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THE GRAMMY CONVERSATIONS: VIC MENSA

Interview by Michelle Santosuosso

A prior Grammy nominee, Roc Nation/Capitol rapper Vic Mensa has earned widespread acclaim for his unflinchingly honest and powerful new set, The Autobiography, which was exec-produced by No I.D. and Jay-Z. The Chicago-bred artist’s latest album features an eclectic array of guests, including Pharrell WilliamsThe-DreamTy Dolla $ignChief KeefJoey Purp and Weezer. One guest he probably would have preferred to miss? Us.

We’re in a crazy time, and you’ve long been outspoken about social issues. Is that what you set out to do with this record?
I set out to be honest with myself and start the healing process. I wanted to examine my own trials and tribulations, these experiences that formed my character and psyche and mental state, pick them apart and try to imagine a place of freedom and empathy, because I don’t feel that’s the place I lived in. But I know that’s where we need to go.

 On “Memories on 47th St,” you rap, “at age 12 I learned the difference between white and black,” and you’re biracial--which is complicated in our culture of racism, was that part of your pain?
Being biracial, I never felt fully accepted by either race. Before age 12, I still felt like a kid. But after that, I see adults and police treating me differently. I’m starting to be viewed as a threat and as a young black man. I started to realize around age 12 that’s what America is—and there are beautiful things about America and things that I’m so grateful to be here for, but it was around that age that I started to realize that racism was the law of the land. 

Being such an activist, have you ever considered getting more involved in the actual process politically?
I have my foundation, Save Money, Save Life. There are forthcoming initiatives that we’re working on just to serve under privileged communities in Chicago and frankly, globally. We’re doing a program called Street Medics where we’re going to train and equip first aid responders in some of Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods, as well as others like the Inglewoods and Lawndales…the places where ambulances take forever to come and there’s no trauma unit. We want to be able to empower the people to save their own lives because the system has failed them. We’re also working on some mental health initiatives and ways to reduce the struggle for kids growing up in the hood. They got PTSD for real, so we want to get them medical attention, like therapy. This program I’m working on called “uniVERSE” that’s connecting kids from Chicago interested in rap and music production, singers, and young musicians and artists from other under privileged communities even like Native American Reservations and Palestine. So yeah I got a lot of things in the works right now that’s a little bit past rap.

I want to talk about a highlight on this album, “Rage.” You’ve described this as “light in the darkness.”
I was in a pretty dark place, doing a lot of drugs and really depressed. Like with many songs I write, “Rage” was a record that was addressed to me. I feel the best songs come from the ether world, my subconscious. It’s often not a conscious decision to say what you’re going to say or what you’re going to talk about. 

“Hip-hop is a reflection of us as people, so if we’re fucked up, hip-hop’s going to be fucked up. If we’re righteous, coming from a place of knowledge and self, hip-hop is going to be coming from a place of knowledge and self.” 

You’ve been described before as “lyrical nourishment.” Do you think there should be a little more of this in hip-hop or is it more a case of, leave it to the ones who actually got bars?
There’s a DIY approach that’s always good in hip-hop; it’s come back in a major way with the rise of SoundCloud rappers and bedroom producers. I appreciate it but I’m also a lyricist, so I love to hear compelling verses. That’s what excites me, what inspires me. I hear somebody do a crazy verse and I’m like, “Aw, shit!” But Mos Def had a great quote: “Y’all talking about hip-hop like it’s some giant that lives in the mountains…”

Oh, yes. The iconic jam “Fear Not of Man.”
Yeah, hip-hop is a reflection of us as people, so if we’re fucked up, hip-hop’s going to be fucked up. If we’re righteous, coming from a place of knowledge and self, hip-hop is going to be coming from a place of knowledge and self. I think it’s very true.

You’ve had two incredible mentors, Jay-Z and No I.D. How has their influence helped you grow as an artist?
No I.D. is a real student of the game, but a person who won’t tell you what he’s doing. He won’t walk you to the door. He might show you where the handle is, but he won’t open it, which is as good as it gets with a teacher, because through that I’ve taken things. What unites him and Jay-Z and me at this point in time is a quest for meaning, for substance, and a desire to have the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

We’re in the preliminary awards season; what sort of significance do the Grammys hold for you personally?
The Grammys is the gold standard. It doesn’t always go where you want it to go, but in general it is a reliable testament to the merit of music.

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Seriously, can we order something else?
A BIG FAT DEAL
With a gigantic check. Soon.
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