The documentary In My Father's House (opening today) follows musician Che “Rhymefest” Smith’s deeply emotional, and eye-opening, search for his biological father Brian Tillman after 20-plus years apart.
Directed by Emmy-nominated directors and producers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, the film is important not only for chronicling the rapper’s journey, but for its exploration of abandonment and fatherhood in the African-American community. It is a raw and brutally honest portrayal of a story that is all too common.
Rhymefest is an award-winning hip-hop producer and lyricist, co-writer of the 2015 Golden Globe and Oscar-winning song "Glory” (from Selma) and a 2005 Grammy winner for work with good friend Kanye West on the song “Jesus Walks.” He spoke with ESSENCE about the documentary, fatherhood, forgiveness, the joy of mentoring—and how this documentary has changed his life.
Every story has a beginning—what's yours? Why look for your estranged father after 20 years?
It all started when I purchased my childhood home. No, let me back-track on that. It all really started when I called my mom and asked her if she thought that I should look for my biological father. And you know what she told me—I mean, I didn't even know if he was still alive—she said, ‘If your spirit is telling you to search [then] find out if he's alive.’
You discover that your absent father is homeless because of his alcoholism. Was this disappointing?
Disappointment is part of the journey. Really, my biggest disappointment is that my father put on a good face for so long. In my mind I was thinking that everything is good; I got a father back and I get to be a kid again, even at 35! Now everything is perfect. When this “perfect world” came tumbling down, it shocked me because I have never dealt with that level of disappointment before. There were moments when I thought I could pat myself on the back because I had done such a good job of curing my father of alcoholism. That was me losing focus. My father has a disease—I'm learning about this everyday.
You learn that your father is a “sensitive dude.”
Yes, Brian is a 'sensitive dude’ and I learned that's a big part of me as well. For a long time, I thought being sensitive was a weakness, but it's actually my strength. I now know that strength came from my father. Seeing that my father is kind, compassionate, sensitive, and nurturing—I got to compare it to my mother, who is a little stern. This served me as an artist, writer, and rapper. Now I cultivate these attributes because it's a part of who I am. I honestly think that the cultivation of these attributes, which I share with my father, is why I'm experiencing so much success. I'm comfortable with being who I am and that means that I'm comfortable with being a sensitive man.
There’s a sobering moment in the documentary when your wife Donna is creating a budget for your father. Under a Chicago program to rehabilitate him, his rent was paid in full for two years. That was two years ago. What now?
Wow, those two years have come and gone. Our family is dealing with that issue right now. Since he hasn’t had a job in 30 years he hasn't paid anything into the social security system, so he can’t get anything back. He’s also disabled. This is where the challenges really come in. I can't let him go back to the streets. The one thing that he has now, that he didn't have for 30 years ago, is family. It's very interesting because I am dealing with my estranged father and it's like I'm the father in the relationship.
The filmmakers, who are women, and also White, employed a deft hand when dealing with the children you fathered outside of marriage. Let's be frank, you do have "baby mamas" and the question of paternity was explored.
I started shooting some elements of this film before I connected with Ricki and Annie. They approached a delicate subject manner in a non-bias way. There were moments when I had to really stop and look at my life. I know who I am; I have my roots and am not afraid to live my life in the open. That being said, it's also a fact that I won't allow anyone to put out anything concerning me, my family, and my community that isn't a correct representation. It's interesting that as people we sometimes run from our truths. For instance, when I was having an issue of paying child support I was like, ‘Yo, y'all kinda making me look like a dead beat dad.’ The truth is that my son lives with me. My daughter—I'm dealing with her mother on issues. So the filmmakers asked, ‘Ok, what 10 minutes of the film would you like us to take out?’ Then I looked at the entire film and realized that it was all relevant. Sometimes having a view outside of your community helps you to look at yourself in a more honest way.
Are you okay about the possible criticism that might arise since the filmmakers are two White women?
Yes, I’m ok with any criticism because I like my life in the open. Like it or not, most families are in complicated situations. Our lives are not neat. I started the documentary and Ricki and Annie saw the potential and they finished it.
In My Father’s House opens today in select cities. Watch an exclusive clip below.