“Past and future veil God from our sight; burn up both with fire.” – Rumi.
With a laser focus on the current moment, legacy isn’t something Vic Mensa is too concerned about. Carrying the above Sufi quote around with him wherever he goes, whether helping build musical infrastructure in Ghana, sleeping out in solidarity with the homeless in Chicago, or raising awareness of dubiously convicted black men on Death Row, Vic Mensa is present. He is here. He is now. As he is all too aware, ruminating on past misdemeanours or forecasting future events are not tasks worthwhile undertaking when there is so much to focus on in the present. “I don’t feel like I do the things that I do primarily because of how people will view them later,” he says, “all we’ve ever got is now.”
Tellingly, it manifests in his work – his latest single ‘Shelter’ is a testament to this notion. A song centred heavily on the events we’re all collectively living through, Vic’s social commentary in Hip Hop is pertinent now more than ever where it seems many of the rapper’s peers would rather cement a regular spot on RapCaviar than speak on some of these issues. The single – featuring a slick guitar loop and infectious hook by Wyclef Jean, and a hard-hitting verse by old friend Chance the Rapper – is a call to action that powerfully challenges the structure of the American socioeconomic system which is responsible for a history of overt criminalisation and racial injustice.
A “superconscious, full-blown conscious rap song” as he puts it – sees him settle any lingering questions over his relationship with Chance, and is a welcome (re)union for any blog-era Hip Hop fan. “We’ve had our ups and downs and as brothers do but really our relationship goes before any music,” he says, “We’re just locked in, we’re over old shit.” A far cry from the Innanetape and Acid Rap mixtape days, and his genre-bending breakout single, ‘Down on My Luck,’ it’s not at all surprising perhaps to hear that his focus has completely changed now – a self-professed reborn man, who has admittedly had his highs and lows, been through the glitz and the glam, galivanted the cobbled streets of Paris and drifted through the hotel lobbies of Hollywood, reflecting back he tells me “I was less happy than I’ve ever been back then, I didn’t feel fulfilled.” Digging deeper, I ask what has changed from then to now, “I’m inspired by real people in the real world doing real things,” he says, “I started talking about the things that I saw in the Southside of Chicago, and the disparity between the haves and have nots, and just telling my own stories – truthful stories; and making that my primary focus.”
This disparity is something that his philanthropic work is heavily concentrated on, and being in the fortunate position he finds himself in, he has been able to foster a genuine connection with the local communities he gives a voice to. An ever-present fixture at marches and protests in the city, Mensa’s activism is commendable. His grassroots non-profit organisation SaveMoneySaveLife was founded in 2018, aiming to use art and entertainment to make sustainable change for those most in need in his hometown. The organisation has donated thousands of meals, over 50,000 pairs of shoes and countless PPE supplies since the dawn of the pandemic and he continues to shed light on the marginalised communities he fights for.
“Your words are most important when they inspire action,” he prophesises. For the Chicago native, activism is an inherent part of his music, ‘Shelter’ is in part inspired by Julius Jones – a black man who is currently sitting on death row in Oklahoma. Julius was a 19-year-old university freshman on an academic scholarship with a promising future who was questionably convicted of killing a white businessman in 1999. Since then, it has come to light that Julius’ defence lawyer was not adequately suited to represent him at the time, and that explicit racial bias played a significant role in the judicial process – causing calls for review. The case has garnered significant support from the public and celebrities alike, with a Viola Davis-produced docu-series created about it in 2018.
The rapper learned that Jones was signing off his outgoing letters with the statement, “Theme Music: ‘We Could Be Free’ by Vic Mensa” which, in his own words, sent shivers down his spine. “It makes me feel like I have a purpose and what I’m doing is connecting with the world in the way that I intend to,” he says, “that shit really matters to me.”
“Sometimes I lose meaning and direction being consumed by industry shit, fame, money, hate and all else. Learning that my words were literally giving life to someone SERVING LIFE made me feel like I was alive for a reason.”
Spurred on further by the pandemic, the #BlackLivesMatter movement and a reading of Live from Death Row by Mumia Abu Jamal, it appeared that the stars aligned to become the catalyst for the song. Seemingly unconcerned about commercial success, genuine impact is something that the Chicagoan would much rather create. He tells me he’d take that over a good review or a platinum plaque any day, “Success is more like a real person telling me that my music did something significant for them when they needed it,” he says “or when people come to me to say that my music saved them when they were depressed.”
As a self-declared, all-consuming Hip-Hop fan he cites 2Pac, Common and The Fugees as artists whose music resonated with him from an early age, and examples of lyricists whose bars became powerful voices for social commentary. The latter two specifically ushered in a less materialistic, emotive and substantive view of the world when he was younger which continues to influence him today. “Wyclef has always just been an artist who like extremely emotive, honest and just creative – so it definitely is a dream come true to collaborate with him because I grew up studying his music,” he says of joining forces with the iconic Fugees figure. Common, as a fellow Chicagoan was an inspiration too. “He was probably the biggest influence for me to start rapping. I remember when I made this song, I was just thinking about how 12-year-old me would have been bugging out over it,” he laughs, “I would have known all the words!”
Talkative, receptive and wholly informed, we come to touch on the artful and melancholic music video directed by Andre Muir – who sadly lost his own mother to COVID last year. “To create the video with the direct intention of it being a healing process for the people creating it just felt like the right thing to do,” he says. At a spiritual level, the video has a certain cathartic frequency to it, acting as a staggering visual metaphor for the perilous impact that COVID-19 has had on the Black community, pushing home the genuine emotional weight of recent events.
The single marks a continued return to form following on from last year’s V TAPE – his Rap-focused project which in itself is reflective, bold and fresh – all aspects of his personality – but above all else showcases his deeply engrained openness. “Vulnerability has always been something that has driven me in music,” he admits. The tape is a distinct turning of the corner with Vic being firmly back in his rap bag and producing powerfully poignant moments such as ‘2HONEST’ which acts as a harrowingly frank reminder of his own afflictions with mental health issues from an early age.
A personal favourite of his own, it features a traumatic account of the rapper discovering a notebook from when he was in first grade. “I find a notebook in my parents’ crib from when I was five / I went inside it said “I hate myself, I wanna die,” I cried / I couldn’t even fathom a child feeling so lonely / So next time a nigga tell you ’bout Vic, say they don’t know me.” Vic expands on these feelings in an earnest manner. “I’ve really been dealing with this shit my whole fucking life,” he says, “It felt really cathartic and so good to be able to release that and explain that shit in music, in a way that I often can’t in a regular conversation.”
Vic’s connection to spirit is exemplified in all aspects of his work – explicitly in his music but also in all his other worldly endeavours. Outside of the immediacy of the single, he tells me about an exchange programme he wants to build, sending kids from the Southside of Chicago to his paternal homeland in Ghana; a place he felt a strong calling to reconnect with. “This last year I was really feeling as if I was receiving a call from my ancestors just telling me ‘We see you suffering in this world, we can help you,’ and I felt that strongly – so I made it my priority to make it out to Ghana,” he says.
With family in the Eastern region of Koforidua he spent the past few weeks out there to absorb the energy, meet people and give back to his community. “Ghana is just way different to America,” he says, “the sense of kinship, the sense of shared culture, community and ancestry – I believe that that amongst other things makes them interact with each other in a different way than we as black Americans do in America.” The relationship between diaspora and homeland is undoubtedly complex; interlinked yet distant, nationalist but imperialist, stooped in centuries of politics and a link that historically been destroyed in part because of the West’s convenience to uphold the colonialist perspective of Africa and the people in it as Vic puts it – as “loin-clothed spear chuckers.”
“The bond between African American people and Africans is going to be of paramount importance for all our freedom and progression,” he says “The link between us has been systematically destroyed and it’s for us to rekindle and build that connection.” Whilst out there he recounts a question, put forth by a cousin of his who he helped put through engineering school. The young man asked him, ‘If you could be known for one thing, what would you choose?’ Admittedly Vic didn’t think too hard about it, but he instinctively said, “My actions. My actions – I just try to do what spirit moves me to do.”
Rapper, activist and human being; Vic Mensa is present. He is here. He is now.