One Thursday, Rhymefest meets Jeff Townes, better known as DJ Jazzy Jeff, in the lobby of a North Side hotel. They head upstairs with two of Jeff’s associates, and a white couple steps aside to cede the elevators to them. “It’s OK, we’ll take the next one,” jokes Rhymefest, imitating the couple once the doors close. “That one guy has dreadlocks. We’ll wait. This is Chicago.”
Jeff and Rhymefest have a band called Jeff N Fess. “Mr. Officer,” a song they released for free in October, sounds like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” updated for the Black Lives Matter present, with Eric Roberson singing the hook and Rhymefest rapping that his taxes pay police salaries and buy their uniforms. “Fest is such a visual writer. He can write funny, or he can write Kanye’s most personal pieces, or ‘Glory,’ moving into social issues,” says Jeff. “It’s almost a natural progression that once he realized he has that power, why not use it to try to make change.”
In the hotel, Rhymefest launches into a favorite theme: “Genius is never you. It’s your collaboration. People don’t talk about The Famous Flames around James Brown or The Wailers,” he says. “The problem with rappers is they try to go at it alone. My mission is to teach rappers how to collaborate.” Rhymefest now feels confident, sure he’ll succeed in his current ventures, because he has the right collaborators around him. A super squad. “Wu-Tang!” he shouts. “The Avengers!” cries Jeff.
Jeff N Fess cut a song for Marvel’s Black Panther, the comic written by National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates. Rhymefest plays it — an old-school hip-hop action soundtrack, with Fess sounding as aggressive as early LL Cool J — as he drives Donnie and me to his next meeting, passing through the posh neighborhoods just north and west of the Loop; he mutters about a guy jookin on a busy corner, twisting his body into ringed shapes: “Come on, man, act normal.” In 2015, Rhymefest modeled in a “real-life hero” themed Kenneth Cole ad campaign, and on the way to a popular diner called Little Goat, he says, “Every deal I do has to have a community component.”
After releasing “Cops N Robbers,” Rhymefest decided he wanted to lead an effort that would transform how Chicagoans imagined one another. He proposed a post-apartheid South Africa–style truth-and-reconciliation effort. Everyone in the city, he reasons, is suffering from trauma after decades of gun violence, police misconduct and segregation. He envisions volunteer therapists on hand at multiple sites across the city, their sessions broadcast live.
Angelique Power, the president of one of the city’s major nonprofits, The Field Foundation of Illinois, says she had been talking with colleagues about the need for just such an effort, launched not by people in downtown offices but by an influential person from the community. Then she heard what Rhymefest was doing and joined the advisory committee he was assembling. “Coming off his experiences, he could be leading an entirely different movement, but this one is based in compassion and healing,” says Power. “The fact that he wants to use his energy on behalf of the city makes it seem like we might actually be able to do something very important.”
At the diner, we squeeze into a booth with another member of the truth-and-reconciliation advisory committee, Rev. Dr. Beth Brown of Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church. She leads a mostly white and wealthy congregation, and both she and Rhymefest are eager to combine forces. She mentions that her church uses “compassion cards,” a crowd-sourcing tool, to help victims of gun violence. “Hold on, I got it,” Rhymefest calls out, his hand raised to still the table. “After the citywide therapy sessions — boom! — the compassion cards go up on the website. Instead of you trying to do this on your own, we do it together.”
Walking to his car later, Rhymefest plays with the conversation, testing its lyrical potential: “I was talking to this pastor in a purple shirt. What if you had a card to bail you out. A compassion card.” He turns to me, smiling. “The music is always happening. What’s happening now is a unique experience.”