He may have lost his bid for 20th Ward alderman, but Che “Rhymefest” Smith says he’s not done helping his community or running for political office.
“If the people want me to run, and the conditions are right and there’s no visible changes taking place, then I think I will have to run,” Smith said.
In a closely contested election, Smith forced incumbent Ald. Willie B. Cochran into an unexpected runoff in this spring’s elections. Cochran won the runoff, but Smith isn’t fading away.
After touring the world, the Grammy Award winner came back to his hometown only to find his neighborhood in disarray. Smith knew then he wanted to do something to make a change.
“There are things we can do as activists and as local politicians to help change and restructure a village,” Smith said.
The South Side native, who won a Grammy for co-writing “Jesus Walks” with Kanye West, viewed running for alderman as a way to help rejuvenate his neighborhood back to the place he loved.
Smith said in his opinion Cochran, a former Chicago police officer, has done little to improve the conditions of the community.
Referring to the empty lots and boarded up apartments along one of the ward’s main thoroughfares, he asked, “Who’s responsible for 63rd Street being obliterated for the last [few] years?”
Smith said the ward needed economic development, jobs and shopping opportunities, calling it a food desert that lacks stores selling affordable, fresh groceries.
Cochran did not respond to requests for comment on Smith’s accusations, but has been quoted saying he didn’t feel Smith had the qualifications or moral standing to be alderman.
Cochran was referring to Smith’s brushes with the law. In 2001, he pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor domestic battery and in 2005 he pleaded guilty to one count of criminal recklessness for firing a gun in the air during a dispute.
Smith responded at the time that the condition of the ward was the campaign issue, not his distant past. He said recently that his past isn’t who he is today, but he uses it to understand and help others, particularly young people.
Smith said he wants to bring a sense of community back to the South Side and see it thrive as it once did but, he doesn’t see that happening until the community learns to take responsibility for itself.
“If you look at the Latino community, a lot of them aren’t even documented citizens of the country and they create an infrastructure for themselves and their community stores, clinics, doctors – so that they can be able to utilize the services within their own community.”
James Pappachen, Smith’s campaign manager said that Smith is adamant about his hopes for his community and knows that he won’t be able to do all the work alone.
“One politician can’t change a community but if we can get all hands on deck and remind people that the neighborhood is theirs, we can reclaim it as a healthy place that we can go back to,” Pappachen said.
“We have to get the people together to demand these things and demand that they have access to these things in the same equitable way people have access to things all over other places,” Smith said.
Smith added that he feels one start to changing the community’s perspective of its neighborhood is by recognizing its history.
“This community has a very rich history of entertainers and authors and leaders. It is the same area where Lorraine Hansberry wrote ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ this is the community of Emmitt Till, this is the community where Rev. Jessie Jackson started Rainbow PUSH.
“There’s a generational disconnect in the community where the old people are afraid of the young people. Young people don’t respect the elderly. We have to unify that generation gap,” he said.
Smith said he thinks that if people work to preserve the community’s history and educate the youth to love it and appreciate it, the community will head down the path to restoration.
“Love is the key component in making everything work. You can’t get in your community and fight for any type of justice you have to start with love in your heart for your people and your community.”