Rhymefest Drops Blueprint For Maturing In Hip-Hop


Rhymefest’s latest project is a breakthrough album that includes some of the brightest talents paying homage to the great activists James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni.

Rhymefest‘s latest project, James and Nikki: A Conversation, which he refers to as a “composition” rather than an album, is a unique proposition in the current landscape of music. The project is based on a 1971 conversation between novelists and activists James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni. The Chicago-bred renaissance man has created a new narrative in Hip-Hop, using the seeds of the ancestors and his own lived experiences.

Fest, born Che Smith, also discusses his journey of self-healing and growth, experiences working with other emerging artists and views on Hip-Hop’s evolution. Through James and Nikki, he emphasizes the importance of honesty, grace and understanding in relationships as well as the creation of music. Brittney Carter, Helixx C. Armageddon, Teefa, Freddie Old Soul, EP Da Hellcat and C-Red are his “co-authors” in his revolutionary endeavor.

It’s been decades since Rhymefest released an album commercially, but his real stories lie in the work, not the Oscars or Grammys he’s won. His true honors are in the work with Chicago youth, building educational structures in Africa and his transmutation into a highly evolved man. He even admits to being embarrassed at the person he once was. Below is a highly edited transcript of a conversation with Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur and video of the entire interview at WonWorld Studios.

AllHipHop: We have James and Nikki : A Conversation. Earlier you were saying something very pivotal about purpose. Talk to me about the process of making this project, because it’s such an unlikely premise. You don’t even really call it an album.

Rhymefest: I call it a composition, and I’m going to tell you, I don’t call it an album, bro. Because right now, albums are “Wait till my single drop.” It’s all stuff that’s like raindrops in the ocean. It don’t mean nothing. It ain’t going nowhere. You’re going to do music. The one thing we have is lived, experience to me, which is context. And when you add concept to context, you can create new narratives. A lot of music today is no narrative. It is just my ego. It’s my desire, my craving, and everybody, let’s get into the craving and desire that’s going nowhere.

And so for I think more seasoned artists, we have context and we got concepts, and that’s what we can use to create new narratives in Hip-Hop. And that’s what James and Nikki is. It’s a concept based off the elders and the ancestors. Giovanni is an elder, Jimmy Baldwin. I feel close to ’em now. Baldwin is an ancestor, you know what I’m saying? And so we take the seeds that they gave us and be like, yo, if we take the seeds of the ancestors, put ’em in fertile soil, which is the women that’s on the project, which is my lived experience, that’s the soil. They’re the seed. Drop that seed inside of the soil, water it with some dope beats and see what grow.

AllHipHop: I want to educate people, especially the younger audiences who James Baldwin is, who Nikki Giovanni is.

Rhymefest: So this project James and Nikki, is based on an iconic 1971 conversation between novelists and activists, James Baldwin and novelists and poet and activists, Nikki Giovanni. This conversation that they had with each other was when James Baldwin was living in Paris. He was 55 years old. He came back to talk to Nikki. Now James Baldwin, he’s from the civil rights era, so he’s Martin Luther King. Nikki Giovanni came along during the Black Panther era. So here this 52-year-old man is talking to this 25-year-old woman about life, love, justice, social, politics and self. And so to watch them speak, he was gay. He was a super gay guy. Let’s say this unabashedly gay? Yeah, absolutely. Unapologetically gay. But he was also unapologetically Black. And so Nikki Giovanni was bi…is bi. So here you got a gay man, a bi woman, an older man, a younger woman, a teacher, a student.

But when they start talking, it turned into man and wife. It turned into, it’s crazy. It turned into poet to poet, artist to artist. They start freestyling with each other, creating scenarios of life together. If they were living together, how it would be as a couple. The conversation between James Baldwin and Nicky Giovanni was really predicting where we are right now. They were discussing our situation now, and they were using their artist’s magic to kind of conjure up the vision of where we are. That’s why I could use this conversation, put beats and rhymes around it and make it kind of an audio book with beats and rhymes.

AllHipHop: I feel like young people need to hear James and Nikki : A Conversation because they are distracted more. We’re all distracted to some degree. We’re all distracted, but hey seem addicted to the distraction.

Rhymefest: They’re a reflection of us. We were distracted by the money. Okay, let’s talk about our generation first. We’ll get into that.

AllHipHop: Were you distracted?

Rhymefest: By the money? Our generation was the generation of the mogul.

AllHipHop: Yes, absolutely.

Rhymefest: Would you agree with that?

AllHipHop: Without question.

Rhymefest: The previous generation was the rise of the Black middle class. Yes. We were the mogul.

And we all got distracted by either wanting to be a mogul, what you got to do to be a mogul or being a mogul. Yes. You know what I’m saying? On those three different levels, you might’ve been poor and wanted to be a mogul, but you was distracted by that. You might’ve been the mogul. You’re distracted by that. However, the advantage Generation X has is we are technological and we are also analog.

So if we can come down from the ego of the mogul, we can be the bridge of all generations. The boomers, the millennials, Z. What our children suffer from is a new type of distraction, which is the technological distraction, which is really the evolution of human beings. You know what I mean? If we can use it as a tool and not be used by the tool. So like I said, this machine, it eats hate…it loves hate. You keep feeding it negativity and hate. However, how can we feed it something else and get a different result and then create something and then see ourselves differently through it. And one of the things I will tell you that I like about this machine, which is the technological age and where the young people have it on smash, it reveals truth.

AllHipHop: There’s a term that came out a few years ago, adult contemporary Hip-Hop. But this is not that. This is something else to me. I don’t want to define it. I don’t want to say what it is to me, but what would you say it is?

Rhymefest: Intergenerational Hip-Hop.

It’s one consciousness Hip-Hop. OK, it’s village Hip-Hop. It’s healing music. It’s spirit music. This is the ancestors up. This is the ancestors revised.

AllHipHop: Nice. I like that. Your world experience seems to be so much, so vast now. How have you matured and changed through the years? I mean, we were just talking about your song “Brand New.”

Rhymefest: I’m embarrassed of that now really a little bit. I’ll start like this: When you’re young, you’re supposed to be selfish. It’s all about you. “My brand new b#tch. I’m a brand new d#ck and my brand new car.” Man, that was selfish. You know what I’m saying? And right now I want to make art that goes beyond selfishness. I want to make art that James Baldwin said, there is a such thing as a living word, and you are responsible for the actions produced by that word.

I got a 16-year-old daughter. You know what I’m saying? That ain’t my most proudest moment right now. But that was also when I was chasing things. And when you chase things, they run from you. And I learned not to chase things. I learned to heal things. However, I will say about those times, I’m also proud of the work that I did that got me here. So I am proud that I was able to co-write a song like “Jesus Walks” or co-write a song like “Glory” that I believe is the new Black national anthem. I see kids singing it in schools and graduations, and this Black History Month, I’m going to make a lot of royalties. You know what I’m saying? So I’ve always had a spirit in me.

I had to go on a journey. And so what you see with me with these global retreats, adventures building schools in Africa, we built and support a school in a Ruaha Tanzania, which is ranked eighth in the nation in terms of it’s quality education. I support an arts program in Senegal. We’re building a school right now in the Sub-Saharan Desert of Mauritania, where the real Moors are.