Talking to Che “Rhymefest” Smith is like an encounter with that wise uncle everyone in the family seeks advice from. He’s logical when it comes to making good points and is able to look at things objectively, putting things into a perspective you probably have yet to come across.
“Can you ever think of a time in history that wasn’t a hard time?” he questions. “Listen, I would never want to live back before cars existed. Think about how we can travel from place to place quick as hell right now. I wouldn’t want to live in medieval times and go through the bubonic plague, or think about living in the ‘60s when all of the greatest people in the world were assassinated at the same time.”
He’s right. Life isn’t easy—especially for those featured in The Public. Directed by Emilio Estevez, the film tells the story of a homeless community in Cincinnati, Ohio that barricade themselves in a library in fear of freezing to death on a dangerously cold winter night. Rhymefest plays a homeless man named Big George, who is partly inspired by his own father’s life story. His father was homeless for 35 years, leading him to be absent for the majority of the Chicago native’s life.
In 2015, Rhymesfest released a documentary titled In My Father’s House, which details his restored relationship with his father. It also showcased how he was able to rehabilitate his alcoholic dad and help him on a path back into society.
Smith also says his dad was present on set of The Public and gave insight on how it reminded him of his former life. “My father has not seen the film yet, but he did come to the set while we were filming,” he says from Chicago. “He looked at me dressed as a homeless person and looked at all the homeless people in the library, and he said: ‘I know this place. I know these people. This looks like all my friends.’”
In VIBE’s recent chat, Rhymefest discussed his experience making the film, its message and the importance of healthy family dynamics.
VIBE: In My Father’s House showcases your father’s experience with homelessness. How did he become homeless?
Rhymefest: All I know are the stories that my father tells. My father lived in a home—which is the home that I live in now, oddly enough—where his father was abusive. His father used to tie him and his brothers up and put shotguns to their heads. His father introduced him to alcohol at nine and 10 years old. He was already drinking beer.
I loved that you asked that question, how does homelessness happen? It happens usually in many ways. But usually always from trauma and traumatic experiences. My father was abused, traumatized and neglected. When the only people in his life, his grandma and grandpa—who clothed and fed him—when they died, he was on his own. He did not know how to function on his own.
Was he absent in your childhood because of homelessness?
Yes my father was definitely absent in my life. But as a child you don’t think about what your parents’ journey are—what their experiences are. All we do is blame our parents for how we were treated or what we didn’t get. I’m sure that my grandfather who abused my father had some type of trauma, and we don’t know his whole story.
What we’re talking about many times is a generation of abuse, generations of trauma. And for me, I’m blessed because I get to break a cycle. I get to break a family curse. I think that’s what we all have to do, it’s incumbent upon all of us to break our family curses and the only way to break our family curses is to do something different. When you do something different in the family, you’re always going to be an outcast. Because people aren’t used to it you’re always going to be looked at as the oddball, and that’s okay. That means you’re doing good work.
What type of voice do the characters in the film give the homeless?
A lot of the extras on the set and people who were in the film were actually of the homeless population. This wasn’t something that was just a bunch of actors. It was the actual voices having agency over how they were portrayed. We’re talking about me reconnecting with my father who was homeless for over 35 years. I was able to transmute his voice through my character, Big George. So it’s really about allowing people to have agency over how they are portrayed and I believe that’s the brilliance of Emilio as a director.
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There’s a scene in the film where the white librarian says that she’s uncomfortable with dealing with the police when they came to get the homeless people out of the library. I found it interesting that the film showcased a white woman who claims to be revolutionary but is afraid of the police. Usually black and brown people take on that burden.
What’s interesting about the character you’re talking about is that she was a left revolutionary. If you look at the beginning of the film, she’s like, ‘Oh, you’re polluting the earth.’ She was really a revolutionary in her mind, but when it was time for action and really live out what she said she believed in, she had an excuse about who was watching or who would be upset.
That’s what we see a lot with the rise of online revolution. A lot of people are really good at protesting from a keyboard. The film is up for everyone’s interpretation, but I believe that part was just about the difference between a lot of the activists we see on camera, and those who actually do the work. A lot of the so called activists that we see online doing all the big lectures are not the ones that are making the big changes on the ground.
What was it like taking on this role?
I’ve really redefined who I am as a person because of this experience. I’m not a musician. I’m not an actor. I’m a creative and anything that is creative put me in it and I will shine and rise to the occasion. I also did some music for the film as well. Acting, doing music, community service is all the same mechanisms of creativity. But far too often as human beings, we limit ourselves to a career, we label things as these careers, instead of being fully in the moment of everything that we do. You’ll find that your gift allows you to have many careers, if you believe in your gift. My gift is that of creativity.
If you were a politician and you had the power to stop homelessness, how would you take that line of action?
The first thing I would do is gather a counsel of poets, because poets and artists know how to reimagine the world. They know how to see the world differently. I would ask the politicians and poets to reimagine it and then I would turn their words and art into legislation. They are the best re-imaginers of systems.
What would be an ideal legislation for you to implement?
I think one of the things we don’t talk about in America is family. Families are in burden with the majority of the taxes. If we look at America’s tax system, the wealthiest people pay the least taxes and the burden usually goes to the poor, black or brown. And that’s all colors when you say the poor. I think what we need to do is reduce the financial burden of families and have mental health counseling available to everyone and anyone who wants to get it. Much of what America suffers from is mental health trauma and everyone who needs to have the benefit of counseling should have access to it. That would do a lot to keep families together and keeping families together is how we prevent homelessness.