Chicago native son "Che Rhymefest" Smith wants us to think more broadly about the homicides taking place in his hometown. Here, he talks with author/activist Bakari Kitwana about the ways the gun violence crisis collides with hip-hop, corporate interests, school reform and mental health.
Bakari Kitwana: When you and I first talked about the recent surge of gun homicides in Chicago, you used the expression that this was “a national security threat.” What did you mean by that?
Rhymefest: I believe that when there’s so much systematic violence in the community, it leaves not only [the] city but also the country open to people coming in and gathering young people for dubious tasks. The first person charged with domestic terrorism was actually a Chicago gang member named Jeff Fort. According to the charges, he was working in tandem with Muammar Qaddafi and Libya to commit acts of terror in the US in the 1980s. Since the idea of a domestic terror threat started in Chicago, the fact that violence in Chicago could be seen as a national security threat I don’t think is something that should be taken lightly in 2013.
BK: How is today’s Chicago hip-hop scene overlapping with the national perception of violence and the reality of violence?
RF: It would be unfair for me to just say that it’s hip-hop. We know that all forms of media are promoting a culture of violence, but especially in the Black community hip-hop and radio and the corporations that proliferate it play a huge part in promoting images of the culture of violence as something that is acceptable, cool, or just a daily event—like waking up in the morning, washing up, and going to school. The implication is that violence is a part of your day just like that. That’s the way it’s being promoted within media and hip-hop.
BK: Last summer, you likened the imagery associated with Chicago rapper Chief Keef’s music and videos to “a bomb that is spreading.” How has your thinking about that evolved since then?
RF: The companies that distribute some of the music that we get in our community don’t care if these artists have talent. They’re giving huge signing advances, and instead of artist development, they’re putting artists back on the street and saying, “Keep doing what you were doing.” They’re not trying to help the artist get full perspective or range in their music. I ask the question, “Why are so many Chicago hip-hop artists being signed now rather than at any other time in hip-hop history? Why now, when Chicago’s the national face of violence, are young artists are getting these opportunities?" I think that this is something the artists have to ask themselves.
BK: What are some of the shifting local dynamics that national media are missing when talking about Chicago gun violence?
RF: We had  murders last year. The perception is that it’s all youth violence when the majority of the murders are happening to adults [from the ages of] 23 to 35-years-old. And one of the things missed as we talk about violence in Chicago is that for years we had free mental health clinics, which were being utilized by a lot of people. Half were cut from the budget and closed last year. Maybe we are asking the wrong questions. What do the adults need to combat the majority of the murders? We need mental health facilities to be reopened and not be shutdown. And we need job-training programs, and we need jobs for people to fill when they finish the training.
BK: President Obama was rightly challenged to weigh-in on the violence in Chicago. Do artists and labels have a responsibility?
RF: Well, the labels have no interest in bringing attention to the issue in order to cure it. The only thing they want to do is exploit it for how much it’s worth. The question, ‘Who has the most violent city, New Orleans, Chicago or Detroit" in part becomes a competition between artists on who is the baddest. Artists have to make independent decisions to try to combat it. And you’re going to see that from artists like myself, Lupe, Killer Mike, Saigon. You’re not going to see that from many artists who are currently in heavy rotation on the radio because it becomes a conflict for them.
BK: You’ve said elsewhere that the artists were like spokespersons for the prison industrial complex. Explain?
RF: Interscope Records is owned by General Electric, a major corporation that has a huge financial stake in the private prison industry. If these private prisons wanted to advertise, they might ask themselves, "what’s the best way to advertise? Wait, through our record label, Interscope Records. We’re going to go find anybody in Chicago rapping about violence and give him a million dollars and let them do it." The person that they sign to exploit violence in Chicago didn’t even have a history of selling records. But, guess what? Interscope didn’t lose, because it wasn’t about selling records in the first place. You’ll find that the majority of artists that glorify violence don’t sell many records. It is often said that this is about money. But we have to ask ourselves if it’s about money and about selling records, then why don’t they sign more artists like Lupe Fiasco, who sold way more records than Chief Keef? It’s not about the money. It’s not about selling records. It’s about an image that’s portrayed.
BK: So then it’s no longer a question of art imitating life or life imitating art?
RF: You have what I will refer to as Internet gang banging that’s taking itself into real life. People are gang banging on YouTube, taking their beef from the street to the YouTube getting 500,000 views for pulling guns on people in the middle of the street, and they’re really ending up dead in the case of Lil JoJo. So, Chief Keef’s not the only one. People are gang banging and the police know who it is. You think that it was any accident that on the day of Hadiya Pendleton’s funeral they charged the people who did it? They knew who did it way before they charged them. The police know exactly who the murderers are. So then ask yourself this question: why are 75 percent of the murders in Chicago unsolved? There’s something more dubious at hand that nobody wants to talk about.
BK: In terms of being part of the solution, you’ve run for alderman in the past. In the light of recent developments, should we expect Rhymefest to make another run for elected office?
RF: I believe that all young people, all artists, you know, everybody in the new generations needs to be thinking more civically. We need to be more civically engaged with our communities because politics works in tandem with community organizations and works in tandem with art and artists. So, you know, it’s definitely something I will consider. Whether or not I run again depends on how many people think that I have the leadership that it takes to change a community. If the people think that I do, then I’ll step out there for them.
Bakari Kitwana is executive director of Rap Sessions: Community Dialogues on Hip-Hop and the author of the forthcoming Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era (Third World Press, 2013).