Vic Mensa is in a good place, literally. “I’m by the beach,” he tells NME on a Zoom call from Cape Town, South Africa, grinning as he pans his phone camera around to show off the beautiful ocean view behind him. “I’m definitely enjoying myself,” he says, explaining that a trip to Ghana earlier in the year inspired him to spend more time on the continent.
But it hasn’t always been sunshine and sandy beaches for the Chicago rapper. Enduring a great deal of adversity and trauma throughout the years, the 27-year-old has battled drug addiction, struggled with anxiety and depression, and had run-ins with the law – including an arrest in 2017 for carrying a concealed weapon, for which he received two years probation.
Now sober, Mensa is re-energised and focused on using his platform to help those in need. “I make an effort to be honest and vulnerable and real about the things I experience mentally and in life,” he says, highlighting the importance of speaking his truth in his music. “I put it in there because it helps me process it, but also I know it helps other people come to terms with whatever it is they have going on.”
Take for example ‘2HONEST’, his 2020 collaboration with Guyanese-American musician SAINt JHN, in which Mensa gives a profound and personal account of his anguish with regards to mental health. “Do you know what the fuck it feels like to wake up every day in distress?” he raps. “Pissed off at yourself, neglect, so you just lay in your mess.” This raw candidness comes from a deeper understanding of the power that music yields.
During his childhood and adolescence, Mensa found refuge in the conscious and political songs of Common, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez and Rage Against The Machine. “These are the guys I idolised and studied before even starting to do this,” he explains. “They laid the foundation for me artistically; their music was a vessel for injecting ideas into the people.”
Those ideas, once seeds, have now blossomed into full blown action for the Chicago rapper, who in recent years has taken on more of an activist role. In addition to speaking out in his music, he’s been on the frontlines of multiple protests and marches in his city, tackling a variety of issues, from Black Lives Matter to immigration. In 2018 he also launched his own non-profit organisation, SaveMoneySaveLife, with the aim to help those in Chicago’s poorest neighbourhoods.
“You know what I love about hip-hop? It’s resistance in its purest manifestation,” says Mensa, pointing out that the genre’s militant spirit is the reason he decided to get involved in activism. “It only felt natural for me to turn my words into action. I’ve always been somebody that has put emphasis on caring about what I say, educating people and giving people ideas that redirect the attention from all the bullshit, so it makes sense to me to be outside, really putting in elbow grease and doing things in the real world.”
“My new EP is a cry for freedom, a visceral look into the soul of a man in America”
His latest project, ‘I TAPE’, the second in a trilogy of EPs following last year’s ‘V TAPE’, further explores Mensa’s crusades. “It’s a cry for freedom, a visceral look into the soul of a man in America,” he says. “Lyrically I wanted to explore themes of rebellion and incarceration, weaving real stories with hard truths.”
Among the highlights on the deeply retrospective project is ‘MOOSA’, a powerful collaboration with Chicago vocalists Eryn Allen Kane and Wyatt Waddell, as well as Jeremih, who Mensa says is “in good health” after recovering from a serious bout of coronavirus that saw him admitted to intensive care last November. The track tells the story of Brian ‘Moosa’ Harrington Jr., an incarcerated friend of Mensa’s for whom he successfully petitioned to get paroled 12 years early on a 25-year sentence, implemented when he was just 14 years old.
“Within that story there were some fucking crazy moments when I felt like there was a cosmic order at play,” Mensa says, touching upon the power of belief and manifestation, and how it played a part in freeing his friend. Introduced to Moosa around the same time another of his friends, James Warren, was awaiting sentencing, Mensa says that what came next was a long shot. “When he got sentenced he ended up going to the same prison as Moosa,” he explains, still in disbelief. “There’s 50 prisons in Illinois! It’s a huge system.” Once his two friends were united in the same housing unit that’s when Mensa was able to help Moosa come home.
“It was very serendipitous for it to work out that way,” he continues. “I remember feeling like I didn’t know what was happening because I wasn’t shooting for the moon with my dreams at that point in time. I had a plan to bring this program into the prison and it was lining up but I didn’t realise it was lining up for something as big as that.” Pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts, Mensa, evidently affected by the ordeal, adds: “The way that whole thing went down showed me a lot about hope and having faith.”
The campaigning doesn’t stop there. Elsewhere on ‘I TAPE’, he shines light on another case he’s involved in, teaming up with Wyclef Jean and fellow SaveMoney crew brethren Chance The Rapper on the harrowing ‘SHELTER’. The track is inspired by Mensa’s relationship with Oklahoma inmate Julius Jones, a former college athlete who in 2002 was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Jones maintains his innocence, and Mensa, along with other high profile figures such as Kim Kardashian West and Viola Davis, is working to save the now 39-year-old from death row.
Looking ahead, longtime fans will be excited to learn that in addition to readying the release of ‘C TAPE’, the third volume of his EP trilogy, Mensa is also finally planning to release his shelved album ‘Traffic’, which was recorded in 2016 but scrapped in favour of the more personal ‘The Autobiography’. Mensa’s decision to not put it out was down to him adopting a new lifestyle, one that started with sobriety. “I was really addicted to drugs and [was] suicidal when I was making that shit,” he says of the long-awaited project. “Then when I got sober I was like, ‘Fuck all the music I did when I was on drugs.'”
His renewed interest in putting it out came after recently revisiting the album. “There’s so much dope music on it,” he says, “but because I was coming out of a dark place it made me have really bad associations with it so I thought it was all wack. It’s really dope though and I want people to hear it.”
However, ‘Traffic’ might not be made available in a traditional format. Mensa says he’s toying with the idea of selling it as an NFT (non-fungible token) – although he admits he’s still trying to get his head around the cryptocurrency craze currently sweeping the digital world. “I’m not gonna lie, I don’t actually understand NFT’s, not comprehensively,” he says. “I feel like I kinda get it. I definitely wanna learn more about it before making the decision to release it that way.”
Besides making music and his activism, Mensa says he just wants to continue to “manifest great things” and tap into a more spiritual side of himself, which includes having a deeper connection to his roots. “I’m really focused on channeling my ancestral power,” he says. The rapper’s father, Edward Mensah, was born in Ghana before moving to the US in 1977. Half of his family still live in the region. For Mensa, it’s important to him that he explores this Ghanaian bloodline in order to better understand himself. “There’s a lot of power in that,” he says, clearly feeling more complete with the African sun behind him. “So right now that’s where my focus is.”
Vic Mensa’s ‘I TAPE’ is out now