Rhymefest is fed up.
The 38-year-old Chicago native has Grammy, Oscar, and Golden Globe statuettes to his name. He’s listed as a “co-writer” on songs like Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” Common and John Legend’s Selma anthem “Glory,” and the Yeezy anthem “Jesus Walks,” which helped elevate Kanye to icon status.
But you’ve never seen the man formerly known as Che Smith onstage accepting any of these coveted trophies at awards shows, and his name is rarely—if ever—mentioned in connection with these treasured tracks.
“I wasn’t onstage,” he says of the most Academy Awards ceremony, where Common and Legend collected their Oscars for the MLK anthem. “They didn’t mention me when they talked about it.”
He pauses. “It does kind of bother me that I go to my friends’ $20 million houses, and last year I was trying to figure out how to pay my mortgage. It’s not their fault, totally. When you look at the way artists get paid now, streaming has decimated the income of the writer, so the writer doesn’t really have a career anymore. My ASCAP royalty checks went from a lot to almost nothing.”
“But the love that I’ve grown for Common, I want Common to be successful forever, because he has a good heart.”
It seems Rhymefest’s heart is in the right place, too.
We’re seated across from one another at a restaurant in the posh Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, digging into an early morning breakfast. And the songwriter/rapper/humanitarian is a paragon of humility, sporting a weathered sweater and a generic rollaway suitcase that looks like it’s from the ’80s. He’s flying solo—there is nary a whiff of a publicist or hanger-on—and after our chat, he has to catch an Amtrak train up to Boston for more promo.
The product he’s endorsing is In My Father’s House, a poignant documentary by the filmmaking team of Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work) about him reconnecting with his estranged father, whom he discovers has been living as a homeless alcoholic just blocks away from the modest childhood home he recently repurchased in the South Side of Chicago. Rhymefest embarks on a mission to help rehabilitate his father, from securing him a job, to landing him an apartment, to purchasing him a new set of teeth, all while battling his father’s frequent alcohol relapses. It’s a brutally honest tale of hope and redemption that should resonate with the fatherless and the fatherfull alike.
There are several eye-opening sequences in the film, including Rhymefest’s work teaching and inspiring children in at-risk communities at Donda’s House—a community organization co-founded by himself and Kanye and named after Kanye’s mother, the late Dr. Donda West.