Chicago-born rapper, Vic Mensa, is a dreamer. But unlike many dreamers, Mensa puts his ambitions and goals and wildest creative fantasies into action. He’s a man of action, equipped with a mind rich with ideas and hopes. But, for better and for worse, there is nothing especially happy-go-lucky about the wildly successful artist, either. Mensa has seen a lot, heard a lot, felt a lot in his years growing up on the south side of Chicago. It’s one of the country’s most dangerous neighborhoods and, as such, it shapes how its residents view and react to the world. Chicago, in another way, is also something of a crossroads. For Mensa, it meant a place from which to grow into a successful artist. For others, it’s a place that’s led them to prison, both justly and unjustly.
These are the things Mensa talks about on his new album, I TAPE, which is out now. Whether it’s the heavy new single, “Shelter,” or any of the other six tracks on the record, Mensa is open to talk about pain, suffering, prison and the dearth of justice so many see on a daily basis. We caught up with the rapper to ask him about how he found music, what it means to him and what went into his latest release.
America Songwriter: When did you first find music and why did you decide to invest in it?
VIc Mensa: I grew up around world music, a lot of African music, classic rock from my mom. My mom is a hippy type, she went to Woodstock. So I early connected to Jimi Hendrix, I had the dirty afro. [Laughs] But as I got a little older and I was in grammar school, I first found music of my own in rock ‘n’ roll music. That’s when I first connected to it. Because I felt like it spoke to me. I definitely felt without a place often times in my childhood dude to my upbringing and my background. My father is West African and my mom is white from Upstate New York and I grew up on the south side of Chicago. So, I felt other, you know what I mean? I think that rock ‘n’ roll spoke to me because much of what I was listening to was about people feeling like outsiders.
One of the groups that I first feel like I fell in love with was Guns N’ Roses. But then I really got in tune with Nirvana. I really just felt like it spoke to me. I was an emotional kid and I felt like an outsider and, you know, this music, it really connected to my spirit and made me feel like it was okay and it was cool to not fit in and feel accepted.
AS: That’s so interesting. I was going to ask you about the cover of “Zombie” you did later here, but I’ll bring it up now. What inspired that one?
VM: Hell yeah! I mean, you know, the music of that moment, angsty fucking music, you know? “Zombie” is such a dope song because it really combines different worlds that I was very inspired and influenced by early on. That’s like the 90s Grunge rock-type music with politically conscious music with politically conscious messages. Another group that was one of the biggest inspirations to me has always been Rage Against The Machine, which is obviously very topical. “Zombie” is dope because they’re speaking about a real situation. It made me think about Chicago in a lot of ways. “Another mother’s breaking heart is slowly taken…” or something like that. Man, just the crossfire, you know what it mean? Anybody that comes from a situation like that can identify with that.
AS: Can we talk about Chicago? On your new album, you mention the city quite a bit and the dangers it presented to you growing up. Your father’s voice is also on the album discussing that. It might be too trite to ask how Chicago influenced you, but how do you think about the city today?
VM: I feel like Chicago has informed my worldview in many ways because it’s given me a clear picture of America and the extremity that is America. And then in other ways, it’s also distorted my vision. Because I come from a place where what we consider to be normal is often abnormal. The levels of violence and potential for escalation that any interaction has is not regular. So, there is also a process of unlearning and, you know, deconstructing some of the ideas about manhood and pride and aggression that we learn in places like Chicago. We often learn as young Black men that the most tried and true indicator of our manhood is our capacity for violence. That’s how I’ve lived much of my life. I’ve often made an identity out of it. I’ve been like, “Okay, well, I ain’t got the most this, I ain’t got the most that. But I know that I can be the most violent.” But as I grow I realize that’s a toxic way to live, you know what I’m saying? That’s not a real indicator of manhood. That shit really comes from a place of fear. That’s what it’s like when you grow up in a really violent, dangerous place. It shapes your reality.
When I was in Ghana recently, I was just thinking about how fear colors the soul or the atmosphere of a community. Fear can really dictate the way people move. In Chicago, we live in the midst of a culture of fear. If I walk outside and I see somebody walking a certain way, in my mind it’s hit the ground and if he starts shooting, get behind this. Then go get your pistol. Do you know what I mean? It’s constant fear because that’s that war zone shit.
Then when I’m in Ghana, I feel just a different sense of peace because I’m like those same fears that lead me in my home to look at everything and everybody like a potential threat, they don’t exist here. People don’t walk around with that same mentality.
AS: Thank you for all that. It certainly becomes clear pretty quickly how fear can connect people but also fracture them. Which, in another way, makes it so remarkable that you were able to be as creative and successful as you have been. You released your debut solo project in 2013 and you’ve collaborated with everyone under the sun. How were you able to do this or, perhaps said better, how have those successes reshaped or recolored how you think about the world?
VM: Yeah, man, I feel like seeing the world and traveling also colors a person. You know, seeing the way that people live in other parts of the planet. I’ve always been blessed in that I come from a worldly family. My father’s from West Africa and my mom met my dad in Nigeria. So between them and me we’ve definitely touched every corner of the planet. And, you know, just being faced with the realities of different people have given me a different sense of purpose sometimes.
Being somewhere like Palestine, where I was in 2017, that changed me. Seeing what these people lived with and the oppression that they experienced. And being at the Standing Rock Reservation during that moment of protest or uprising, experiences like that have just influenced me to be dedicated to something bigger than myself, you know what I mean? Because, man, so many people are going through it and at the end of the day, we’re all one race. One human race.
So, my experiences being around the world have shown me that and made that clear to me and helped me find purpose. Like I said, it’s bigger than nay one person.
AS: What was the genesis of the new record? Like we said, there’s a lot about Chicago on it, about your dad. Just Blaze is involved, as is Chance The Rapper. The song “Shelter” is very powerful and so is the video. There is also a lot about prison and innocence and guilt. What would you like to say about the record today?
VM: Yeah, the I TAPE is largely themed around freedom. In its genesis, it came to be that way coming of the V Tape, on which I was exploring primarily rebirth. I was very influenced by things that happen around me in the world. Very influenced by 2020 in the writing of this project. The content is heavy and the storytelling is heavy and the positions I’m taking are heavy because it was in the midst of all this that the music was written. And I’m talking about incarceration, I’m talking about my experience with my people behind bars. I feel like the prison is the epicenter of America’s injustice. So, I’m addressing injustice a lot on the project. So the prison is like the nucleus of that.
AS: Can we dig deeper into the idea of the prison and how you’re thinking about it and how it relates to the new album?
VM:Yeah for sure! The song “Shelter” was inspired by a man named Julius Jones who is on death row in Oklahoma. I was working on another song on the project called, “MOOSA,” which is the story about me bringing one of my friends home from prison. I was in the studio working on that song when I got a message about Julius Jones, telling me that he was writing letters to people from death row signed, “Theme music we can be free by Vic Mensa.” And I got chills down my spine because I was in the studio literally working on a song about freedom. It just made me feel like I was in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. To see things align in that way just didn’t feel coincidental at all.
That’s kind of how much of the direction happened, by the energy I’ve been putting into the world, you know? For some years now since one of my close friends named James Warren got locked up. I’ve been talking with him pretty much every day, working to get him new lawyers. Then I start working to bring some programs into the prison. Then I start chopping it up with this other guy over here. It’s been somewhere I’ve been putting my energy. It just so happens that in this project I’m expressing that because it’s a big part of my life.
AS: What do you love most about music?
VM: What I love most about music is its ability to elicit emotion and to heal and to help me understand myself and understand the world around me and to help me process my pain and help me dream and help me paint my future. I can do all of this in a song, creating it or listening to it.
Photo by Danielle DeGrasse-Alston