introduction by Eamon Whalen
photography by Bryan Allen Lamb
For more than a decade, Che “Rhymefest” Smith has juggled the roles of entertainer, educator and activist. After gaining acclaim as a battle rapper, Smith gained notoriety co-writing childhood friend Kanye West’s Grammy-winning song, “Jesus Walks.” After releasing two studio albums of his own, Smith shifted to politics, narrowly losing a runoff election in 2012 for the 20th Ward of Chicago’s Aldermanic seat. Since then, he and West co-founded Donda’s House (named for West’s late mother), a non-profit that brings professional arts mentorship and instruction to Chicago youth, Smith serves as Creative Director. He has also become something of an unofficial political advisor to West and fellow Chicago hip hop pillar Common, co-writing West’s 2013 manifesto “New Slaves” and Common’s Oscar-winning song “Glory,” from the film Selma.
Malcolm London, a fellow Chicagoan, is a generation younger than Smith but has taken a similar multi-faceted path as artist, educator and activist. A lauded poet that emerged out of Chicago’s vibrant youth poetry scene, London has since performed his socially charged poems as TED talks, earning high praise from Cornel West as the “Gil-Scott Heron of his generation.” Currently London serves as national director of Louder Than a Bomb, the Chicago Youth Poetry Festival he won in 2011, and co-chair of the Chicago chapter of the Black youth empowerment organization, BYP-100 (Black Youth Project). Much like Smith, London has his hand in cultivating the next generation of Chicago artists through a series of city-wide high-school “Open Mikes,” which he organizes with childhood friend Chance The Rapper.
So, just a couple weeks before Rhymefest would add that Oscar next to the Grammy on his mantle, he and Malcolm sat down to speak on this pivotal moment in our country’s history. Part interview, part conversation and part debate, two of Chicago’s most important voices delve deep into the proper role of education in Black liberation, the question of revolution versus reform and the need for rappers to be responsible to their art.
Conversation Has Been Condensed and Excerpted
Rhymefest: It’s been a long time coming, but we’re finally here. It’s funny because I’ve been hearing about you, and Greenroom Magazine was trying to put us together, but we never really made contact until we met at a protest against police brutality. We could’ve run into each other at the club, or anywhere, but this is where great minds are finding each other.
Malcolm: Absolutely, especially in this moment.
R: What is this moment for you?
M: What’s been happening is definitely being more highlighted. [Police brutality] is nothing new, but I think a lot of people are starting to pay attention, and there’s a lot of consciousness-raising starting to happen.
R: To get to that place of consciousness-raising, there are a few things that people need to have, education, information and strategy. Sometimes with our movement, we move off of emotion and anger, and then when that dies down, its like we never had an interest in the process. Education is a process. Do you believe the activists of today are building the will to go through process?
M: I hope so. We’re trying to. I think that’s the hardest thing right? People love to get the points, but they don’t want to go through what it takes to get the points.
R: The practice.
M: Right, the practice. The workout. It takes dedication, but the driving force of why we need to be educated in organizing and movement-building, and be educating young people right now, is that so much is at stake.
R: Okay, so you said something, and I gotta take a word out of what you said. I got an issue with just saying “educating young people.”
M: I feel you.
R: We get so caught up in certain language that society uses to divide us.
M: I agree, but what do you think it is about young people in movement-building that makes them the focal point at moments like these?
R: When Common and I wrote the song “Glory,” one of the lines is, “No one can win a war individually, it takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy.”
R: That’s the answer! Things can’t be oversimplified but they can’t be over-complicated either. The elders did something that we don’t want to repeat but that we want to pivot from. They can’t be mad at us for trying to pivot or jump from that spot - that’s why they did it - for us to jump from.
We get split up into two divisions. One is young people that want to repeat the elders because they want the shine. They want to be known like Fred Hampton, Che Guevara or Martin Luther King. Every revolutionary that was effective, had an education. Castro went through three or four doctorates. Che Guevara was a doctor, Martin Luther King had a PHD.
M: Let me ask you a question before you continue. Define education. Because I just heard you mention doctorates and PHD’s, but I’ll be the one to say that that traditional education is not the type of education that will liberate us. I know a lot of people with PHDs that don’t understand police violence or the criminalization of young people.
R: But there goes that extreme again. You’re trying to say either-or, but it’s both-and. We live in America, right? America controls the rest of the world. We are the world’s financiers, we got the world in fear. We say we have the best education in the world, so it would behoove you to get that education. Not so that you can become indoctrinated into the ways of Western capitalism, so that...
M: It’s a tool.
R: Right, so that it’s in your toolbox. But the other kind of education, once you have the American education is, do you know who you are? Do you know where you come from? Do you know who your people are and do you know what’s necessary to improve the condition of the community you come from? The problem is that the people who have the American education don’t want the education of Self, and the people with education of Self sometimes make it seem like the traditional education doesn’t matter.
M: Yeah, I completely agree that it’s both-and. But I think the self-awareness and the community oriented piece has to be paramount.
R: I agree. That’s the only way you won’t be indoctrinated. But that doesn’t come from school, that comes from home. That comes from the crib. Like what if shorty don’t have no parents, and her grandma can’t watch her? What’s left? Young Chicago Authors? Donda’s House? We have to fill in the blank. Our community is at such a deficit and that’s why I wanted to talk to you about your activism because there has to be a whole lot of blank-filling in our communities.
M: I still want to talk a little about the value of education.
R: I don’t think Black folks have ever valued education.
M: Speak more to that.
R: Never valued education on any level.
M: In the whole historical context of getting off of the boat and getting to where we are now?
R: Black Americans.
M: I just don’t think that’s true of anyone. I know many white Americans that don’t value education and don’t have to value education because they have the privilege of their parents’ money, and their parents’ parents’ money...
R: What makes the best kids? What makes a high scoring student?
M: Being a great test-taker.
R: Partially, but I would add to that, parents that care. You don’t believe parents play a role in student success?
M: Absolutely, I think environments do matter. But my mom worked two jobs raising me and my little brother. She worked overtime all the time, she never had time to help me with my homework. She couldn’t, she was always working. I graduated from Lincoln Park High School with a 1.9 GPA. You might say, ‘that’s because your mom never helped you with your homework.’ However, I’m sitting before you as a public speaker, someone who runs an organization, and now I just happen to be in college. I wouldn’t say that if a mom has to work two jobs, or a dad has to work a night shift - or a kid who might not know their parents, but might have a grandma that loves them but is on dialysis and can’t run around and do all those things - I wouldn’t say that they don’t value education.
R: I would.
M: Wow, that’s deep.
R: It is deep. Because the anomaly I believe you are, after hearing your story, is the same anomaly that I am. I’m a high school dropout. My mother had me the day after her 16th birthday. I grew up without a father, I dropped out of high school, but I sit before you today whoever I am. I look at a lot of young guys and girls that were in my situation, and it’s like...nah. [sic] I think that education is that valuable and important to the future of our people. I don’t say this to be a Clarence Thomas or a hater. I say this with pain, G. I say this with pain in my heart, that I don’t believe that Black Americans value education to death.
M: The only contention I have with that is that this is the same argument Fox News spews out, the same argument Clarence Thomas spews out. I agree, but I don’t believe the vast majority of all Americans value education to death.
R: But it’s not dire for them, their belief in it goes to their access.
M: [We were] dropped off in this country and literally killed for reading books, then after we had a right to read, there was never a well-funded school for Black folks in the history of America. We’ve never had the opportunity to be self-determinant in what we learned, in what our overall curriculum looks like. We’ve never chosen the authors or historical figures to study.
R: Haki Madhubuti has a school, the Betty Shabazz school.
M: I love Betty Shabazz, but does that exist for the vast majority of Black Americans?
R: No, but what I will say is this: Black Americans should value education as much as we value anti-police-brutality.
M: But to understand police violence, and criminalization, and really understand how we’re policed...
R: That is education.
M: And to really think about reimagining what our communities look like, what community self-control looks like. That’s a type of education.
R: But it can be learned in schools too. Right now, you have to understand the legal system and criminal justice policy and become involved with it, you can’t untie it with just protest signs, it has to work in tandem.
M: This comes back to what we were talking about earlier. Yes, I can learn to read a policy manual in law school. But I can’t learn how that policy may affect the people in the neighborhoods I’ve never been to.
R: Well you just brought up an important point, and that is to reimagine. This is where me and you as poet and rapper, that’s where we come along. But imagine if we had the other tool. One of the main things that empowered the Black Panthers is that they understood the constitution of the United States, [the U.S Government] had to change the constitution because of [the Panthers]!
So I think the only thing we’re debating at this point is, does traditional education have an equal place in tandem with black political consciousness?
M: I don’t think so. Only because traditional American education is built upon the idea to destroy a Black political consciousness. I do agree in an art-of-war sense - you want to know the ins-and-outs of what the dominant group is thinking. But if people like us, creatives, rappers, poets, if we’re not educating the youth on Black political consciousness, the moment they get a traditional education, it becomes so easy for them to be indoctrinated.
R: But assuming you have that consciousness, now what happens? We have to express the value of both. You can’t devalue either. If you devalue one, it becomes the thing you don’t need and you’re missing a component to revolution.
M: This is where I think we disagree. Black political consciousness includes the idea that we have to take positions of power in a system we may not agree with to bring about the change we want to see.
R: This is a great conversation because it brings up the question, revolution or reform?
M: I think it’s tiered. We have to do a lot more harm reduction. My organization BYP-100, one of our main projects right now is to decriminalize marijuana. As an organization we don’t care about the idea of smoking, but we do know that Black people are 15 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana, and that studies show that white people smoke weed at an equal or higher rate. We understand that harm reduction needs to happen. Black people have to stop being fed into the prison industrial complex.
R: I completely agree with you.
M: But the revolutionary view is to live in a world where we can police ourselves. But the immediate goal is to do this harm reduction.
R: Let’s go back to your organization, the BYP-100, Black Youth Project. It comes out of the University of Chicago, from Cathy Cohen, who is a provost at the university. So there’s no way you can talk to me about not having traditional education, because they do the research that produces the stats you’re referencing.
M: Fair enough.
R: When I say revolution versus reform, I mean can we get into the system and reform it from the inside out? Che and Castro took guns and said ‘we’re going to go up in the mountains in Cuba, the Sierra Maestra, and anything you do bad we send you to a learning camp, and you’ll have to read [laughs].’ So now Cuba has mad doctors, everybody is educated. They revolutionized and then reformed. My question is can we reform, then revolutionize? That’s what I believe can and has to happen in America because we can’t outgun them.
M: Not in this moment, no. We definitely need a lot more reform before revolution is possible.
R: That’s all I’m sayin!
M: We’re definitely on the same page. I’m not saying, “We as niggas shouldn’t learn to read or write.” I’m not saying we can’t learn to use a scalpel or don’t need science. I think that’s extremely important and like you were saying goes hand-in-hand with revolution. But the dangerous part of traditional education is the history books that you read and the way we interpret that.
R: Right, because there is white supremacy and racism even within advanced education. We have to admit that. There are still people coming up with theories and proofs that Black people are biologically and intellectually inferior.
M: And they use science, they use math.
R: As we’re getting into race, I have to say I see people out here with this narrow nationalistic view that I don’t think ever worked or ever can work. We have to have coalitions. I know BYP says this, that we have to bring in the feminists, the LGBT community and we also have to bring in the white community, the latino community and otherwise.
M: So at BYP, we are a Black organization. We are also a feminist organization and we operate with a queered lens. There is no separation between Blackness, Queerness and Feminism for us. Our radical belief is a world where everyone can live and be free, but we also understand that it is necessary for Black folks to come together and strategize. It isn’t a separatist thing, but more of a collective thing - that we need this - before we can start organizing other people.
We’ve been talking about strategy, and how there’s no one right strategy, and I’ve heard you say, “It’s like the Marines.”
R: I think we both agree that we’re at war.
R: And in a war you need the Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force. This conversation is about letting people know where they fit. You’re doing it through engaging Black youth but on the other side, I think we have to stop throwing away our elders...
One thing we can be proud of in our elders and our youth, is that we see this coalition. Jesse Jackson has been to Ferguson, as has Minister Farrakhan as has Harry Belafonte. You might not see it in front of the cameras but we know there is a behind-the-scenes coalition happening between elders and youth where wisdom is being shared both ways. Would you not agree?
M: I agree.
To shift the conversation, you put a lot of pressure on artists and rappers especially because you are a rapper, which I rock with. But I heard you say something at an event with Marc Lamont Hill and Jasiri X, and later with Big Sean. You said rappers are running commercials for the prison industrial complex. Speak more about what responsibility you think we have as artists to our community.
R: I think we have responsibility to our art, even more than the community. Responsibility to your art is always trying to improve, to become more well-rounded, and seek inspiration from those around you. When I walked in here I was doing art [rapping], and I was looking to you for guidance, asking you which lines should go where, I was being open and vulnerable with my art. You could’ve gone, “Hey ‘Fest, all that shit sucks by the way,” and I would’ve had to accept it and be like, “Well, how can I be better?”
M: Or you could’ve said, “You’re wack, I don’t need to hear your opinion.”
R: But that wouldn’t have been me being responsible to my art, that would’ve been me being responsible to my ego. What has happened as rappers is that we’ve become protective of our egos and irresponsible to our art. The corporate structure of our industry, has gone to our communities and taken the most uneducated. This is why my emphasis is on education, this is why I do Donda’s house, to take under-educated artists and give them a platform. When you get under-educated artists, you get misinformed art, and a misinformed public.
My hope is this, when we had the Big Sean event, he learned something from the organizing youth. When Big Sean was asked the question, “Do you believe your music supports the prison system?” That was deep. He never even considered it. We didn’t diss him, we informed him. And that’s how me and Kanye work, that’s how Common and I work, that’s how “Glory” was written. Big Sean coming, for free, to speak to young people, that was him being responsible to his art. It wasn’t about the community as much as artists growing. He told me he was so focused on finishing his album he didn’t want to do the event that day. But his heart led him, his heart told him, “We need some inspiration,” and he followed it. So we take him - a lot of rappers come back when they fall off - who is currently successful, and add him to the movement.
So do you think I’m too hard?
M: No, and that’s what I wanted to ask you. I heard you speak on it before where it seemed that you wanted to shift too much of the blame on what’s happening in hip hop, on the artists.
R: I’ve grown. As Obama would say, I’ve evolved. The blame is equally shared, because you’ve got to know when you’re being played.
M: But say I’m a 16-year-old kid who is rapping about my life, rapping about where I come from - embellishing a little bit because that’s what we do in hip hop - and then someone says, “Look I’m going to pay you a million dollars to do this.” I’m 16, why wouldn’t I?
R: Malcolm X was 23-years-old when he decided to be Malcolm X. Fred Hampton was 21 when he died. So what I will say is that I don’t make excuses for age, because I know the history of revolutionaries and they were always young. So I’m going to be hard on you - with love. Cornel West said you’re the Gil Scott-Heron of your day. So in that, Malcolm, you have the duty to inform.
For instance, I love Twista, he’s my brother, but he knows better than some of things he’s been doing. He’s been here long enough, he started out as a Muslim rapper with beads. So when I see Twista not giving Lil’ Mouse information, but just supporting his song without giving him information, I’m like that’s wrong, that’s child abuse. And I think we can’t be afraid to speak on it, because I know you know.
I told Katie Got Bandz, “What you’re saying, it ain’t right.” She replied like, “this is my life.” I’m like, “No, you’re lying, your life isn’t all hitta, hitta, hitta. You got siblings, you got a mom and a dad. How do you feel about them?” That’s what we do in Donda’s house. Be responsible to your art and tell the whole story. So when I’m hard on rappers or artists, it’s with love. My thing is, I’m saying it but I’m also here with you, I don’t need to be here, I’m here because I love you. I look at the artists that are coming, like, we got a chance.
M: And I’m particularly excited about Chicago.
R: Did you see that stage? Big Sean was reaching out like, yeah I’m trying to sign some of these guys. That’s that movement man!