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Rhymefest sees fights on two fronts

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Staff mug of Mary Mitchell. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times)

I have to admit, I looked at the aldermanic candidacy of hip-hop artist Che “Rhyme­fest” Smith with a jaundiced eye.

After all, for years I’ve denounced the use of sexually explicit and misogynistic lyrics — not to mention the N-word — in music.

And while Smith can honestly say that some of his music is no more scandalous than a country song, some of his lyrics would make a mother blush.

I reached out to Smith after listening to “Letter to Lil’ Wayne,” an open appeal rapped by three young sisters who call themselves Watoto From the Nile.

The girls, ages 10, 9, and 5, take Lil’ Wayne to task for lyrics that degrade women and glorify drugs and violence.

Even though the video is something that you know a parent forced, hoping that the girls are discovered, they do have a point.

And the video has apparently struck a chord, resulting in several op-ed pieces and numerous blogs. That makes Smith’s quest to become the fist hip-hop artist elected to a city council even more interesting.

Smith said he doesn’t listen to the controversial rapper, and he praised the three young girls who called him out.

“Anybody standing up to any image that is hurting our community in any way, I am for that,” he said.

He pointed out that the corporation that promotes Lil’ Wayne is “making money off negativity.”

“But I can’t control Lil’ Wayne. All I can control is Che ‘Rhymefest’ Smith and all I can do is take personal responsibility for my community.”

After landing in a runoff in the 20th Ward against Ald. Willie Cochran, Smith now finds himself defending his past career.

Last week, Cochran, a former police sergeant, argued that Smith’s lyrics makes him unfit to lead.

“When you’re in a position where you influence people and you use it to bring scorn on our society and you promote get your gun, promote calling people ‘bitches’ . . . what makes him think he should make decisions for the community?” Cochran said in an interview with Sun-Times reporters.

“I have two battles to fight,” Smith told me on Monday.

“The first battle is with young people really fighting the negative image of hip-hop that has been portrayed in the mainstream press and that is massaged in the heads of young people. The second battle is saying all rap lyrics aren’t the same.”

I’d wager that most people over 50 don’t know the difference between a Rhymefest and a Lil’ Wayne.

Although Smith is not a rock star, he won a Grammy for “Jesus Walks,” a breakout song on Kanye West’s debut album, and that makes him a celebrity among hip-hop fans and some church folk.

In a ward beset with real problems: abandoned buildings, children being gunned down in gang- and drug-related violence, and a dearth of viable businesses, should the negativity associated with the hip-hop genre be used to beat down Rhymefest’s campaign.

I think not.

Because while we boomers say we want young people involved in rebuilding the community, when they do step up, we tend to beat them back by any means necessary.

“There is a disconnection between the people who don’t listen to the music and don’t know what is going on. I think it is unfair and I don’t think it is responsible to the community,” Smith said.

“Rap music didn’t create the problems. Rap music doesn’t have any effect on foreclosures. We have 20,000 vacant lots. Rap music doesn’t have anything to do with that. It doesn’t have anything to do with unemployment and the pension crisis,” Smith pointed out.

“We get so distracted by things that have nothing to do with conditions in our community. The biggest thing — absent parents — doesn’t have anything to do with the music, and has everything to do with a city in crisis.”

Smith told me he wants to use music as a “responsible teaching tool” for young people in the community, and said while he will be making music with youths from the community, he will not tour or make an album if he is elected to public office.

The question in this race is bigger than who will prevail in an old rivalry or wrest away leadership.

The question is whether a community can offer redemption to its prodigal sons.