When 33-year-old Che “Rhymefest” Smith walks the streets of his Washington Park neighborhood, people recognize him. They call out, “Rhymefest you live in this neighborhood?” and “Oh snap, you just walking around here like you not famous,” and “You famous to us, you on TV!”
For all the warm welcomes, Smith said recently in a speech at Columbia College Chicago that he never sees the same behavior between other residents in his neighborhood.
“They give me so much love — and kill each other,” Smith said. “For all the love they have given me, what can I give them back?”
It seems that Smith has found the answer to his own question: public service. Smith has announced his run for 20th Ward alderman. While the Grammy-award winning rapper has no experience in politics, Smith said he feels he can bring a fresh perspective to the position with his world experiences and history as a resident of the ward.
He has a tough job ahead of him. The 20th Ward is the fifth most violent crime area in the city and includes Woodlawn, Back of the Yards, Washington Park and Englewood. Issues of drug use, gun violence and poverty have riddled many of these communities for years. Area residents also complain of inferior schools.
Smith hopes to provide the answers with “uncommon solutions to common problems,” a phrase he repeats often. Smith said it’s time to implement ideas like green technology, training programs and green villages to bring the community back to what it once was.
Smith also pointed to malnutrition, lack of access to fresh fruit and self-hate as other problems in the neighborhood.
“You don’t have to re-invent the wheel,” Smith told students. “All you have to do is reconnect the dots. This community worked at one time.”
Smith is familiar with many of the ward’s problems. It was only a few years ago that he pleaded guilty to one count of criminal recklessness over a case in which Smith fired three shots from his gun into the air.
The event stemmed from an argument with a real estate agent over the closing price of a home Smith said he had been planning to buy for his mother and sister. When he went to the closing, the home price was $1,500 higher than he had expected. Smith agreed to pay the amount set by the real estate.
Later that evening, the realtor returned to Smith’s new home, Smith said, and threatened him, punched him and pushed him. Smith said the man used racially charged language. He fired the shots into the air as a warning, he said.
Since then, he has been a changed man, he said. He gave up his career in 2007 to move back to Chicago to take primary custody of his son and daughter, who now both live with him. Smith also faced a domestic battery case in 2001 involving his former wife. In his speech at Columbia College last month, Smith derided his own violent behavior, calling his actions “unacceptable.”
Smith is running against incumbent Willie Cochran. Smith said he has invaluable experience compared to his opponent.
“I am not a candidate who is created somewhere. I’m a candidate who is a member of the community. I’m a resident,” Smith said. “I’m not saying we’re going to do everything right and solve everybody’s problems, but what I am saying is that it seems as though the status quo has left the communities to suffer.”