GROWTH, GRATITUDE + GATEWAYS TO GHANA: THE MAGNANIMOUS VIC MENSA MAKES HIS PEACE!
BY: COREY GUEVARRA, EDITOR IN CHIEF
COVER PHOTOGRAPHY: JUAN VELOZ
ADDT'L PHOTOGRAPHY: MAHANEELA
STYLING: JASON BOLDEN
Kwesi means “born on a Sunday” he replied, my starter question about the origins of his full name began our [very] deep dive into the increasingly peacemaking mind of rap superstar Vic Mensa. You see, the Chicago native with equal parts Ghanaian & contrasting up state New York roots, born “Victor Kwesi Mensah”, isn’t at all like other rappers, the fact is, a lot of the genre bending you’re seeing via Gen-Z hip-hop, is a direct echo of the multitude of artistic examples he set during almost every turn of his near decade long solo career! Plainly put, Vic Mensa has just always been ahead of his time! A feat we witnessed almost initially via his 2014 plunge into his deep house cut “Down On My Luck”. “It’s funny because I received a lot of criticism for that. Doing house music, doing ‘Down on my Luck’ in 2014, people saying “Oh, this is some soft ass shit.” But you know, fast forward 8 years later & it's like house is the big shiny centerpiece of hip-hop culture right now! In fact I read a blurb recently where emerging British artist Bakar was quoted saying “I mean it's 2022. There is no genre separation anymore" & I was like, Oh?! ....INTERESTING!! Ha"!
No stranger to straddling worlds, Mensa seemed to have always felt the dichotomies of encompassing multiple identities at once. “I grew up inhabiting many different cultural existences” he revealed. “On one hand, my father is very much an immigrant, not deeply Americanized, strong accent to this day! He’s also extremely educated & very, very proud of his [Ghanaian] culture, so I was always super cognizant of my African heritage from birth. My mother on the other hand is from upstate New York & she's like, very traditionally white American; from a rural area, yet she herself is also an extremely worldly person; she’s lived in Nigeria, traveled through South America etc.,. But like ethnically & culturally, her family background is core white-identifying American, like early settler, been here since the 16th century white American! So I think in my youth, say the first 10 years of my life, I didn’t have a concept of race really or at least an understanding of race & how it would apply to me. I think initially I just saw myself as myself, not necessarily as a member of any particular group. But when I did become cognizant of it, I definitely wished [for some moments in time] that I could be either one or the other. In fact those early experiences led me to feel kind of ostracized & I eventually evolved into a bit of a misfit in those early years”. “I think though, as time passed & I began to enter adolescence I quickly realized that being biracial in a way expires for a male! -You become a BLACK boy QUICKLY in most circumstances! Growing up in my very diverse Hyde Park Chicago neighborhood, sort of magnified that. Right away I could recognize that I was being treated unfairly for no reason other than my appearance. Even as early as around 5th, 6th grade I was dealing with little micro-aggressions at school, having issues being accosted by the police for no reason and was just always handled very aggressively, violently even. -It became very clear to me like, okay, I’m BLACK”! “In the house, with my family, my close friends I have a white mom, I’m literally half of her. But in the world, the moment I stepped outside of those doors & beyond those 4 walls, the social fabric of America had a very clear contrast”.
Over the years we’ve taken many a sonic & visual journey with Mensa, from classic hip-hop to alternative rock, we’ve seen him take risks sending clear political messages in videos like his epic “3 Years Sober” (with Travis Barker) donning a [non-liberal] flag maxi dress combating both trans-visibility & women’s rights as his character navigated public & political mires. There’s a freedom in Mensa’s artistry that we don’t get to see a lot black men have -in entertainment -in society! I couldn’t help but inquire on what he thinks makes him so free as an artist. “I never listened to music with limitations”. He offered. “Before I really discovered hip-hop (which was around the time that I started to understand my place in America) as a young kid, I was really only into rock & roll music! That's what I listened to & gravitated toward because my mom listened to a lot of classic rock. So I started with that music first -you know, Nirvana & other groups in that vein. When hip-hop came into my life, it actually wasn't even through music first believe it or not. -I’d been skateboarder since age 6 & that culture basically went hand-in-hand with being interested in rock & alternative at the time. -But honestly, skateboarding is like this great equalizer in a way that [eventually] intertwined the cultures together. My hard hip-hop intro began with a skate video called ‘Zoo York Mixtape’ there was a KRS-One song called ‘Step Into A World’. THAT was the first hip-hop song I really liked. At that time I also started writing graffiti & break-dancing as well & through those mediums [mostly break dancing] I began really looking into the samples behind records that I was into. Because of KRS-One, I sort of started at the beginning of hip-hop which led me to Run-D.M.C., The Jungle Brothers, N.W.A. all the greats! -I’d eventually follow the trails & discover that like ‘oh wow N.W.A. sampled The Jimmy Castor Bunch’! All of this history I discovered because I was initially just looking for something we could break-dance to.
So suddenly Mensa had “3 different pools of influence to draw from” rock music, hip-hop, & now deep dives into soul & funk. The biggest discovery from those times however was that “hip-hop was the music that spoke to him in the purest form”. Eventually he joined a band in highschool called ‘Kids These Days’, adding to his musical appetite as the group was mainly comprised of “a bunch of jazz musicians”! “So now, I'm like studying John Coltrane & Miles Davis & other legendary jazz musicians” He explained. “In’ Kids These Days’ we were also building our music off of samples, except we would sample songs in a live context. -Like we would reference Sly & the Family Stone & Parliament-Funkadelic & mix Crucial Conflict with Outkast & merge it all with Duke Ellington”. “By that time I was about 15 years old & that's when I really start to take rapping, as an artist seriously! Rap became my instrument but I wasn’t rapping exclusively into the vacuum of [the current hip-hop sound only]. I was rapping over all these different styles of music. When the band ended, I was around 19 years old but I walked away with the fundamental tone of who I was as an artist”! “I don't think that black music or musicians need to be bound to genre limitations”.
“ BEING BIRACIAL IN A WAY EXPIRES FOR A MALE! -YOU BECOME A BLACK BOY QUICKLY IN MOST CIRCUMSTANCES ”!
Haircut permitting, if you look closely at Mensa’s left skull side, you’ll see a tattoo reading “WHERE IS MY MIND”. A question apparently asked reoccuringly through his long road of self actualization & understanding. In the rocky terrain of [digital] life these days, socials compounded & magnified with celebrity fame seems like it could be crippling. I asked Mensa what were some things he did to protect his mental health, to which he quickly replied “One thing I need to do is get the fuck off of Instagram”. A consensus I’d wager almost all of us toy with consistently in this age of never ending content & opinions vying to harness our attention. “It's difficult though. That shit reels you in” he chided. “I think the primary thing for me at this point in time is meditation”. A newer practice Mensa confesses. “Honestly, it’s become like my medicine in many ways. In fact meditation is my medication these days. I don't take any medication anymore like the antidepressants & things that I had in the past”. “So I think meditating protects my mental health” He goes on to divulge that he’d been sober now for almost a year & a half. Citing the clarity coupled with meditation fueling him to [not] make as many “damaging decisions” as he no longer leans on external things as crutches for his emotions. “I came to realize that my mental health has been a concern since my earliest memories. -Like I’ve found notebooks from 1st grade where I'm literally writing about suicide. And throughout my life [the energy of those dark spaces] manifested in so many different ways from external aggression & violence to addiction & sex addiction & so on.” “The avenues I would take to attempt to try & escape those pains made it all so much worse!” As Mensa looked deeper into the writings of his 5 year old self, what he said he found most surprising was a sense of gratitude. “I have to be grateful at the end of the day because from age 5, it was like my mind was working against me to destroy me. So to be able to carry that from childhood into adolescence & adulthood yet still be able to achieve massive success & global impact, I think that I HAVE be grateful”. “To still be alive through an entire lifetime of being suicidal is….it's just something that I have to be immensely grateful for”. One realization that Mensa says really stood out to him was the affirmation ‘as within, so without’. As if a lightbulb clicked on, he was able to correlate negative thought patters with a lot of the negatively tumultuous experiences he was having in his life. “Like how was I on tour with Jay-Z, a time when I should be on top of the world, yet I was still having thoughts about suicide while on my tour bus”. Moments like those summoned to Mensa’s attention that some [mental & emotional] things weren’t right, but more importantly that only HE could change them. His trains of thoughts were counter-productively stealing the available light in his life. “If I look back at my trials & tribulations in the music industry, in the music game, it's like I was outwardly manifesting the depth of negative thought & karma that I’d carried in my life”. Specifically in his music he says, “I think back about a Juice WRLD or XXX[Tenacious] -I too sang about so many of the same things & I’d even been told by a lot of those guys that those depressed rock-rap moments that I created, inspired them to create their things. But [sadly] we’ve see how those things, that energy has claimed so many of their lives. Like the universe works in a certain way & it’s like ‘what you speak…what you put out in song has a way of [energetically] coming back to you’. So I look at my mental health & the things that I now do to protect it with a lot of intentional gratitude & faith these days. I’m like, “Man, I caught a blessing you know, I caught a major blessing to still be alive.”
The topic of mental elevation & methods of tapping into available higher frequencies of consciousness, brought us to one of Mensa’s newer ventures as an entrepreneur within the cannabis space. His recently launched ’93 Boyz’ imprint is the first black-owned cannabis company in the the state of Illinois. “Cannabis is something that has been hugely influential in my life, I started smoking when I was 11 years old. By 14/15, I was the weed man, so right at the dawn of my hip-hop aspirations, I was trapping. -I literally used it to fuel my early music recordings. So as things started to change in Illinois & the legislation started to open up, it was of paramount importance to me to get into the game! My history is in that game & the need for representation in that space is wildly important”. -Like, this is a plant & it’s been criminalized because of racist tropes [primarily] against Black & Brown people! Now that it's being legalized in many places, it’s ironically, overwhelmingly devoid of those same faces that were silenced via it’s criminalization”! “So I see 93 Boyz as a 3-pillared or a 3-headed monster consisting of: culture, community & cultivation. We’re creating a powerful, sticky brand while drawing from my influences of skateboarding, hip-hop & punk rock all at once! I also see it as a vessel for building & reinvesting into my community, a lot of our actions are based in just supporting the people of our community”.
2022 has been a heck of year for Mensa, from making headlines with a small, [now resolved] legal run-in in January to curating his own art exhibition (Skin & Masks) this past August. Recanting the art show he says “I just looked at it as an interesting way to shine a light on some more artists & to step into the fine art space myself. I got to ideate in a conceptual, political but also abstract & expressionist way”. Albeit a different form of hard work, Mensa confirms that there will surely be more to come of his art curation collaborations. “We're actually expanding ‘Skin & Masks’ into a kind of popup in downtown Chicago & I’m excited about that. I’m also talking to some people in Ghana & Mexico City about curating, so definitely do look for some more of that in 2023!
“ FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE, I’M ABLE TO SEE A ROAD MAP TO MY BEST SELF SO CLEARLY ”!
Meditation as medicine, historic entrepreneurship, artistic advancement, Vic Mensa seems to be in one of the most centered spaces in his entire life. It’s clear that the fatigue from his lifelong war within has proven antidotal as he manages making [& maintaining] his peace with himself. “I'm working on it every day” he confesses. “I’m definitely working on making peace with myself every single day”. “Working to accept emotion & impulse as a part of the experience & blessing of being alive! I think a critical piece of ideology that has been helping me has been shifting my perspectives & recognizing that I can choose to view my lifelong battles with things like depression & anxiety & suicidal ideation as an incessant struggle or as a constant plague OR, I can choose to see those thoughts as an infinite influx of opportunity! -Each experience then being an opportunity for me to grow stronger by overcoming! -Every moment that I'm able to shift into gratitude from resentment or guilt or shame -It’s like I'm doing pushups & every time I push myself to win, I'm building muscle! I saw my impending demise inching in the rearview mirror & it was either I guide & get myself to the [higher] place [I’m in now] or I would’ve ended up in prison or… dead! -Neither are what I want so I'm gonna HAVE to lean into the better things instead, I GOTTA get on point & I GOTTA be vigilant about it. I can't go back to beefing with this person & that person, leading to these guys trying to kill me & I'm off somewhere self-medicating with whatever. I can’t go back to that cycle of beef & bullshit, I gotta live a different way & everything's gotta be intentional from this point on. For the first time my life, I’m able to see a road map to my best self so clearly”!
Rappers are often so prone to only utilize their masculine energy & showcase that solely. Obviously Mensa, is a quasi-exception to this rule, yet how much do we actually know about his true personality? Quizzing him on his sense of humor he offered a hearty “Shit, I have a good time doing everything man”. “People actually think that I'm like so serious when they don't know me, but in actuality, sometimes I'm like, I gotta stop joking so much”! “I’m really like a class clown, you know? I got jokes, skits, accents, everything! Humor is me all day everyday frfr”.
These were peaks of balance I could empathetically interpret during our conversation, at the end of the day we all just want to feel both light & at ease in however way that manifests for us. As we began to wind down I developed a profound appreciation for the access & respect from one human to another that Mensa was allowing me. Here I was, a stranger & he was sharing rather vulnerably, the authenticity of his life’s story. It was almost as if the exampled transparency hoped to add to the emancipation of anyone else who would ever read this. I took one last stroll through his mind, inquiring about what we would find if we were to meet there at any given moment today. “Man, right now I'm actually outside the mosque so at this moment I'm thinking about making a healthy decision you know? I’m thinking about prayer & I'm always thinking about all of my projects. I’m thinking about the music. If I hear a song in Soho House, I'm Shazaming to see if I should sample it. I'm thinking about making beats, thinking about writing songs, thinking about the creative for my upcoming album; the video & photo content coming up, I’m thinking about the festival in Ghana, about visual references & films to study, I’m thinking about practicing guitar. Also, I’m usually thinking about some of my mantras man, ‘wonderful things are coming to past’ ‘all things are transmuted into their greatest possible vibrational frequency’. I’m thinking about transmuting fear into faith. Hate into love. Loss into gain. I spend time thinking about blessing people, thinking about not judging people. And when I find myself judging myself or living in anxiety or worry I always make the conscious effort to return to my mantras”.
“ I’M THINKING ABOUT TRANSMUTING FEAR INTO FAITH. HATE INTO LOVE. LOSS INTO GAIN. I SPEND TIME THINKING ABOUT BLESSING PEOPLE. ”
One of the most anticipated beacons of his impending 2023 is undoubtedly his upcoming multi-headliner music festival in Ghana! When asked what sparked the event’s idea & what he hopes to ignite with it, he excitedly offered “a vessel, a bridge”. “I was in South Africa in 2021 & just realized the disconnect between black artists & the continent in that we’ll perform in Europe 10 times over, before we go to the primary destinations in Africa. I realized there could be a real opportunity to build that bridge. I started taking names & ideas around & began designing the idea. Chance [The Rapper] came to visit me in Ghana very randomly & I’d already been thinking about him bringing him into the fold. When I brought it up, instantly he was like ‘man, let's do it!!’ -He’d already had experience in producing large scale festivals, so there was a great logic to it, you know”? “We got to work with the goal of creating a vessel, The Black Star Line Festival is it’s name & it’s based off of Marcus Garvey's shipping line that literally connected America & the islands to the contentment of Africa. Garvey’s ‘BSL’ was a vessel of it’s time & the goal now is to create a vessel through which we build a connection via art, music & culture in the present”.
Though we got the surprise EP ‘Vino Valentino’ earlier this year, there has been an ongoing buzz about Vic’s next official album (his 8th on the elite Roc Nation imprint)! So far we’re hearing rumors of Omari Hardwick narrations & as his fans wait in anticipation, I had to ask him personally if he could describe what the forthcoming body of work actually feels like! “It feels like redemption” Mensa replied. “The overarching theme of the album is redemption. With motifs of freedom & incarceration, pan Africanism, spirituality, south side of Chicago, gang banging, civic duty, sobriety. -There’s a little hedonism here & there, it kinda feels like all of those things living all at once”. “It's definitely very lyrical but also has moments where it's pure vibes. It's very hip-hop but also has elements of rock & roll & house plus some samples of African music”.
As we concluded, though I’d heard a shift in his environment, I was completely unaware that Vic had actually decided to put his talks of self accountability into action mid conversation. The moment he shared his battle with suicidal thoughts, I would’ve been remiss If I didn’t tell him, remind him, how much of a light he is in this world whether or not he’d been able to see it himself. That the unique brand of authenticity he brings to the often stoic spaces he occupies are wildly important! “It’s cold as fuck out here though. My hand is about to fall off” he jokingly interjected. -“But man when you told me what you told me earlier” he began, “man, I was like thinking about going inside & maybe being a little less productive with my spirit, but your words man, they just like put a battery in my back”! Accelerating his word into activity, Mensa had literally drove himself to his Mosque to shift into prayer! As I’ve seen it, this is the power of humanity & our abilities as humans to [even unknowingly] be a part of affecting one another in the best of ways. With seconds to spare I bargained for my very final question, our staple question & quickly inquired as best I could, after all that he’d experienced, what in the world was Vic Mensa’s definition of luxury? -A deep silence fell across the line. After several beats his voice returned to what felt like more of a brotherhood rap session than press interview quite honestly… “For some reason the first word that comes to mind when you say luxury to me is freedom”….. [& there was that word again! The only thing that we’re all inalienably born with but societally seek the most]. “I think the freedom to express yourself as you would like. Freedom to be who you wanna be. That, THAT is luxury.