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Grammy-winning hip-hop artist aspires to political office

By Gavin Godfrey, CNN
Che "Rhyemfest" Smith outside the Houses of Parliament in London in 2006.
Che "Rhyemfest" Smith outside the Houses of Parliament in London in 2006.
  • Che "Rhymefest" Smith hopes to become alderman of the 20th Ward in his hometown
  • He was inspired after working years ago with now British Prime Minister David Cameron
  • Smith won a Grammy with Kanye West for writing the song "Jesus Walks"

(CNN) -- Che "Rhymefest" Smith considers himself a "raptivist," a name he gave himself years before he took on his latest mission.

If the name sounds familiar, there could be several reasons. For starters, Smith won a Grammy in 2005 for co-writing the hit song "Jesus Walks" with Kanye West, as well as the track "Gorgeous" on West's latest effort, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." The South Side of Chicago-born MC would later release the critically acclaimed albums "Blue Collar" and "El Che."

Lately, it's not the music that has put Rhymefest's name in news headlines across the country.

Smith recently ran for alderman of the 20th Ward in his hometown. Like most entertainers, the initial reaction to Smith's move was that he was the novelty candidate hoping to put a scare into the incumbent, Alderman Willie Cochran, a former police officer.

Well so far, he's done more than demand Cochran's attention.

After voters went to the polls in the general election (including a much ballyhooed mayoral race) and the results were counted, Cochran was not able to grab the 50% of votes needed to win. That forced a runoff with Smith, who finished second ahead of George Davis, a candidate endorsed by the majority of the local media.

"Everything begins with love," Smith said about his political message on a busy campaign day that saw him visit three senior citizen homes before wrapping up his day at a popular South Side eatery. "This isn't about me today. This is about a community. No matter how I feel or how tired my body may feel, the love, the energy and the sacrifice for the community is inside of me."

While the community activist has always been embedded in Smith's spirit, it was actually a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron (before he was prime minister) years ago that inspired Smith's run for office.

At the time, Cameron was leader of the Conservative Party and was leading a campaign to get rid of hip-hop in the United Kingdom. Cameron was displeased with the genre, saying there was no place for music with foul language and vivid tales of street violence, Smith recalled.

"I said what you're hearing through the radio is a reaction to the disenfranchisement of a people because of the policies that have been put down on them," Smith said he told Cameron. "I said if you cut that voice, which is un-Democratic -- what do you think is going to happen? They're going to stop crying about it and they're going to hit the streets."

Cameron stood corrected and later -- along with Smith and others -- launched Hugs for Hoodies, a program geared toward educating youth on both the production and business aspects of the music business.

After seeing his efforts pay off thousands of miles from home, Smith realized he could spark change in his own backyard. "If I can help people overseas, why can't I bring the uncommon solutions to our common problems back to my community?" he said.

It was a question that Smith answered by pursuing public office in the neighborhood he grew up in, raised by a mother who gave birth to him the day after her 16th birthday. Now a husband and father, Smith is attempting to do something that has escaped the likes of Wyclef Jean and 2 Live Crew's Uncle Luke in the past year -- run for and win a political office.

Many feel that both Jean's attempt at running for president of Haiti and Uncle Luke's run for mayor of Miami -- regardless of their experience and despite their civic commitment -- were called into question simply because of the negative connotations that come with rap music.

"It's not every day that a Grammy-winning rapper is running for political office," said Brian "B. Dot" Miller, content director for the popular blog, Rap Radar. "With Wyclef there was a politics of him running. Luke -- it's a shot in the dark. Rhymefest is actually a contender in this race."

Miller said Smith's race has helped highlight the often overlooked political savvy of rap artists, which Miller said isn't fair when you look at the success of other entertainers-turned-power decision-makers.

"When Arnold Schwarzenegger does (something not political) he's an actor, when rappers do it (the general public) feel like they're actually living out some of their rhymes," he said.

"I think it goes back to stereotypes and the fear of someone actually stepping up and becoming a political figure. Imagine if Tupac or Biggie decided they wanted to become a force or factor into the political game. I think it's scary because of the power behind it."

Cochran referred to Smith's run as "one of the biggest attempted frauds that there is or has ever been in Chicago politics" in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, a characterization hip-hop journalist, historian and author Davey D sees as political theater.

"When I talk with Rhymefest, he's like, 'Let me give you my education plan, let me give you my housing plan," Davey D said about his radio interview with Smith.

CNN made numerous attempts to reach Cochran for comment on this piece, but was not successful.

As for "attempted frauds" in the city that weathered the alleged crimes of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Davey D said all is fair game in the world of politics.

"Cochran is going to toss everything into the mix to undermine Rhymefest's credibility and make it seem like he's just a rapper who doesn't have any sense," Davey D said. "That's the only card he can play because all of Rhymefest's opponents endorsed him" in the runoff.

One of those opponents, Davis, said his endorsement came from a mix of being both anti-Cochran and pro-Smith.

The two men shared conversations at a Stop the Violence rally before the election and before Smith even decided to run. While Davis said he's not entirely convinced Smith has the race locked up, he's sure that he is the better man for the job.

"We spoke throughout the campaign and we both had similar ideas about things that needed to be changed within our community," Davis said. "I recognized that he would be collaborative, that he would be willing to listen to the people."

This fact was something that wasn't new to Kyra Kyles. As a reporter and broadcast correspondent for the Chicago Tribune -- RedEye, Kyles has spent time over the last six years covering Smith's music and was one of the first to know of his intentions before endorsements from Cornel West and the Rev. Al Sharpton raised the rapper's profile.

Kyles said she believes the race will come down to the wire and that for a lot of people in the city, the only race that really matters was the one that gave Rahm Emanuel his new gig as mayor.

Regardless of voter turnout, the media and antics of both candidates have hit a "sensational" point, Kyles said. "I think the media coverage reflects the media's general lack of particular insight into the hip-hop community in general and seeing it as a kind of monolith."

That community came to Smith's aid financially in the race. Rappers Kanye West, Common and Talib Kweli donated to their friend's campaign and both West and Common have pledged to open businesses in the 20th Ward if Smith proves victorious.

Win or lose, Smith's story could become an even bigger victory for the hip-hop culture, especially for its future in politics, said Miller.

"If Rhymefest does win the alderman position, I think it's just going to be the beginning. I think it's going to be a watershed moment for hip-hop," Miller said. "I believe he might inspire other artists to get involved ... maybe like Jay-Z or Lupe Fiasco -- even 50 Cent. You never know, the possibilities are endless."

Ultimately, Smith isn't very interested in starting a trend, but he's happy to see his genre's voice being heard in politics, period.

"We have brothers from Libya who are taking an active role in trying to change their government -- even from the United States," Smith said. "We have hip-hop artists in Cairo who are helping effect change. Politics is effecting societal change. I think hip-hop lost its political way, but it's finding it back with a vengeance."

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