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Rhymefest’s Soulful Comeback: The Chicago MC Unpacks His Bold New Project & Why Veterans ‘Gotta Keep Rapping’

Instead of making a straightforward comeback for his first project in over a decade, Rhymefest challenged himself — and aimed to transcend the boundaries of conventional hip-hop. The Chicago native turned an iconic conversation between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, two of America’s greatest writers and activists, into a full-length musical composition that offers a poignant commentary on the state of the world today.

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James & Nikki: A Conversation became a reality through social media: the Grammy-winning rapper was scrolling one day and found himself intrigued by clips of the 1971 conversation between Baldwin and Giovanni for the program Soul!. In their discussion, the creatives explored what it meant to be Black in America, from the lens of both a man and woman, during a time of political, social and racial upheaval.

They addressed issues such as morality, freedom and justice, while giving listeners an honest look at how the United States operated back then. As the way that people discuss these issues and process information has evolved over the past 53 years, Rhymefest felt compelled to find a way to make the conversation accessible to a modern-day audience.

“How many people actually went to look at that interview to see what they were really talking about,” Rhymefest tells Billboard. “Baldwin was channeling the heterosexual masculinity, and Nikki Giovanni was channeling the femininity of one in a relationship with a man like that. When I saw that clip, bro, I had to dig deeper and see what was happening.”

He continues, “I saw teacher and student, man and woman, poets freestyling. I saw somebody who lived in Paris and may not have understood what was happening in the 1970s from where he came from. I saw the future that was coming through in the Black Panther movement. It was just so layered.”

Before long, Rhymefest figured out that turning Baldwin and Giovanni’s conversation into a musical project was the way to go, and re-imagined the dialogue as a lyrical exchange, infusing their words with new life and relevance in today’s sociopolitical climate. Rhymefest took various audio clips from the conversation and blended them with his rhymes and an eclectic array of production.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Rhymefest enlisted several under-the-radar female rappers — including Helixx C. Armageddon, Teefa, Frayne Vibez, Brittney Carter, Rell Suma and Abstract Mindstate — to channel Giovanni’s spirit, while also pushing him to level up his raps. The result is a sonic landscape that serves as a platform for timeless wisdom to resonate with a new generation.

Rhymefest spoke with Billboard about this special project, including its creation, getting Giovanni’s blessing, understanding today’s racial and social climate, and linking up with the Golden State Warriors entertainment division to release it.

After listening to James & Nikki: A Conversation, it feels like you’re speaking directly to the Black community. What do you think is going on with our community that made you feel this was the right moment to release this project?

I think what we call Black identity has been hyperbolically made extreme through technology, myths, and disinformation. I think that when people ask me if Dr. Umar is Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, I’m like, “You don’t understand the organizing power of Dr. King and Malcolm X. You looking at the Internet.” Come on, bro. Like when people are not talking about Tamika Mallory in a way that understands that she is the today’s version of Martin Luther King. She is today’s version of Fannie Lou Hamer. I think that the identity of Black was given to us because we weren’t Black, bro.

Baldwin speaks a lot about this, how white is an identity that Europeans gave themselves. After they did that, they gave us Black identity, and we’re trying to fight from under a system of injustice from a label that was given to us in injustice. I’m not caught up in Black, I’m caught up in values, bro.

This project is so important to you that you refer to it as more than an album — as a composition. Why is that?

The reason I do that is when you go to the orchestra, the conductor isn’t saying, “Yo, check out my new joint. I’m dropping my new album.” They call their work compositions, and guess what, those compositions last for 100 years. I think what we’ve done with our culture of hip-hop is we made it so cheap, so accessible. These ain’t songs or an album, bro. These are pieces and a composition. This project is speaking to the Black community of understanding and the black community that is ready to pivot into a majority instead of embracing the title of minority. This is more than an album.

I’m sure you met with Nikki Giovanni and let her know what you were trying to achieve with this composition. What was that conversation like?

Dr. Giovanni heard the original demo, which had different songs but the same audio clips from their conversation, and she was amazed. She said, “I only wish Jimmy was here. Jimmy would love this.” I couldn’t believe she was calling James Baldwin [who died in 1987] Jimmy, and I was hearing it from her. For me, that was like Kanye West talking to Stevie Wonder, or Mark Ronson talking to Quincy Jones. Here I am today doing my art, but I’m speaking to the person who cleared the brush and laid the road. I was able to make this project and be able to thank her, but not only thank her. This project is an example of giving flowers.

Many consider James Baldwin a forefather of hip-hop because of the way he used his words over different musical sounds, as he did with his 1987 album A Lover’s Question. What does it mean for you to be a rapper, hearing that he would’ve loved this composition?
 
That boy was cold, bro. There are things here in this project, because we intertwined Jimmy and Nikki, where I gotta go back and listen to what Jimmy is saying because he was so prophetic. He says, “No tyrant in history could read, but they all burn the books.” You see what’s happening in Florida, you see what’s happening around the country. James says things like, “Baby, it takes a long time to learn a little bit,” and that makes me think about my life and how long it’s taken me to learn a little bit, how long it’s taken me into my forties to not be selfish.
 
You worked with several female rappers on the album, who were dishing out some heavy bars. Who gave you a run for your money?
 
All of them [laughs]. There were times where I was stuck like on the song “Triggered.” Like I got to a point in a project where I couldn’t think of nothing, I was just at a block and I was stuck, man. It had to be finished. Helixx C. Armageddon came with the first verse and it was such a muse, and inspired me so much, and rebooted the whole project. A lot of the songs I would come with the vision and the way these women just rhymed, bro, it frightened me at times, and I’m talking for real. I ain’t had nothing out in decades, and I was like, yo, I can’t just be sitting up on my project getting burned. In a way, a lot of these women really rebooted my rap career and made me have to go hard like they did. We’re in a time right now in hip-hop where women are in the lead.
 
How does the ongoing dialogue that rappers in their 40s and 50s have nothing to rap about make you feel?
 
It disappoints me when I hear artists say, “Man, when you get a certain age, you don’t be rapping no more.” Then you have the young kids that stop all of that. It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy, and we don’t keep giving them these lived experiences through language. So we, as the modern-day prophets and ministers, this is a ministry, James & Nikki ain’t no album. It’s part of a ministry. We gotta keep rapping and keep giving them our lived experiences through an educational language that they understand.
 
You worked with the Golden State Warriors’ entertainment division to release James & Nikki: A Conversation. How did that come together?
 
You look at these record labels, and they destroyed others. There’s no way you could put out some of the negative energy a lot of these major record labels put out and the energy not return in a way that breaks your whole s–t up. Because of that I was never going to sign to another company again. I was never gonna get with a record label, because I was making music for therapy. I wasn’t putting anything out, and people were mad at me. I had producers stop talking to me because they felt I was wasting their time. I have a whole project with Black Thought that didn’t come out.
 
When my man David Kelly, head attorney for the Golden State Warriors, said, “Look, we’re going to start an entertainment company, Rhymefest. We want you. What’s up? What you got?” I said, “No, bro, I ain’t signing on no labels, man. You crazy.” He said, “Let me ask you a question. What would success look like for you if you put out a project?”
 
I’ve never been asked that question. Success has already been determined by many companies from how many streams you got, how much product and merch did you sell, how many numbers you got. David Kelly asked me what success looks like to me for a project. I said it looks like an impact was made. Can we make an impact in the community? Can we get the NAACP Image Award? Can our community receive this and love us, and can we do something from our community that’s for all communities?” And he said, “Oh, I like that vision of success.” That ultimately sealed the deal.

What do you ultimately want your listeners to take away from James & Nikki: A Conversation?
 
One of the biggest compliments I got on this project was from a young man who said, “Hey, man, this project is the conversation I wish my father would have had with me before he died.” So what I would like people to take away is that this project is the duality of humanity.  The moral of the story is that life is brief, and enjoy it with James and Nikki in the background talking about our relationships.
 
This is an experience, and I encourage everybody to take the journey with us. The people who James & Nikki is meant for know who they are, go get it and check it out. Jesus had a word when he said, “I ain’t looking for the perfect. I’m just looking for the willing.” For all those who are willing to grow with this experience, this won’t be the last. This is the first in a series and I’m only doing conceptual projects right now.
 
You also completed a fellowship at the University of Chicago for the fall 2023 semester. What was that like?
 
Hip-hop is entering another state right now. The one thing that we didn’t have in academia that we’re starting to see now when you see people like [Bun] B teach humanities courses at Rice, or hip-hop courses being taught at MIT. We’re not battling with rhymes no more. We all come at it with intellect and say, “You at MIT? I’m gonna go and get this political fellowship at the University in Chicago.” One of the things I’m proud of is that it wasn’t just like I’m teaching hip hop, like, you know what I mean? I’m teaching the intersectionality of politics and culture, because I ran for office. I’ll also be running for the school board in Chicago this year, so we’re doing it.

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