When Vic Mensa hops on Zoom with me, he’s riding in the back of an Uber as he heads to his next destination in Chicago’s South Side. It is a slight change of plans, as the rapper was meant to be just arriving from Oklahoma City after visiting death row inmate Julius Jones. But the extreme weather conditions halted plans.
Nevertheless, Mensa is adamant about rescheduling the meeting. “The prison system is the burning hell-fire of America’s death machine,” he explains of advocating Jones and others who are wrongfully convicted. “It’s the nucleus of all oppressions that we talk about, from economic exploitation to and the denial of women’s rights, everything is magnified in the prison walls, you know what I’m saying? So it’s just become a real focus of mine to advocate and dedicate myself to using my energy in any way that I can to bring freedom, especially to those who are incarcerated.”
This determination to shed light on this country’s injustices isn’t new for Mensa. While it may be rare for musicians to truly express themselves in such an explicit manner (and on a mainstream level), last year’s protests (a trigger response to America’s ongoing racism-driven murders) gave many the fuel to speak out. For Mensa, he dropped August’s V TAPE that explored redemption while displaying his masterful emcee skills.
He is following it up with I TAPE (due March 26), a project about the rapper’s quest to help others. Below, Mensa reflects on self-healing, activism, and what’s missing from Black History Month.
When you first started out, you didn’t necessarily show this side of your activism on a major level. When was the moment where you stopped caring about what the mainstream may think?
You know, the things that I rap about now, those are the same things that I was rapping about when I started at 16 years old. I think that it’s just the trajectory of growing up, being in the public eye, and reaching an international level all while being a kid. I started making music feeling the responsibility to really bring truth to the people
Where would you say that came from?
I think it came from my upbringing in Chicago and from the artists that I idolize. The way that I grew up in Chicago, I existed between two realities: I had a lot of privilege, but I was surrounded by the underprivileged. So it was blatantly obvious to me that sh*t was f*cked up. (laughs) I got two parents in the house and I’m blessed like that. My best friend who lives right down the street from me ain’t got a father and his mother’s on drugs, you know. Chicago is just a place that shows you the truth about America. It’s very segregated and there’s no sugar coating.
So in conjunction with the artists I love — Common, Lupe [Fiasco], Kanye [West], Tupac, and Black Star — they instilled in me the value of exposing the cracks and America’s broken meaning with their art, you know what I’m saying? Common taught me about Assata Shakur with “A Song For Assata.” When I was 12 years old, Talib Kwali was rapping lyrics from The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and Kanye West taught us about diamonds from Sierra Leone. Studying those artists in the way that I did, it made me feel not only like a responsibility, but it was fresh. I aspire to inform and open people’s minds with my music.
I’m curious if the rebellion in your music comes from your love for punk rock.
You know what? One of my biggest inspirations is Rage Against The Machine. Just one of the greatest groups. Rap is punk in a lot of ways. I mean, it’s a counter-culture depiction of working-class realities. They share the fact that generations before them denied the musical value of either one. Rappers are undoubtedly the new rock stars. What categorizes the rock stars? Newspaper headlines, the drugs, and the dying young. I don’t see a distinction between the two. I mention Rage Against The Machine, because Zack de la Rocha is literally just one of the best rappers to me.
He comes from a hardcore background and is rapping over Led Zeppelin riffs. When he’s like [raps 1996’s “People Of The Sun] “Since fifteen hundred and sixteen, Mayans attacked and overseen.” Or [raps “Down Rodeo”] “A thousand years they had the tools, we should be takin’ ’em. F*ck the G-ride, I want the machines that are makin’ ’em.” He’s rapping about socialism, communist ideas, and Marxism. He’s making references that I haven’t heard anybody else make. I take inspiration from all that sh*t.
I think the beauty of Black music is that it’s “ours.” But then when you look at it from an industry perspective, executives may frame our struggles and our culture as something marketable.
There’s a Ghanian writer, one of the best, a woman named Ama Ata Aidoo. She has a quote that I’ll paraphrase: Since we met you people 500 years ago, you’ve accumulated our wealth, our culture, and what do we have to show for it? Your diamonds, your gold, your music, your dance — everything you are is us.” And it’s the truth. The proliferation of Black culture has created the modern-day pop culture. Pretty much all forms of music and just every turn of culture. I think that’s being accepted as being true more, but it is what it is. You know, I think that hip hop is like specifically, I was talking to Lupe [Fiasco] and Royce Da 5’9’’ about this the other day. Hip-hop is Black pain marketed for white America and the world at large. Obviously we consume hip-hop, but we’re a fraction of the population. Hip-hop is our trauma, but with a publicist behind it.
They’re trying to sell records at the end of the day.
I also feel like hip-hop, oftentimes represents this deep American fantasy, although it at the same time it’s reality. America has a fascination with the fear of Blackness and the Black men as this —
He’s basically seen as boogeyman.
Yeah. The Black man has been this violent criminal and the Black woman is this hypersexual deviant, you know? It’s funny sometimes to just look at hip-hop. I was listening to Mystikal the other day and oftentimes what the lyrics are portraying is what white America has been afraid of the whole time. And you can look at female rappers right now. I ain’t gonna say no names, but think about those archetypes that white America has created in their mind and then listen to the lyrics.
But would you say it’s different because it’s coming from a Black voice who’s owning their agency? Or do you think they’re still perpetuating those stereotypes?
I think both are possible. You know what I’m saying? Hip-hop undoubtedly perpetuates stereotypes. How much of rap music is like [starts rapping], “I’m a cold-blooded killer and no one could top me!” (laughs) Or, “I could pop my p*ssy on a n**** face!” I’m not saying that in judgment of anybody. I’m just saying it as an observation. You could look at Bigger Thomas in [American author] Richard Wright’s Native Son and this idea of an uncontrollable rage of the Black man. You can literally turn on the radio at any moment and hear that exact archetype in rap music. It’s just an observation.
I’m thinking of last summer with all of the protests for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. June was such a moment for reflection, but also a moment of rage for Black people. So much music that stemmed from that, including your “No More Teardrops.” Outside of your scope, do you think activist-based music will continue or remain a marketable trend?
I think everything moves in cycles and hip-hop is cyclical. There have been moments in time when it was in style to comment on the real-life conditions of other people. And then there have been other moments in time when it was way more in style to just shuck and jive. I mean, I do feel that things are not going back to any sense of normal. Not that there ever was really a normal because the entire existence of Black people in America is just abnormal.
But now they’re just waking up to it all of a sudden like racism wasn’t around before.
Like this sh*t wasn’t going down. But I feel like certain curtains have been pulled back that I don’t know if they can be reinstated and people can pretend that it’s all good again. I think that in hip-hop there’s always going to be people that are talking about real sh*t. It was definitely dope in the past year to see artists that you usually wouldn’t expect to make those types of songs doing that. I thought that that was fresh. I don’t know, I can’t predict the future. But I know that hip-hop will always be like a form of journalism for our real experience, amongst many other things.
I often wonder how do we balance the line of not being too performative, but also being genuine in our messages.
That idea really started to occur to me in the last year. I’ve been dedicating my energy towards revolutionary causes and social initiatives for years. And more recently — obviously there has been a huge community of people doing these things for 60 years, 70 years — it’s become more popular. Five years ago when I was popping up in Flint, Michigan handing out water and doing music about that. I wasn’t dealing with people’s accusations of being performative. But now it’s definitely become more trendy. I’ve had to think about those things a lot more. Because in the activism spaces in Chicago I’ve gotten a lot of hate more recently and had to like think twice and three times: “Is this gonna look like performative? Like I’m doing something for clout?”
It’s like you said, you’ve been doing it for years. So it’s coming from a genuine place. But people may look at Vic Mensa as just a celebrity.
I ain’t going to lie though, no good deed goes unpunished too. I’ve definitely learned that whatever you do, especially as a person with some type of social capital or impact, you’re going to be met with criticism. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all. But being a cis-gender male artist in these spaces you definitely just gotta be cautious of the optics. It’s something I’ve just tried to learn through my experiences. How do I shed light on the people that may be doing work and not getting the same exposure or celebration that I might get? How do I shed light on those people that don’t get posted on The Shade Room when they do something positive? People that are really doing this sh*t in the streets, living this sh*t day in and day out.
Your SaveMoneySaveLife initiative helps give people who don’t have a social platform a space to share. Like the Street Medix program, for example, where people can learn how to recover from tear gases at protests.
I was in Palestine and I met a kid who was part of an organization that was doing the exact same program. They raised X amount of dollars and were able to train and provide equipment for, I don’t know, 50 medics in Gaza because the Gaza Strip is obviously a f*cking war zone. It made me think instantly of another warzone: Chicago. I want to bring this program back to Chicago. So I went back to the crib and I started making moves to put the program together.
There’s organizations all over the world doing it. But I learned that there was an organization that was only one degree of separation away from me [in Chicago]. Shout out to them, their name is Ujimaa Medics. There’s a woman named Amika Big Tree Tendaji who has been doing amazing work in that space. So I tried to see, “How can I collaborate with y’all? How can we expand this?” The collaboration didn’t work out and next thing I know I’m being dragged and accused of co-opting someone else’s movement. I’m like, “Yo, I got this idea from halfway across the globe, man. I had no intention of co-opting anybody.”
Again, it goes back to having that celebrity platform.
That’s what I’m saying. I was just trying to address a need, you know what I mean? But I found myself getting sh*tted on for literally for trying to do something good, ‘cause that’s how this goes. But shout out Ujimaa, they have amazing sh*t and continue to do so.
Shifting a bit here, watching your “Shelter” video made me very emotional. When you put all your pain, frustration, and sadness in your music, it can feel confronting. How do you maintain that balance of processing trauma in a healthy way?
I believe that the intention that you put into art has immense significance and impacts the way that people are affected by it. When we made the “Shelter” music video it specifically has that healing property. So something like that doesn’t weigh on me emotionally, it helps me. I think any music that I make that’s emotionally impactful, it helps me to process pain.
Speaking of healing, I know you recently went to Ghana for a trip. Your dad is from Ghana, so did it help you find answers?
I’m blessed that I have a great connection with my ancestors, which has been stolen from a lot of Black Americans. As I grow, I just become more aware of the necessity of keeping in touch and the power of that. America so f*cking stressful, you know, and it don’t matter if you on the Southside, Brooklyn, South Central. So I do believe I was going there searching for a sense of peace. I felt far more peaceful when I was there. Communication with ancestors is like a big part of my culture and my Ashanti people [an ethnic group in Ghana]. It just ingrained in me how important it is that I be there regularly. There’s a lot more soul searching to do. I should have somewhere that I can go to be outside of this chaos and that is great.
Our chat is running at the end of Black History Month, but I know a lot of Black people have different thoughts about the month. Do you think it matters anymore or should we be celebrating it differently?
100 percent, we should be celebrating Black History Month. It reminds me of public school. I went through 12 years of public school and there was one class that I had to opt into. It was the one elective where I learned about African-American history or anything. And I went to school with at least half — if not more than half — Black people. But we spent the whole time learning about Eurocentric things. We had British literature class, obviously that’s all white people. AP literature, all white people. We’re learning about Rome, England, France and even go down to South America and Asia.
But they skip an entire continent.
They skip Africa entirely. I resented school for that for as long as I could really remember being cognizant of these things. I was acutely aware of their omission of my history. Even the Black history that we’ve learned begins with slavery and ends with the civil rights movement. Being Ghanian, I’m like “You motherf*ckers are finessing us!”
It’s all revisionist history.
Yeah. ‘Cause I’m learning about this history in my house. You know, Mansa Mussa of the Mali Empire.
Those are things this society doesn’t want us Black people knowing about.
That’s what I’m saying. They don’t want you to know about the medieval castles that were built in Zimbabwe. They want to depict it as being [made by] white people. They want Cleopatra to be Angelina Jolie. They don’t want you to know that the first pyramid builders were Black men. So Black History Month reminds me of public school because we got 12 motherf*cking months. And during one of them is there any emphasis put on our history. And even then it’s like, I haven’t heard much discussion of African history in Black History Month. By 2050, one out of four people on planet earth are projected to be African.
How do you fit damn near a quarter of the world’s population and their history in one month? I hate seeing schools say, “Tell children’s parents they can opt out of Black History Month. Shaun King said something I liked: “If they could opt out of that, then let us opt out of theirs.” I recognize that denial of people’s history and people’s contributions to civilization is a tactic of oppression and white supremacy. So any opportunity in which we get to share our narrative, I think it’s important.
I TAPE is out March 26 via Roc Nation.