"Aahh! Fest was one of the greatest two-day festival concerts that Chicago has seen in recent years. The only thing that can compare to it would be the Silver Room Block Party." Credit: Courtesy the artist

Not only is 2020 the Year of Chicago Music, it’s also the 35th year for the nonprofit Arts & Business Council of Chicago (A&BC), which provides business expertise and training to creatives and their organizations citywide. To celebrate, the A&BC has launched the #ChiMusic35 campaign at ChiMusic35.com, which includes a public poll to determine the consensus 35 greatest moments in Chicago music history as well as a raffle to benefit the A&BC’s work supporting creative communities struggling with the impact of COVID-19 in the city’s disinvested neighborhoods.

Another part of the campaign is this Reader collaboration: a series spotlighting important figures in Chicago music serving as #ChiMusic35 ambassadors. This week, we hear from Oscar- and Grammy-winning rapper and activist Che “Rhymefest” Smith, cofounder and creative director of the nonprofit Art of Culture (formerly Donda’s House). A fixture in the Chicago hip-hop scene for decades, he’s currently working on a new album as well as his memoir: both are titled Love Lessons.

This interview was conducted by Ayana Contreras, who’s a DJ, a host and producer at WBEZ radio, and a columnist for DownBeat magazine.

Ayana Contreras: What’s one of your favorite Chicago music moments?

Rhymefest: One of the most powerful, understated moments in Chicago music history of the last five years—and Kanye and I were just speaking about this a day ago—was an event called Aahh! Fest. It was created [in 2014] by Common and Donda’s House, which was a nonprofit organization that myself and my then wife ran. The first day was Community Day, where vendors got to come out and give information and resources to the community. The first day was free for all the young people in the city to attend. Diggy Simmons performed with myself and Common.

  • A video recap of the 2014 Aahh! Fest produced by the Common Ground Foundation

But the second day you had Jennifer Hudson performing. You had Common. You had Kanye West. You had Twista. You had Lupe Fiasco. You had Crucial Conflict. The city had never seen most of its greatest hip-hop artists on one stage in one night. When Kanye came out and performed, he ran through his whole catalog with simply a guy with a keyboard and a guitar. It was a beautiful Chicago evening.

What we were able to all come together and do just showed a kind of unity, and the fulfillment of that type of promise. When I look and see what the Roots do in Philadelphia—they have a Roots Picnic that they do every year. Chicago hasn’t had anything like that before it or anything like it since. No one really knows who throws Riot Fest. No one really knows who does Lollapalooza. I’ll be damned if any of them give back to the community or gave back to the community.

This was something that was done for the community, by the community, and people who came from it. Aahh! Fest was one of the greatest two-day festival concerts that Chicago has seen in recent years. The only thing that can compare to it would be the Silver Room Block Party.

You named a who’s who of Chicago artists who’ve achieved worldwide stardom. What do you think it is about Chicago that creates these people, these artists, this thing that the world sees as being special?

Well, I’m going to say this, but this extends to other genres of music. The people that migrated to Chicago from the south and brought gospel, that evolved into the way we do blues, that turned into the way that we express ourselves, the Africana way that we do house music—[we’re the home] of house music, the home of the blues, the evolution of gospel, and the consciousness of hip-hop. That’s what we are, especially when you look at the ones who truly have made it in hip-hop from Chicago. It is the consciousness of the genre.  v