With dreadlocked hair hanging down over his face, Vic Mensa sits hunched over and deep in thought as he considers how best to phrase an idea that’s stopped him in his tracks. As the seconds drag by and the distant boom of an artist’s set at New York’s Full Moon Fest shakes the makeshift dressing room tent we’ve found ourselves in, he looks up with a jolt as the words finally come to him. “It’s a widespread, parasitic trend in American society with deep roots to exploit everything black,” he says with a casual air.
This sentence may knock the average person back into their seat but, with Mensa, it’s just another thought swirling around in a mind already thick with the weight of enough sociopolitical issues to fill a liberal arts syllabus. At this particular moment, the Chicago-born rapper is speaking about his confrontation with DJ Akademiks, a radio host for Complex’s Everyday Struggle. On a recent episode of the show, Mensa had viciously cut into the Jamaica-born, New York-based DJ over his problematic exploitation of Chicago’s gun epidemic to promote his YouTube channel, The War in Chiraq.
“He doesn’t know anything about it,” Mensa explains with exasperation, “but no one person is fully responsible for the raping of the black culture. When I fucking put one person in their place for exploiting the pain of my people and the death of my friends and family in my city, that’s for everybody to be put in their place who takes part in that. It doesn’t start or end with one DJ Akademik.” It’s this kind of revelatory, defensive statement about his hometown that has made Vic Mensa one of Chicago’s most promising—and political—young rappers.
Born and raised on the South Side, the 24-year-old musician has given voice to the struggles of the communities there in a way that mirrors his own, relentless flow. On the eve of his debut album, The Autobiography, which is set to drop on July 28, the rapper has built up a name for himself after a startling debut under the wing of fellow Chicago-born artist Kanye West. You may recall Mensa growling through West’s track “Wolves” during a show-stopping performance on SNL’s 40th Anniversary episode in February, 2015.
Since that fiery debut performance, he’s released two formative EPs that established himself as both a voice for the streets of Chicago as well as an outspoken advocate for black male vulnerability—on last year’s There’s a Lot Going On and last month’s The Manuscript, the rapper has tackled everything from drug abuse and depression to relationships and gun violence.
In the controlled chaos before he took the stage on Governor’s Island for a fiery headlining set at Full Moon Festival, he took some time to reflect on the vision for the future he’s built into his debut album, the systemic problems facing his community, and the toxic masculinity he’s fighting back against track by track.
You released your capsule EP, The Manuscript, last month. What should we expect from your debut album when it drops?
The new album is really honest and very real. It’s soulful. It’s a collection of stories from my real life and that talks about my experiences growing up on the south side of Chicago. There are things about mental health and drug addiction and violence and fucking relationships. It’s mostly heavy but it comes around to more of a vision for the future.
What do you see for this vision?
You know, I don’t really have any answers. Just a vision of freedom. To be free from the things that build—from the situations and the stories that I tell on the album. It comes around to a place of strength and courage and freedom.
One thing that I find really admirable in your music is that your vulnerability chips away at these ideas of black masculinity and masculinity in general.
That’s one common misconception—especially in the black community—that it’s somehow more masculine to be less vulnerable. To be a brick wall and show no emotion. That’s learned behavior and I don’t think there’s anything more inherently powerful about neglecting how you feel.
As an advocate for Chicago, what do you see as a real way to help the communities there?
Give a fuck about the community. Invest in the community. Build the community. You’re talking about forgotten corners of our nation where half the schools have been closed, all the books are from the ‘80s, [and] half the neighborhood is vacant lots. It looks like, post-dystopian sometimes, you know?
People look around incredulous to how things could’ve gotten so bad, but, [after] fifteen minutes of driving through the neighborhoods where most of the killing happens, you realize that these are places where nobody has cared to invest to try to give a reasonable quality of life to the residents.
Yeah, it’s incredibly hard to get out of that situation when there’s no support.
Nobody ever gave a fuck about them. You go through the neighborhood and everything is falling apart—or it already fell apart. You grow up and there’s no infrastructure and no attention given to the way you live. You live in a food desert. You have to have a car to even get fresh food so you’re confined to eating Hot Flamin’ Cheetos from the corner store for breakfast.
Everything is poisoning these neighborhoods. There are neighborhoods in Chicago where they have huge piles of white biohazard byproducts from factories in Gary, Indiana, and shit. People are breathing this shit in and it’s just poisoning everyone. When you fucking add all of these things on top of each other, you end up with a colossal mess. When you add more and more destructive elements into a community and take away any constructive elements from a community, you end up with a self-destructive community.
What does it feel like now to have gotten a break and be out of that situation?
I’ve always had a multifaceted view of the workings of Chicago because I come from a household with two parents who have jobs and a steady income. I wasn’t born into a trap like a lot of people are born into. But, once I leave my house, I’m the only one who knows the background I come from. I was lucky enough to brought into this world with a couple more options so I don’t necessarily view it as getting out as much as growing up.
That’s lucky though—growing up. It’s lucky because people die over senseless shit every day. People who had no business dying over street shit. I was at a funeral the other day of a kid who had no business getting shot five times over who knows what. I know I’m blessed to have made it this far.
You’re very politically active so I wanted to ask, how has your life shifted since the election?
It’s just something that came and I’ve come to terms with it. I also had to realize and understand that there was no win for me in that election. In that competition, I had no representative. People that identify with me and my walk of life didn’t have anyone who represented our interests. Our work doesn’t begin or end with the presidential election. We’re cast off from society so we can’t look for any salvation within the means of American faux democracy and capitalism—it’s not there for us.
How do you use your music to fight back against the kind of parasitic exploitation of your community you’ve spoken out about?
I think one of my biggest tools in my music is to be able to wake people up—to get motherfuckers thinking. Thinking in radical enough ways that they start acting. I want to get people to start thinking about everything. Thinking about themselves. Asking themselves questions about how they live and how people around them live. I don’t have any answers. All I can do is pose the question.
For more of our interviews, check out our recent chat with Toasted Life founders Matthew Tuffuor and Warren Jones right here.