Vic Mensa: "You Cannot Continue To Kill Us"
There are very few rappers who can move effortlessly from spitting a verse about Hermione Granger to rapping about the Flint water crisis and LGBTQ advocacy—but that’s all in a day’s work for Grammy-nominated artist Vic Mensa. Born Victor Kwesi Mensah in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, the rapper found himself in the middle of two worlds. “I had a good family and a nice home on a side of the city that is primarily below the poverty line and hood,” he explained. This duality allowed him to craft lyrics that landed him a Grammy nomination. And, in 2015, he caught the ear of another Chicago superstar: Kanye West.
Mensa literally crawled into the spotlight with West and the professionally illusive songstress Sia, donning black nail polish and a tattered sweater for SNL’s 40th anniversary episode performance of “Wolves.” It’s been a gift that keeps on giving for the young rap protégé, and today, the song made a comeback with a slick, Steven Klein-directed video that features Mensa rapping alongside a militia of Balmain-adorned soldiers, including Kylie Jenner, Cindy Crawford, and a crying Kim Kardashian.
Mensa’s vicious lyricism has taken aim at everything from police brutality and homophobia to mental health and addiction, which is a far cry from the pop-friendly sounds that got him signed to Roc Nation last year. Scrapping an entire album of radio-friendly hits that would’ve been called Traffic, he released his debut EP There’s Alot Going On last month, becoming our fav woke rapper in the game.
At only 23 years-old, Mensa is like a younger, more rambunctious Kendrick Lamar with a wind-whipped Chicago edge. Oh, and a taste for Miss Lily’s jerk chicken and plantains—a fact we discovered as he ripped through a plate of the food before hitting the streets for our shoot. As politicized and unflinching as his lyrics are, Mensa was totally relaxed and playful as he laid in the grass and ninja kicked his way around the Meatpacking district.
When we came back in from the blistering sun and he set to work on the last of the food, we settled in for a quick talk about hip-hop’s homophobia problem, his battle with mental health, and why the “Bernie or Bust” crowd needs to put aside their differences and fight back against Donald Trump.
Why do you think that a lot of rappers don’t tend to create music that’s political?
You know, I think it’s not cool right now. Or it’s starting to be cool. I think at this point in time it’s getting too serious to ignore, so it’s making its way into being a trend.
You talk about your mental health a lot on There’s Alot Going On. Do you think you’ve broken some of the stigma for your fans around mental health?
I’ve had a lot of kids come and tell me that they resonated and understood the things I was talking about—that I was really helping them through their own struggles. Right now, I have this kid with me named Mitchell who reached out to me on Instagram DM. We just started talking, and he said he was going through a lot of the things that I was talking about going through. He has a lot going on, so I brought him out to New York to come kick it for a couple of days.
I’ve been dealing with mental health issues since I was 15—prescribed drugs for that for years. The ups and downs are like a roller coaster. Understanding that and knowing what it’s like to be so low emotionally that you want to shoot yourself in the head? No one knows the internal battles and struggles I go through. It gives me, emotionally, a depth that a lot of people can resonate with.
Your new album was free for anyone who pledged to vote in this election. Some Bernie Sanders supporters have said they’re not going to vote. Why is it so important now?
Yeah, I think that’s stupid. I think as crooked as the U.S. government is, you can’t let bitterness allow you to endanger the lives of those you love. Not to say that voting for Hillary [Clinton] means we’re going to be in a safer world, because she’s got an infatuation with military action too, which is a little bit troubling. Donald Trump, though. You give this guy the nuclear codes and we really could, as a species, be wiped off the planet.
To be that upset over Bernie that you would throw your hands up and go, “I don’t give a fuck if this guy comes and ruins the entire world”—that’s super selfish and childish. As amazing as the things he was saying were, we all fucking knew there was no chance. He did his thing and played his part. He really impacted the election and politics in general. If you read the Democratic platform, they listened to Bernie Sanders even if they did push him out. They were listening to him.
“As crooked as the government is, you can’t let bitterness allow you to endanger the lives of those you love.”
Definitely. I feel like the movement itself extends to not only police brutality, but also to things like Flint water crisis, which you focused on in “Shades of Blue.” There are so many issues that affect communities of color, and even just low income communities in America.
Oh, yeah, definitely. I was lucky enough to go down to Flint, Michigan because my friend Ryan Coogler—who directed the movie Creed—was doing a benefit concert. He invited me to come down. I was already very into it with the situation and have done my research, so when I went, I got the opportunity to actually go experience it firsthand. It was very inspiring to me.
Has Ryan Coogler offered you a role in a movie yet?
I told him I need to be in Black Panther.
That’s going to be sick! That would be cool. Did he say yes?
We’ll figure it out. I definitely will do something on the film side one of these days.
You’re one of the few rappers who talk about LGBTQ advocacy and you released “Free Love” for the Pulse nightclub victims. There’s a huge amount of homophobia in hip-hop. How do you see that changing?
I think, in general, the world is changing in regards to LGBTQ acceptance. I think hip-hop will follow suit, but it’ll take longer because the black community is really homophobic. That’s something we have to work on—not being so threatened in our masculinity by other ideas of male/female sexuality.
It’s deep because black people have, in history, been denied a lot of the traditional senses of masculinity. We’ve got extra hoops to jump through but we definitely need to make progress, because homophobia just doesn’t make sense.
“Black Lives Matter is less of an organization and more of a self-evident truth. It’s like one of the Ten Commandments.”
You grew up in Chicago and have spoken out about the gun violence there. How did all of that influence you growing up?
I think that it has given me a unique perspective, because I understand both worlds—the collegiate, intellectual world, as well as the streets. I had a good family and a nice home on a side of the city that is primarily below the poverty line and hood.
Your song “16 Shots” was written about Laquan McDonald, the Chicago teen who was gunned down by police, and you’ve walked in Black Lives Matter protests. Have you been doing more with the movement lately?
I went to Baton Rouge, which is where Alton Sterling was killed, just to stand in solidarity with the community down there. I’m not a part of any organization, you know? I’m definitely a believer and vocal advocate of black lives matter because I believe black lives do, in fact, matter—but I’m not apart of an association called Black Lives Matter.
I don’t even say that to duck controversy. I say that because, to me, black lives matter is less of an organization and more of a self-evident truth. It’s like one of the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not kill. That’s all that Black Lives Matter is saying. It’s that you shouldn’t kill us. You cannot continue to kill us.
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All portraits shot exclusively for Milk by Brayden Olson.
Concert photos shot exclusively for Milk by Sincere
Creative Direction: Paul Bui
Art Direction: Kathryn Chadason
Styling: Gia Seo
Production: Jocelyn Silver