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Che ‘Rhymefest’ Smith searches for father and self in the documentary ‘In My Father’s House’

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
Che ‘Rhymefest’ Smith searches for father and self in the documentary ‘In My Father’s House’
(L-R): Brian and his son Che “Rhymefest” Smith (Photo: Charles Miller)

Celebrated rapper, songwriter, MC and activist Che “Rhymefest” Smith has rhymed since he was a teen growing up in Chicago. With Kanye West, he co-wrote the Grammy-winning song “Jesus Walks” and picked up best original song awards — an Oscar and Golden Globe — earlier this year for co-writing “Glory,” the title track from the movie “Selma”.

Long known in the hip hop world, Smith is back in the spotlight again. This time, it’s for the heartwarming and sometimes raw documentary “In My Father’s House,” which details his reunion with his estranged father Brian, an alcoholic living on the streets.

Smith, who hadn’t spoken to his father since he was 12, decided to search for him after purchasing his childhood home on Chicago’s South Side. He initially began filming on his own before directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” and “Knuckleball!”) stepped in to take the helm. The Chicago MC met Stern and Sundberg through a mutual producer friend in Los Angeles.

Stern and Sundberg were drawn to Smith’s story after seeing a few scenes of footage where Che and Brian first meet as adults and have dinner together. Annie Sundberg recalls “that was very much the scene that we felt held so much possibility of what was to come. None of us, the viewers or we personally, had any idea what might come from this one union and reunion, and that sparked us. That was really the genesis for us to dive right into it,” says the filmmaker by phone.

Ricki Stern adds that they felt there “was this universal quest in there, one of knowing who you are by understanding your past and moving forward in the future and making changes. [Smith] definitely felt that not knowing his past with his father was causing him to maybe not move forward in the way that he wanted to.”

The hip hop artist was grateful that the duo took over the filming process. “They said ‘Let us take that burden, and you just operate with your father.’ That really freed me up to not have to tell the story, but to live the story,” says Smith. “While it’s true that I’ve been documenting, I’ve never had it documented by someone else, which is a different thing. It was actually a relief that I didn’t have to drive the train and lay the tracks at the same time.”

Interestingly enough, the rapper found his dad living on Chicago’s West Side, just a few blocks from where he would drop off his wife Donnie for work every morning. In the beginning of his journey, he didn’t have any preconceived notions or ideas about what might happen.

“Before I met my father, I had already forgiven him. I already decided to lay down whatever farce or bad feelings I had. So there wasn’t a thing where I expected him to make some big revelation that would free me. I already had forgiven him before I started the journey. The only thing I wanted was to know who he was. I didn’t have any expectations other than learning more about him, and in learning more about him it would ultimately give me the answers I needed about me.”