Homecoming And Redemption: Vic Mensa Interviewed

The Chicago artist talks Black Star Line Festival and his imminent sophomore album...

Vic Mensa is a man often on the move. Across the duration of our conversation he’s either parked up or driving around the streets of his hometown, Chicago; shortly after this – Christmas Day, in fact – he arrived in Accra, Ghana, ahead of the Black Star Line festival. The event – co-founded by Mensa and long-time friend and collaborator, Chance the Rapper – is billed as “a cultural experience rooted in intercontinental collaboration”. 

Homecoming And Redemption: Vic Mensa Interviewed

Aimed at creating space for cultural exchange within Pan-African community, the festival will run panel discussions, fine art exhibitions and nightlife events before culminating in a concert that will feature the likes of Erykah Badu, T-pain, Jeremih and M.anifest in Accra’s famous Black Star Square. Born to a Ghanian father and a white American mother, Mensa has reconnected with Ghana profoundly in the last few years. Previous trips with his family had enriched his view of his African heritage, but it was solo trips to Ghana and South Africa in 2020 that shifted his perspective on, well, a whole lot. Upon connecting with a host of Ghana’s finest creative talent (the likes of Sarkodie, Stone Boy and his cousin M.anifest – stardom must run in the blood), Mensa realised the need to extend the privilege he enjoys to as many people as possible.

“[While in Ghana] I really started to grasp the weight of the privilege that is to be in direct conversation with my ancestry. And I like to say that with privilege comes responsibility – but also opportunity. So, I really started to grasp the privilege to have what has been stolen from my black American brothers and sisters. And that is: a deep sense of knowing where I come from. What language I come from, what gods I come from, what land I come from, what names I come from. And so, in 2020, in that trip, I started to grasp the weight of this privilege, responsibility and opportunity”. 

Homecoming And Redemption: Vic Mensa Interviewed

The homecoming trip to Ghana sowed the seeds of the Black Star Line festival in Vic Mensa’s mind. The festival’s name and its huge ambition both borrow from the short-lived shipping line (created by Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey) that aimed to create means for the global black diaspora to forge bonds with their distant relatives. The ill-fated shipping line only ran for three years from 1919 and sadly never managed to transport any commerce between the Americas to Africa. Though the festival is a cultural endeavour and not a commercial one, Mensa and Chance the Rapper are bravely pulling from Garvey in terms of intention and execution. 

If his time in Ghana sowed the seed, then South Africa was where it started to germinate. “And so, as I’m in South Africa, having just left Ghana in 2020, all this is spinning in my mind” he tells me. “I’m asking questions about the touring structures. And then when I’m in South Africa, it just dawned on me, I was like, man, there’s got to be a way that we can create a vessel, you know, to be bringing people to the continent. Providing them with a cultural experience and having [artists] perform for the people. And immediately I’m like, I’m just thinking: if it’s a concert series, or if it’s a festival, I’m sure that we could get people to come for little to no fee. You know, I mean, because black people want to experience Africa. It’s just that it’s often been presented as being this impossibility. It’s like… have you ever seen Belly?”

I confess to Vic that though I’ve seen Nas and DMX slow-mo striding in the blue hue of the notorious opening scene countless times on my timeline, I’m yet to see the whole film.

“Yeah, you got to see Belly! So, there’s a scene in belly where Nas is telling his girl he wants to get out of the street game. And he’s telling her like, [drops his voice to mimic Nas’ signature husk] “Yo, we should just leave man. Go to Africa.” And his girl’s like, “Africa? Africa is far, right?” That’s kind of been an overarching sentiment. But Europe is far from America, and we go there like a motherfucker! It’s like, the moment I got traction in music I made London a second home. I’m in Paris like a motherfucker. I’m in Amsterdam. I mean, I toured the entire continent of Australia. In this entire time never did I, as a first generation Ghanian, ever perform on the continent of Africa, anywhere. And it’s not just me, it’s Black artists, at large. But that’s not our fault. The misinformation and miscommunication and demonisation of Africa has been deeply ingrained into us through the propaganda.”

Homecoming And Redemption: Vic Mensa Interviewed

Where attitudes towards Africa aren’t a barrier, for many, having the means to get there often is. But the issue of access is a consideration baked into the festival itself; not only are all tickets for the concert free, but he and Chance have managed to get United Airlines to lower the price for plane tickets to Ghana. In terms of scale and ambition, this level of organisation far exceeds any of the impressive events that Mensa has put together in his past. 

Now 29, the Chicago representative has been putting on events in his city since his time with Kids These Days – the long since defunct band he was part of 15 years ago. From that first KTD show, to the 2018 anti-bait truck shoe drive in which Mensa’s charity, SaveMoneySaveLife, gifted nearly a million dollars of shoes to kids in Chicago, to the recent SKIN + MASKS art exhibition he curated; does he see all the organising he’s done prior as a form of training, preparing him for the festival? He takes a beat to consider the question before giving an answer that speaks to all of his creative endeavours: “I see the work that I do as a continuum. [It all] fed the civic engagement of this festival. So I do think that, every day. I think the things I’ve done for the last 15 years have been practice for today.”

“And even though I’m 14 or 15 years into making music, I feel like right now I’m just step one of a whole different type of run. Because in the past the wind would move me where it wanted to. The gusts of success and fame and money blew me all over. Now I got a sail, and I know where I’m going. And I see nothing in my way. I didn’t use to feel that way. I mean, I used to feel so much pain constantly, and just [feel] so troubled. I was too fucked up emotionally coming into this shit, that when I got things, it only magnified what I was going through. So now I feel like, man, although [past endeavours] prepared me for this current moment, I really feel like this current moment is preparing me for something so much bigger”.

Homecoming And Redemption: Vic Mensa Interviewed

And so; onto the music. Thus far, Mensa has led a music career marked by frequent and bold evolution. The off-beat raps of his ‘Innanetape’ era introduced Mensa as equal parts fun and thoughtful. 2016’s ‘There’s A Lot Going On’ was charged with the energy of the BLM movement – the following year saw him shift from the political to the deeply personal on his Roc Nation debut album, ‘The Autobiography’. In the five years since, Mensa has explored the gamut of the musical spectrum, from soaring love ballads to scowling Punk-Rock joints through a consistent throng of strong EPs. But as he enters what he describes a redemptive arc in his life, he speaks of a sophomore album – scheduled for release early next year – driven by the key theme of redemption. 

“I’m excited about it,” he says of the new project. “I mean, if it feels good to be excited about music because when you’ve been doing the shit for so long, sometimes this shit can feel like, you know… it’s lost its joy. That’s not the place you want to be. I never started doing music because I was like ‘rappers are rich – I want to be rich’. Obviously, that’s an appeal. But it’s never been my primary motivation in anything, honestly. It’s [instead] been to impact people. To process the events of my life. A sense of catharsis. That’s why I make music. And so, I’m excited about this current moment and this music that I have coming out because it feels like all of those things to me.”

Between building bridges for the black diaspora to come together by way of the BSLF, and his personal relocation from LA to back to Chicago, ‘homecoming’ as a theme appears in much of Mensa’s life of late. Understandably, the notion of ‘home’ and a long-awaited return to home also informs the album. “The album is definitely very rooted in Chicago. But I will say that it’s also very inspired by my identity as a Ghanian. It contains themes of Islam and spirituality as well. And all these things are inter-playing with each other, and homecoming is completely a critical theme in it, as well as redemption. You know, saying I think redemption is the main motif throughout the music. But I sample some African music, I sample some [Ghanian guitarist] Ebo Taylor. There are moments where I’m speaking about the things that I have going on in Ghana – Ghana is a big part of the Blackness surrounding artistic concept.”

Homecoming And Redemption: Vic Mensa Interviewed

As an artist and an individual, Mensa is revelling in a renewed energy born and a renewed focus. He speaks proudly of being 18 months sober, dropping out antidepressants and picking up meditation, which he did “right before I got on the phone [for our conversation], I rarely miss a day. I’ve cut out the hoes and the drugs and the beef and the street shit. I’ve cut out all the things that have worked against me and been distractions for the most part.” 

His relocation played a big part in his personal realignment: “I just needed to ground myself regain my sense of self and feel like I’ve accomplished that [by moving back to Chicago]. I think that it’s been extremely influential on the place that I’ve come to”. And his returning to certain creative practices, such as locking in with key collaborators (he names producers LPZ and Bongo ByTheWay as being crucial in the making of the album) has reinvigorated his love for the music. “And on top of that, I know I’m really pouring myself into its presentation and the artistic content surrounding it in a way that I haven’t in a while. I’ve produced some of my favourite and most important songs on the album. I’m producing the photoshoots and videos and coming up with the marketing plans, and I’m in the right space.”

Starving your unhealthy practices, building nourishing habits. When motivation and well-meaning sentiment fall short, discipline is the fail-safe needed to keep progress ongoing. Personally and professionally, Mensa is now reaping the benefits of staying the course. Incredibly, the results – combined with his inherent community-concerned approach – have propelled him to share the spoils on an international level. “I feel like I’m in the most disciplined state of my life. I feel like really working towards and cultivating joy and creatively. I think that I’m in one of my best periods”.

Black Star Line Festival takes place in Accra, Ghana on January 6th.

Words: Dwayne Wilks

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