Rhymefest Reimagines The Beauty of the Black Diaspora On His New Album ‘James & Nikki: A Conversation’

The acclaimed multi-hyphenate pays tribute to the legendary writers on his latest project and he spoke about the impact he hopes to have with his art.

The artistic imagination of Che Rhymefest” Smith has no bounds. The Chicago native has made an indelible imprint on the culture as a critically acclaimed songwriter with an unwavering commitment to empowering Black people. 

Rhymefest first came to prominence in 2005 when he won a Grammy for co-writing "Jesus Walks” with Kanye West which is considered a classic. He then went on to release his much slept-on debut album "Blue Collar" the following year featuring the standout track “Brand New.”

After releasing numerous projects, in 2015, he made history when he received an Academy Award and Golden Globe for the song “Glory” from the “Selma” soundtrack along with Common and John Legend.

Outside of music, he has run for political office, chronicled the search for his estranged father in the documentary In My Father’s House, and co-founded Art of Culture (formerly Donda's House) in 2013, “a non-profit organization that increases access to the arts.” spoke with Rhymefest about how the conversation between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni that first aired on Ellis B. Haizlip’s “Soul!” more than 50 years ago became the impetus for his latest project and how it transformed his entire perspective. Held during a time of social upheaval, the discussion between the two public intellectuals covers racism, sexism, classism, and much more.

“When I first saw them speaking, it was the clips on the internet, and it sounded like Nikki was speaking to James like a wife to a husband. She said, ‘You lie to me, you smile at the guy at work, then you come home and I get the worst of it,” Rhymesfest said. “I was like, “Why is she talking to James Baldwin like this?”

“She was showing the intersection of being a poet but we can also manifest what it is to be in a relationship with our poetry. We can also manifest what it is to be a teacher and student, gay or straight, and what it is to be oppressed, and overlooked. When I saw those clips, I had to go watch the entire two-hour interview,” he continued.

During the early stages of creating a project, Rhymesfest received the ultimate compliment when Giovanni, now Emerita Professor at Virginia Tech University, where she taught for 35 years, gave the project a glowing endorsement.

“When Nikki Giovanni first heard the demo version of the project, she called me and said, “Jimmy would be proud of you.” You don't call Baldwin Jimmy unless you know him. That's when I realized that you do anything great for the people of your time. The greatness that you produce is for the future. So when Nikki got to hear this, she got to see some of the fruits of her labor.”

As Rhymefest personified the male perspective of Baldwin with his insightful lyricism, he enlisted several immensely talented female MCs who captured the feminine energy of Giovanni. He shared how the dexterous songwriting of Brittney Carter, Helixx C. Armageddon, Teefa, Freddie Old Soul, EP Da Hellcat, and C-Red made him an even better artist.

“The co-authors of this project, the women who were curated for this project, were picked because I saw the Spirit of Nikki Giovanni,” he explained. “I needed somebody to counterpoint me in the spirit and Nikki, who sees the angles that I'm not seeing.”

“These women inspired me to rhyme, they challenged me to rhyme. They run better than me. I had to keep up with them. And it was and it was purposeful, that I got women that it wasn't like and I love. I love all the sisters out there right now like Ill Camille, Rhapsody, and Glorilla. However, I wanted to get women that were dope, who didn't have a platform.”

“Creator”, the album’s exceptional first single featuring Brittney Carter and Rell Suma explores the themes of infidelity, accountability, grace, and forgiveness.

Another standout track from the project is “Elderberry,” which honors the legacy of grandmothers, the matriarchs of the Black community, and “Déjà vu” with Helixx C. Armageddon examines the traumatic effects of domestic violence. On this ambitious album, he shared that he was always destined for the path that he’s on, although it took years for him to realize it. That conclusion has been the fuel to drive him to pursue his creative endeavors.

“I don't like looking back a lot because it doesn't do me a lot of good looking back. However, when I think of “Jesus Walks” or “Glory,” I was always heading here. I just had to become more conscious. “One of the things I realized when I was talking to one of my spiritual coaches, Chief Ayanda Clarke, and she said, “You will never know your purpose until it's complete."

For the project, Rhymefest partnered with Golden State Entertainment, the music, entertainment, and content division of the Golden State Warriors. The strategic partnership is a one-of-a-kind collaboration, and on Feb. 23,  he was honored with the Impact Warrior recognition during a Golden State Warriors game.

“When we met, I told them that I don't sign record deals, and they were like, “We don't want to do a record deal.” I said, “Well, I'm not doing this for clicks, cash, and prizes.."They said, “Okay. Then what's your definition of success?” I said, “Impact,” he explained. 

“I never saw an entertainment company that let the artists negotiate their definition of success. Usually, you can negotiate your contract for money or what you need to do it, but what we negotiated our definition of success.”

In addition to his new album, Rhymefest recently completed a prestigious Axelrod Pritzker Fellowship at the University of Chicago, where he taught 8 classes in the 2023 semester. He shouted out Nas (Harvard University), Bun B (Rice University), 9th Wonder (North Carolina Central University and Duke University), and Lupe Fiasco (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), as representatives of hip hop who have impacted the world of higher education.

“I didn’t have to teach a hip hop seminar,” he shared. “I got to show them the intersectionality of music, fashion, and culture. How do politics and culture even match?  I was able to unpack that in eight seminars, and show that culture is currency and that you can leverage it for social and political justice.

It is the vision of Rhymefest to uplift the Black Diaspora with all of his gifts and his new body of work is just the tip of the iceberg.

“James and Nikki’s conversation has lived for 52 years,” he said. “I have to make sure that this project, the revised version of their discussion, lasts for another 100 years.”

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