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Rhymefest Talks Donda's House, Kanye West And AAHH! Fest

By Katie Karpowicz in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 2, 2014 7:00PM

He's not pumping out albums every six months, but Rhymefest is still one of the most prolific rappers and activists that Chicago has to offer. When he's not serving his community and teaching young aspiring musicians how to make their dreams a reality as the Creative Director of Donda's House, he's probably either creating Grammy-nominated hits or hosting his own radio show on WVON 1690AM.

Chicagoist had the opportunity to catch up with Rhymefest (real name Che Smith) to learn more about his recent efforts, from his long awaited new album to his recent partnership with fellow Chicago rapper Common to increase the number of youth jobs in the city.

Chicagoist: Let's start by talking about the new album. Is there any update on that?

Rhymefest: I was working on an album called Violence Is Sexy and the theme behind the album is violence as a disease or a hurricane that moves from person to person, state to state and city to city. Twenty years ago we were talking about the Crips and Bloods in California. But what did we get from that? We got "Boyz n the Hood," "Menace to Society," N.W.A., a host of gangster rappers from the West Coast. Violence created a whole economy in the entertainment industry on the West Coast.

When Tupac got killed it was like, "Oh my God, it's real." So then violence moved down South and we got Lil Wayne and Master P and The Hot Boys. Then Hurricane Katrina came and washed away the entertainment of violence. Now we're in Chicago, "Chiraq." Violence is still happening in LA. People are still killing each other in New Orleans. East St. Louis is worse than everywhere but it's our turn. And what do you get? Documentaries, movies, Chief Keef. There's an economy of violence. It's sexy. It's being exploited. So it's not about black on black crime in Chicago. Black on black crime is around America but it's just our turn to make money from it and it's not really getting to the root of solving it.

The album is about the industry of crime in America. It's a long explanation but...

Chicagoist: It's a big issue, it needs a long explanation. It interests me that you brought up the documentaries that are being made about "Chiraq." You even appeared in WorldstarHipHop's "The Field." It feels like there have been so many now—Woldstar's, Vice's "Welcome to Chiraq," "Chicagoland" on CNN—so do you feel like those are good or bad for the city?

Rhymefest: It's not great, you know? A lot of things get left out. The "Chicagoland" series, for instance, contacted our program at Donda's House, where we do very positive work for young people, but they weren't interested in that. They wanted drama! They were producing a show and we know now that they were producing a show that had a narrative that came from the mayor's office. We know that for a fact, so how can something be good if it's not meant to really shed honest light, if it's directed by powerful interests and not just journalistic integrity.

Chicagoist: I agree. That's an excellent point. I'd like to get back to album though before we get too sidetracked.

Rhymefest: The album has been postponed.

"There's an economy of violence. It's sexy. It's being exploited."
Chicagoist: That was my next question. I noticed the PledgeMusic campaign was on hold?

Rhymefest: Well, with what we're doing at Donda's House, I came to an epiphany. I did finish the album but I realized that if I would have put that album out I would have been repeating the same mistakes that most rappers make or are making. You look at Jay Z—we've conquered being entrepreneurs. Look at Sean "Puffy" Combs, we've conquered selling clothes and alcohol and making money. Rappers are parents. I know rappers who are grandparents and we still haven't conquered politics, social development, philanthropy and these are areas, as we become our parents and grandparents, that we need to hold the torch of what makes the world run and what makes communities better.

I was making the mistake of just being a rapper. We have Donda's House, this premium arts program. I train young people every day, for no pay—I'm living off my royalties. At Donda's House we give our young people the opportunity to get health and wellness training: meditation, yoga, diet information. We teach studio etiquette. We put them in the studio and let them record for free. [In May] we brought in the vice president of Def Jam Records [Chicago rapper and producer No I.D.] to answer their questions about the industry and why the industry kind of supports negative music in our communities. I realized that for me to put out an album only benefits the Rhymefest brand, it doesn't do anything for what my real love is and that's Donda's House. So if I'm going to put out music, it has to be within the frame of this organization. But it's not about me putting out music. It's about how I can help these young people put out positive music that heals the world instead of killing the world.

So, what we decided to do is put Violence Is Sexy on pause because we are creating a non-profit record label that isn't about capitalism, selling records and how much I can be an individual. It's a collective. We're going to take the label and connect it to the curriculum of Donda's House. So if we're teaching them a 12-week curriculum that comes from Kanye [West]'s mom Dr. Donda West, we would like for them to have the opportunity after the class is over and they graduate to have a fellowship with this record label. It won't be about how many records they sell, it's going to be about how powerfully their music connects. We want them to tour shanty towns in South Africa then come back to Englewood with creative solutions and experience and music. And I think that this project does more for the world than my one album.

We spoke to the vice president of Def Jam who expressed his support and has agreed that Def Jam will do our distribution once we get it set up.

Chicagoist: It sounds like a really amazing and original way to go about solving the problems that you're talking about. I didn't know that Donda's House and Def Jam were even working towards this. Have you put this information out there yet?

Rhymefest: No, nobody knows yet. We are working on the creation of a label called Us Entertainment. Def Jam will handle the distribution.

Chicagoist: It's a great idea.

Rhymefest: My son plays football and he wrestles. He's an average student but if he did not have to get a 2.5 GPA in order to get to a big college he would probably fail. But the reason he wants to [get that average] is because he wants to go play football for the Big 10. He wants to be in the NFL but it's directly connected to his academics. So he has to be academically responsible.

But what do we do for our artists? Our visual and musical artists have no incentive to be educated. So what we get is a bunch of uneducated artists inspiring misinformation, miseducation and illiteracy. We have to change that and that's what we're doing at Donda's House.

Chicagoist: You're absolutely right. So what are the academic incentives or consequences at Donda's House?

Rhymefest: To get into Donda's House you have to come to an oral interview, you have to perform, you have to show that you can be proficient. When you, or if you, make it into Donda's House—we have about 300 every season apply and only 30 can make it because of funding—we bring artists into these curriculums. This year we had No I.D., GLC, Killer Mike. We have them come in and we actually give them curriculum to teach. So the participants, who are all 15 through 24 years old, are always very excited about coming to class because they don't know who's teaching that day.

We give them assignments and grade them. Based on those assignments they pass or they have to repeat the course. Kanye, who's on our board, delivers tickets every time he's in town. Our fall class got fifty tickets to go see Kanye and Kendrick Lamar backstage at their show. We're working with Roc Nation. We're working on getting [our students] some Jay Z and Beyonce tickets. These young people are fulfilling the curriculum for the incentive of their dream.

Chicagoist: It's great to get to talk to you and get to know the inner workings of such a great program. I think a lot of people know Donda's House exists but they don't know what exactly it does. You actually just reminded me of something else I wanted to get your opinion on because I know you're still close with Kanye. He's always doing something to make people talk but I think it's funny how often people overlook his connection to Donda's House. You hear a lot of criticism lately that he's lost touch with his Chicago roots and that he doesn't care about his hometown anymore. Do you feel like those are false claims?

Rhymefest: I think it's interesting that a lot of times people want celebrities to give back in the way that they want them to give back. They want them to give money to the cause they think is important and when that doesn't happen they say, "Oh, they're not doing anything." People think celebrities are going to solve their problems. People think because someone is famous or an athlete or a politician that the solution begins with them. All they're there to do is sell you a product.

"The 'Chicagoland' series ... contacted our program at Donda's House, where we do very positive work for young people, but they weren't interested in that. They wanted drama!"
Let's get it right, Kanye didn't become a rapper to buy all the houses in Englewood. You have to look to someone like Asiaha Butler from R.A.G.E. who works in Englewood every day. We have to put our power behind the people who are right next to us. When we talk about Donda's House, I give Kanye's mother the credit. She was the one at Chicago State, dean of the English department, taking in all these boys into her house and educating us. We didn't have moms. My mom had me at 15. We grew up together. The first responsible woman I ever met was Kanye's mother but who talks about her? We talk about Kanye but we don't talk about the tree. We just talk about the fruit.

So, I don't think that we should look to celebrities to solve problems that are on our end of the street. I believe that celebrities from communities like these have responsibilities in the arts that they product and their influence. However, the work that has to be done, needs to be done by us. Celebrities only want to be famous and once they see us putting points on the board and get people talking, we'll attract celebrities. It's not about the celebrity attracting a community, it's about the community attracting a resource.

Chicagoist: That's interesting. So was I wrong in assuming that you are still close with him? You probably don't talk every day but it sounds like you're still working together.

Rhymefest: We talk once a week. I was a nominated for a Grammy this year for co-writing "New Slaves." We still work together, I just believe that we all know how Kanye is. Do you really want Kanye to come and say something that you don't agree with and create all kinds of other attention? I believe that one of the reasons I'm not in Hawaii right now helping Kanye with his new album or wherever he is, is that there's work on the ground that I need to physically do and help to oversee. Celebrities have to be famous. They have to go and be famous, so what Kanye is doing is what celebrities can do: help deliver us the resources to help our efforts on the ground.

Chicagoist: It sounds like a great partnership and that your views are very realistic.

Rhymefest: Yeah, and we can't underestimate others. Common is doing great work with the Common Ground Foundation. Lupe is doing great work with the Lupe Fiasco Foundation. They're focusing on green energy and healthy eating. And one of the things that we've done is collaborate all of our efforts—Donda's House, Lupe Fiasco Foundation and Common Ground Foundation. We all work together. These are the things that should be done.

Chicagoist: That's one of my favorite things about Chicago's rap scene, at least your sector of it. Everybody seems like they're giving back and we've got so many great minds. Can you tell me more about the youth job initiative that you and Common announced earlier this spring?

Rhymefest: Well, Common is working on a festival called the AAHH! Fest that he's bringing to Chicago in September. One of the things that we're doing is hiring young people from our programs to work the festival, learn how to set up a stage, learn how to work a camera, learn how to market and promote. These are immediate jobs that not only employ youths in the city of Chicago but also train them. And the youths are also doing something they believe is cool, that they want to do for their career. And when they see this festival happen and all the people enjoying themselves, I believe that it will lead them to start their own businesses. Common and I were talking about how it's not just a seasonal job. It's about teaching those skills that help people to create business and maintain careers.

Chicagoist: Definitely. And if you look at how big the music festival and concert production industry has gotten, those are jobs that can go a long way.

Rhymefest: Exactly.

Chicagoist: I'm curious if any more details about AAHH! Fest have been announced. Is it going to be more of a music festival or a block party, community fair-type event?

Rhymefest: It's going to be a two-day music festival. Common and I spoke [recently]. He's going to announce more details [soon].

Chicagoist: Will you be performing?

Rhymefest: Nah, I don't think so.

Chicagoist: Well, this has been a great talk. I knew you had a lot going on right now and it sounds like you're even busier than I thought. Is there anything that you wanted to talk more about or that we didn't get to?

Rhymefest: My main thing is Donda's House. These young people have taught me a lot. They come in as participants and by the time they leave they're my nieces and nephews and sister and brothers. Our family keeps growing every twelve weeks. I'm parked in front of my house right now and I'm watching all of these kids walk in and out of my house and I don't know what the heck happened. My house is now their home and I'm just hoping we can get the funding and the resources so that we can always create the best home for them.

Learn more about Donda's House and make donations on the organization's website.