Rhymefest co-wrote the Oscar-winning “Glory,” with Common and John Legend. The song appeared in “Selma,” and at the 2017 Chicago Bluesfest, Rhymefest was joined by blues harmonica legend Billy Branch for a performance that transformed the song into a 12-minute jam.
The presence of Rhymefest at the Chicago Bluesfest was hugely significant. Hip-hop music is not blues music. Blues festivals often make room for soul singers or gospel singers in their lineups, but the Bluesfest has largely resisted including hip-hop artists.
On top of that, the artist the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events approached to breathe new energy into the festival was named after the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevera (his birth name is Che Smith). In 2010, he ran as a candidate for an alderman seat in the 20th ward of Chicago. He writes Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and features sharp commentary on racism, police brutality, gun violence, war, poverty, etc.
John Primer and The Real Deal performed as the festival’s first headliner. The band performed a cover of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.” Soon after, Tom Marker, the host of the main stage, informed the audience that the Bluesfest was trying something new. This was a change.
It did not take long for blues fans, predominantly white blues fans, to leave the front rows. There were a lot of people leaving when Rhymefest performed “Jesus Walks,” a song he co-wrote with Kanye West.
Yet, it was tremendously powerful to have a politically conscious musician enter a space that is normally all about paying tribute to music traditions and less about pushing boundaries.
The show ended with “Glory.” It incorporated elements of the blues by featuring Branch, who was scheduled as the headlining act after Rhymefest.
As Rhymefest told the Chicago Reader, Branch never wasted a moment to tell Rhymefest how he does not like hip hop. He insisted music was like this or it was supposed to be like that. The two musicians had several conversations about evolving music with Branch, and he appears to have softened Branch because without his blues harmonica the Oscar-winning song would have lacked the transcendence it had on June 9.
Rhymefest introduced the song to the audience by saying he prayed with Common and John Legend. They prayed the ancestors would give them the words that were needed for a song for a film about a pivotal chapter in Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.
“We made a specific prayer to Medgar Evers, to Mike Brown, to Fannie Lou Hamer, to Martin King, and we asked them to give us the words to their story. And when they delivered the words, it sounded like this,” he added.
“One day when the glory comes, it will be ours, it will be ours,” the song begins.
Listen to the lyrics of the first verse. It links the civil rights struggle of the 1960s with the struggle for black lives in the present day.
“True and livin,’ livin’ in us, resistance is us. That’s why Rosa sat on the bus. That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.”
In the second verse, Rhymefest raps, “We sing, our music is the cuts that we bleed through. Somewhere in the dream we had an epiphany. Now we right the wrongs in history. No one can win the war individually.”
It is a song celebrating struggle, and the celebration is elevated by the ensemble performance of Rhymefest.
Rhymefest’s performance with Branch brought together generations. It linked blues and hip-hop and showed the benefit of taking risks.
Like Rhymefest declared, “Hip-hop, at its essence, tells stories—stories about revolution, about community, about hopes and dreams. Blues comes from that same type of struggle.”
Watch Rhymefest perform “Glory” at the 2017 Chicago Bluesfest by clicking the video in the above player.
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