On the Campaign Trail with Che “Rhymefest” Smith


Editor’s Note: The following story was written by a student in the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in partnership with Imagine Englewood If, a youth services organization based in that South Side neighborhood:

Driving around Englewood, pointing out empty lots on Feb. 18, Che “Rhymefest” Smith talked about how these used to be houses. He said he wants to transform the neighborhood and make it a clean and safe environment for kids to play in. He said the neighborhood has no love and care in it, but he wants to change that.

Che 'Rhymefest' Smith on the campaign trail. Photo courtesy of Smith's campaign web site.

Smith is running for alderman of the 20th ward in the April 5 run-off election, after he got 20 percent of the vote in the primary election in February. His opponent is incumbent Willie Cochran. Smith is a Grammy-award-winning rapper, who has met

famous people including Ciara, Bow Wow and Rick Ross. But now, he says he wants to focus his attention on serving his community.

As he went door to door campaigning, some of the gates were locked. He and his assistant put campaign fliers on the locked gates and his assistant rang every doorbell where the gates were unlocked, until she got an answer. For ones with no answer, they would come back the next day. Smith was determined to reach every voter. In his office, he had maps with circles around the homes he’d already been to. After covering an entire block, Smith and his supporters got back into the white van decorated with his name and drove to the next block.

While campaigning, Smith saw some of his posters on the ground, which made him mad. It looked like someone had just ripped the posters down and thrown them on the ground. Smith said this behavior is the kind of thing he wants to change in the community – vandalism and property damage. He pointed to busted windows and broken glass, gang signs spray-painted on doors and walls.

Smith said if he’s elected, he will help people go back to school and get jobs – or rather “careers.” He said someone can put a shovel in your hand one day and call it a job, but the next day they could take it away and you’ll be out of a job. But if you have a career, you don’t have to worry. He said the only way you can have a career is to keep trying and never give up on your dreams.

Before watching Smith on the campaign trail, we met with him at his office, at a supporter’s car wash. The office was decorated with awards, posters and his picture. We asked what made Smith decide to run for alderman. He said because no one else cared about the environment in black communities, and he wanted to make a change.

Smith, 35, started rapping when he was 20. I asked how his career as a rapper would affect his chances in the election. He said some people might not want to have a rapper as an alderman, because many people think rappers have to be “bad” and curse a lot. When the campaign started, he was nervous and thought people wouldn’t approve of his candidacy. But he thinks his fame can also help.

“If young people come to vote, yes,” he said. “Hip hop can help and hurt my chances in this campaign. Some people of a certain age look and say, ‘It’s a rapper. I’m not going to vote for a rapper. Rappers are what destroy the community and hurt young people with their lyrics.’ It’s a negative. But I’m a positive rapper. It’s a double-edged sword – it can help or hurt. Election day is when we’ll see.”

Smith said politics comes naturally to him.

“Whatever you do, you have to be a diplomat,” he said. “I believe there’s an element of politics in everything we do, even when you go to school. If you’re in school, you might not like everything the teacher tells you to do. But you have to go in and do it. That’s politics. With hip hop it’s the same thing -navigating the performers and the fans. Politics is in everything.”

Smith came off as a nice person and a sharp dresser. He also seemed helpful. The day after following him on the campaign trail, we watched him help residents clean up the neighborhood. He helped a lady named Ms. Dinwitty rake leaves at 69th Street and Prairie Avenue. (We also helped raking the leaves and throwing the bags away.) Dinwitty said Smith’s parents must have done a good job raising him because he’s a good person. While they were working, a man on the block came up and told Smith he would help with the leaves for a few dollars.

“Why should you get paid to clean your own neighborhood?” Smith said. “You shouldn’t get two or three dollars to pick up trash you probably threw down.”

He described watching another man throw something on the ground.

“He did it because there was trash all around. This is the trash can – the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s hard to get jobs when the mindset is that your house, the neighborhood is a trash can. You’ll get a job and you’ll treat it like trash.”

Smith doesn’t want handouts for the community – he wants people in Englewood to create jobs and show that they can make change together.

“I believe the first thing we have to do is get people to know that we can help ourselves,” he said. “We have to challenge each other and build a community.”

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