln Hall on Mon 7/25.