Che ‘Rhymefest’ Smith visits campus, hosts workshop this week

by Savannah Miller | 10/24/17 12:00am

This week, Che “Rhymefest” Smith will be conducting a student workshop on campus. Smith is a Grammy-winning hip-hop artist from Chicago. He has collaborated with and written for several artists, most notably Kanye West on his song “Jesus Walks.” He is also a philanthropist, activist and politician dedicated to opening up conversations about race and youth in America.

While on campus, Smith will be offering a workshop in three parts. Today, students will work with Smith through the process of writing music and lyrics that convey stories and personal narratives with him. The following day, the group will begin crafting a short composition for the lyrics from the previous day that conveys the emotion of the piece. On Thursday, the workshop will focus on preparing the piece for performance the next day. The three-day workshop culminates in a performance on Friday.

Though this workshop does end with the students creating a piece of music, participants do not need to have a background in songwriting or playing an instrument to participate. What is important are the ideas students bring to discuss.  

While Smith previously came to Dartmouth in April 2016, this is the first time he is coming as a Montgomery Fellow. Founded in 1977, the Montgomery Fellows Program is dedicated to bringing inspiring individuals and role models from academic and non-academic worlds to the College. These fellows interact with students, hold workshops, give interactive lectures and contribute to the Dartmouth community by raising discussions about important topics.

This workshop is continuing Smith’s trend of speaking to and working with youth to foster conversations about race. In 2016, Smith came to campus and screened his documentary “In My Father’s House,” which followed Smith as he set out to reconnect with his father, who had abandoned him 20 years before. The artist spoke with viewers after the screening and held a short concert the following day.

Klaus Milich, director of the Montgomery Fellows Program, is excited to have Smith back on campus to continue the dialogue about race and diversity the program has been fostering.

“The College is deeply dedicated to inclusion and diversity, and so we all — across campus, no matter what department, no matter what center, no matter what institution on campus — always think about ‘What can I do to meet the requirements of what inclusion and diversity means to us?’” he said.

Montgomery Fellows are nominated by multiple members of the Dartmouth community. The program received letters of nomination on Smith’s behalf from professors, those involved with the housing community system, the Tucker Foundation and the Hopkins Center for the Arts film department. Sydney Stowe, acting director of film at the Hop, praised this aspect of the program.

“What’s really interesting with [the Montgomery Fellows Program] is that they like to invite someone who has cross-campus support,” she said. “There were a lot of people excited to welcome him back.”

Stowe said that Smith’s previous visit made her want to bring the artist back to campus. Stowe was pleasantly surprised to learn about Smith’s philanthropy in Chicago and to see him interact with Dartmouth students at his screening. 

“What I saw was that there was so much more to him than I knew,” she said. “When he left, all I could think about was, ‘I wish he’d been here longer.’” 

Smith’s workshop will focus on the same issues that he has spent his career bringing to light. Smith has a deep dedication to highlighting issues faced by the African-American community, especially juveniles within that community. He is dedicated to using his music and art to raise awareness about such issues, a fact that Milich described as a novel way to reach a wider audience.

“Art and music is one way to shed light on certain aspects of society, on certain problems,” Milich said. “He tries to look at the whole issue of race and race problems and race matters through art because he believes that art is also a form of talking about it.”

Stowe believes bringing individuals like Smith to campus to talk about issues of race and society allows Dartmouth students to experience people with backgrounds very different from their own.

“He brings a perspective that I don’t know how often college students would have experienced, or even college administrators,” she said. “We all label someone, and then we sit down with them and realize we have these things in common.”

In addition to Smith, the College is also hosting Rhodessa Jones, another Montgomery Fellow. Jones is an actress, teacher and writer. She is also the founder and director of the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, a project that brings art to those in prison in the hopes of keeping them from returning there upon release. Jones has also partnered with the University of California at San Francisco’s Women’s HIV Clinic to shed light on the problems faced by women living with HIV.

Milich believes having both Jones and Smith on campus at the same time will further encourage the College to discuss issues of diversity. While he recognizes the two artists are from very different disciplines — Smith is a musician, and Jones is an actress — he knows they are more alike than dislike in their views and concerns.

“Both are deeply, deeply dedicated to Black Lives Matter and to questions and issues of race,” Milich said. “Both are artists that do not only talk to African-American students. They talk to the entire society — that, I think, is important.”

Milich, Stowe and those involved in the Montgomery Fellows Program are eager to see what Smith brings to the Dartmouth community during his short stay on campus. Moreover, Stowe hopes his workshop will encourage students to branch out and talk about the differences they have and grow as a result of those conversations.

“He is really about exposing young people to everyone else’s worlds because he believes that makes you a better global citizen,” Stowe said.

Milich expressed appreciation for artists like Smith and Jones that expose individuals to those kinds of worlds.

“We are a multicultural society, and we have to talk about it, and that is what social justice also means, to talk about it, to come to terms with it in the most positive sense,” he said. “I think this is just one little step to it, but we have to bring it up again and again; we have to talk about it over and over again.”