The Hip-hop Populist

by Claire Hungerford

In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between politics and show business–both celebrities and senators must endure a loss of privacy, hair and make up crews, and appearances on Oprah. At the first political rally for Che Smith, known to the hip-hop community as Rhymefest, it seemed to be of little importance whether the City Council candidate was making an appearance as his civic or celebrity persona.

Smith, who was awarded a Grammy Award for co-writing the Kanye West song “Jesus Walks,” is running for alderman of Chicago’s 20th Ward, where he has lived his entire life. At the rally, which was held at Exclusively Yours Auto Spa last Thursday at 58th and State, he milled around the largely empty garage in a brown pinstriped suit, trailed by perfumed women, members of the press, and a handful of family members. He hoisted a giggling baby into the air, brought it back down, and kissed it. His diamond earring glinted in the ensuing camera flash.

“The definition of revolution is love.” Che Smith, seeming suddenly to have earned his first name, paused to let the supposed power of his opening wash over the 50 or so people huddled around him. He then proceeded to give a brief background of himself and his family, affirming with pride that he was a third-generation Woodlawn resident. His name seemed to be of some relevance to his candidacy, as he accorded a specific quality to each of his three names. Che symbolized his iconoclasm, Rhymefest the worldliness of a successful hip-hop artist, and Smith his identification with the common man.

His statements following this prelude followed the same populist course. Smith, who is running against incumbent Willie Cochran, had memorized a handful of platitudes that were intended to invigorate, even goad, voters. When asked about his thoughts on Cochran, Smith declined to comment on the alderman’s character and took the opportunity to describe himself as “running for the people.” After being pressed, he conceded that he was disappointed with Cochran’s performance. He cited the following as evidence of Cochran’s lackluster tenure: “All you have to do is look around you; there’s a lack of development. That’s enough said.” This was met with a few “yeahs” and grunts of approval from the smattering of non-press attendees–likely the same people who applauded lightly when Smith affirmed the urgency with which he would like to rehabilitate the 20th Ward: “If I don’t do it now, it ain’t gonna get done.”

The concrete points that made up his otherwise vague platform seemed to be somewhat in tension with his revolutionary self-image. It is difficult to imagine the other Che in history fighting to give more power to “residents of means”–that is, the wealthiest slice of the ward’s population–to acquire more property with minimal bureaucratic restrictions. Smith also expressed his interest in representing small business owners in his community. Included in that category is Catherine Haskins, the owner of Exclusively Yours Auto Spa, who made some opening remarks in support of the aspiring alderman. She said that she, like Smith, was “in favor of gentrification,” although not at the expense of the entrepreneurs in the community.

Smith apparently felt no need to play down his celebrity status to win points with average voters. Instead, his hip-hop career was central to his speech and to his candidacy. In the press packet that was passed out at the rally, Smith included an endorsement from his longtime friend and fellow rapper Kanye West: “‘He has a passion for social and economic justice and has what it takes to bring positive change to the southside [sic] of Chicago.’” Smith defended himself aptly against the accusation that his high-profile career might interfere with his responsibilities as an alderman, reminding the attendees that the doctors and lawyers who hold other City Council seats don’t necessarily lead less hectic lives. In fact, he asserted that his hip-hop background gives him a unique understanding of the lives of everyday people. He said, “Hip-hop started in a park with two speakers and a microphone”–at this point, he gestured backwards–“and here we are, with two speakers and a microphone.”

Although he claimed to be heavily invested in solving the persistent problems of the 20th Ward (he shared a brief anecdote about a local prostitute who spent two months trying to escape her pimp), he was loath to express any views about some of the most pressing issues in South Side politics. When asked if he would support a WalMart in his ward, he stated simply that the people in the community were his “first order of business.” Similarly, in response to a question about how he felt about the expansion of the University of Chicago’s campus into areas of Woodlawn, he said that he would approve of “whatever works.”

As Che “Rhymefest” Smith grinned into TV cameras, he exuded the cocky charm of a performer. He could tell what a good impression he was making. He got a few laughs out of the crowd, which seemed to make up for the ambiguity of his more serious statements. In his inimitably rousing style, he proclaimed, “In Chicago, we have a Chinatown. In Chicago, we have a Greektown. We need our town!”

2 comments for “The Hip-hop Populist

Comments are closed.