Photo: Jeff Sciortino; Styling: Agriculture

The night before he was robbed at gunpoint this summer, the rapper and community activist Che “Rhymefest” Smith was in bed with his wife. Both were glued to their phones. “I’m unhappy,” he texted her. Her text reply was swift and blunt: “So what?”

Her point: The work Smith is doing as creative director for the arts education nonprofit Donda’s House, his political efforts (including a failed run for alderman in 2011), and the lyrics he cowrote with Common and John Legend for Selma’s Oscar-winning song “Glory”—well, all of that means a lot more than his personal happiness.

Smith went to sleep without replying. Early the next morning, he hopped in his car to work on some rhymes. While he was parked near the 4300 block of South Cottage Grove, a young man pointed a gun at his head and demanded his wallet. For Smith, the timing wasn’t coincidental. “My self-indulged, self-righteous unhappiness manifested this person in physical form,” he says. “I attracted the apathy that I was developing.”

At the Grand Crossing District police station, where he went to file a report, he was greeted with another form of alarming apathy. An officer challenged his claim, told him to keep his hands in plain sight, and ultimately asked him to leave. Smith posted his phone video of the encounter on Twitter with the caption: “You wonder [why] we don’t report crimes? The police treated me disgustingly.”

The robbery and the report drew national media attention—not just to the incident but to the larger problems of violence in Chicago and the police’s relationship with the community. Next came a meeting with the mayor, an apology from the police department, and Smith’s latest effort: Heal Chicago.


Still in its infancy, this project aims to set up what Smith calls citywide “therapy sessions” for citizens and police to talk through issues facing them. He’s partnering with, among others, Lori Lightfoot, the president of the Chicago Police Board, and Evelyn Diaz, the president of the antipoverty group Heartland Alliance.

“All of Chicago is traumatized—white, black, brown, Arab, Jewish,” Smith says. “And it goes back way before Rahm, way before Daley. Chicago has never had a moment where we all say, ‘We’ve all gone through similar things, and we need healing.’ How can you have policy reform on top of trauma that goes back decades if that trauma is never dealt with?”