Rhymefest visits campus to discuss ‘In My Father’s House’

by Nalini Ramanathan | 4/11/16 5:01pm

Although predominantly known for his collaborations with Kanye West, Chicago-based rapper and songwriter Che “Rhymefest” Smith takes a different approach to rap than his former collaborator, focusing more on philanthropy, emotional intelligence and the value of family. Dartmouth students and community members experienced Smith’s approach when he visited the College for the Hopkins Center’s screening of the documentary film “In My Father’s House” (2015) this past Thursday. Smith is known for co-writing the Grammy award-winning song “Jesus Walks,” from Kanye West’s album “Yeezus,” and the Oscar and Golden Globe award-winning song “Glory,” from the film “Selma” (2014).

“In My Father’s House,” produced by filmmakers Ricki Stern ’87 and Annie Sundberg ’90, depicts Smith’s reunion with his absent father and explores Smith’s progression as an individual emotionally, spiritually and philanthropically.

Even after purchasing his father’s childhood home, Smith still felt a sense of incompleteness in his life. Raised by his grandparents and his mother, who had him at 15, he felt as if the house represented a connection that he lacked to his father’s legacy. Thus, at his mother’s encouragement, he began a documentary on his search for his father. In the process, he hoped to make his life more of “an open book.”

Los Angeles producer and friend Daniel Kellison took note of this search and contacted award-winning documentary duo Stern and Sundberg of BreakThru Films, known for their character-driven documentaries such as “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” (2010) and “Knuckleball!” (2012).

Along with Smith, the two directors visited Dartmouth this past week. Stern led a master class in film and media studies professor Jim Brown’s narrative film class, “Directing for the Camera,” in which students watched clips from five of her and Sundberg’s films, including “In My Father’s House.” Stern discussed their approach to each scene, and answered student questions.

Some of Stern’s films took a span of many years to complete, including a 13-year process for “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” (2006), a film on the wrongful conviction and exoneration of Darryl Hunt.

Stern and Sundberg’s approach, Brown said, is rather traditional, following the vein of cinéma vérité, a technique in documentary filmmaking which aims to provide a more honest, unedited relationship between the camera and the subject.

Stern described her main focus in filmmaking is creating a narrative that involves the viewer.

“Very simplistically, if I sit there and I’m mesmerized on whatever it is, however it’s told, that’s what I look for,” Stern said. “It doesn’t always have to be artistically, stylistically the most creative.”

After studying English, theater and film at Dartmouth, and taking classes on religion, sociology and psychology, Stern felt this exposure to different fields helped her understand the process of storytelling and human development crucial to documentary filmmaking. It was her documentary film class which helped her tie all of her interests together.

However, Sundberg, one of Brown’s first students, took one of his more advanced classes focused on documentary filmmaking. Brown pointed to Sundberg’s evident understanding of the value of collaboration in filmmaking as a college student.

Stern’s daughter Kyra Guillemin ’19, who is interested in film and English as well, worked as an intern for the documentary. She worked on transcription and media management and wrote the film’s opening music.

The film itself is edited in a scrapbook-like fashion, as an audience member noted in the discussion following the screening of the film in Loew Auditorium. This, Stern and Sundberg explained, was meant to reflect Smith and his wife’s search for openness in a society which they find often encourages emotional repression.

This emotional repression is something that Smith often works to fight against in his work as both a politician (he ran for Chicago’s City Council in 2010) and a philanthropist.

In his work at Donda’s House, a non-profit arts group featured in the documentary that teaches creative writing to young adults ages 14 to 24 in at-risk communities in Chicago, Smith encourages children to understand their anger and gain confidence. He aims to foster a strong, supportive environment or family, that many children growing up in poor areas lack, as he felt he did.

This idea of family, he said, is the main focus of the documentary. He elaborated on it during the “lunch and learn” that he led at the Center for Service, where he talked about his social activism and his work as a rapper.

“I like things that are family. And it felt like family. And so I was able to be open and not feel like I was being judged. And that’s the image that I like at Dartmouth. It’s like people can express themselves and group together,” Smith said.

In the discussion, Smith touched on the importance of using one’s talent as a “superpower” to create good. For himself, he said, this talent is creativity. He used this creativity, he said, to “rewrite his father back into his life,” as well to run for office, create a community and to create music to inspire good.

In his rap music, Smith focuses more on social activism, exemplified by “Glory,” which celebrates the struggle and triumph of Civil Rights both in the 1960s and today.

Dartmouth freestyle rap group DStyle opened for Smith’s Friday concert with a series of freestyle rap games typical of many of their performances. Although the group has a different style than Smith, DStyle member Latika Sridhar ’16 said it was an honor to perform with him, and admired the deep, often politically minded thought Smith puts into his work.

Sridhar also admires the artistic side of Smith’s work, especially the way he originally integrated the music with the rap.

“Coming at it from a more musical perspective, during the show, I really liked how he alternated lines with [the musicians],” she said.

Smith performed with several Dartmouth musicians and talked to members of the audience individually after the show.

Smith said that he really enjoyed his time at Dartmouth, and plans to apply for a Montgomery Fellowship at the College in the future.

Correction appended (April 13, 2016):

The original version of this article stated that Smith participated ina "lunch and learn" hosted by theTucker Center. This event was, in fact, hosted by the Center for Service.