Vic Mensa has many tattoos, but there’s one that is particularly striking: the phrase “still alive,” emblazoned on his stomach. One of the stories behind that tattoo comes from a time when, as a teenager, Mensa almost died trying to sneak into Lollapalooza.
The rapper says his plan was to climb over a bridge near the grounds and down a structure that carried power for Chicago’s Metra trains. But he touched a transformer that shocked him with 15,000 volts of electricity, and fell 30 feet onto the tracks. “Either one of things alone is enough to kill somebody,” Mensa says. “I was blessed enough to not die from that.”
Years later, in 2016, Mensa would find himself headlining that same festival. He just turned 24 this year, and after years of rapping and collaborating with stars like Kanye West, Chance the Rapper and Skrillex, Mensa has released his soul-baring debut album, The Autobiography.
“I had to tell these stories for me to be able to move past them,” Mensa tells NPR’s Kelly McEvers. “I’m speaking about loss and love and addiction and depression and all of those things that [at] one time, pulling my brain in so many directions, had me confined, in a cage for some years.”
Mensa spoke to McEvers about reckoning with societal labels and how he sees himself as a voice for Chicago. Read on for an edited transcript and click the audio link to hear an abridged version of the conversation.
Kelly McEvers: What questions do you feel like you were trying to answer as you were writing this album?
Vic Mensa: I was asking why I felt so much pain, why I was trying to mask that pain and self-medicate with drugs and escaping through sex and resorting to violence. One of the first songs is “Memories On 47th St.” where I speak about growing up on the South Side of Chicago and the way I grew up, which was in between two worlds.
My mother was from upstate New York; she’s of Irish and German descent. My father was from Ghana. I live in this two-parent household that is supportive and educated, and outside there’s kids selling crack, and homicides. So as I start to get older, and I’m kinda being hit back and forth like a ping-pong ball, because on one hand, America views me as this general blanket term: black. But at home, I’m me, and I’m half-African, I’m Irish, I’m German, I’m all of these things. But the police don’t know it. And teachers in schools are treating me differently. And I’m put in individualized education programs, IEPs, just because I got this brand on me. I got the “black” brand.
In the song you say that at age 12 you learned the difference between white and black. What happened when you were 12?
Well, that’s around the time I feel America removes [the label] “child” from black youth. So around age 12 when I’m riding my bike, the police pull me over and start harassing me and questioning me about running from them the day before, which didn’t happen. And when I told them that, they were like, “Well, do you have a twin brother?” And I’m pushed off the bike, slammed to the ground and I realize, “Oh, OK. I’m black.”
Yeah, that is not something that happened to me when I was 12 years old.
Before that point I didn’t feel so racial. I didn’t feel that way. And a question I was asking myself was, the aggression: Where’s the aggression coming from? And when I really started to do the work in writing the album, in therapy, and I’m dissecting being told by police — if I had my hands in my hoodie — “Take your hands out your f****** hoodie before I punch you in the f****** face!” You know? There was a certain aggression that came to me, just from being pushed around and being labeled and marginalized. And I took it out on other people.
Chicago, of course, is all over the news these days, and not in a good way. The news out of Chicago is violence: gun violence, killings. And you’ve described yourself as a voice for Chicago. What do you mean by that and how do you approach that?
Well, I’m from Chicago and my perspective and my voice for Chicago is to spread a message or an idea of empathy. I think that often Chicago is portrayed as being purely violent. And [the] murder of kids, often, under 17 years old, is turned into just numbers and statistics. And I wanted to use my voice in this album to empathize and humanize these people on all sides of the equation. Like, for example, I have a song on the album called “Heaven On Earth,” which is dedicated to my big brother Dare who was murdered on the South Side of Chicago. And in the song, I speak to him; I speak as him back to me; and, in the third verse, I speak as his killer. Because a lot of people are pushed to violence and murder through desperation, so I wanted to imagine — maybe his killer just had a child. Maybe his killer was afraid. And maybe his killer was remorseful, every night.
And you don’t just go into the mind of the killer, you re-enact the killing of your friend. And at one point the killer’s like, “I know it ain’t right, I didn’t mean to take a life / We’re living in the streets where ain’t s*** free.” So you’re trying to empathize with this guy who killed this really close friend of yours. How did you do that? How did you get into his headspace?
I had to get into his headspace to be able to let go of hatred for him. Because holding hate in your heart hurts you more than it hurts anybody else.
What would you say your purpose as an artist is?
I think first of all my purpose is to be me. I didn’t come here to specifically be a role model or anything. But as me, as somebody that from age 16, I was reading Malcolm X and reading Huey Newton, my album The Autobiography is inspired by The Autobiography of Malcolm X. So I’m a person that’s just informed, you know? Informed by some of the greatest thinkers, and started making music and spreading my voice, from people like Tupac and Common.
With that knowledge I feel comes power, and with that power comes responsibility. I feel that my purpose is to shed light on some of the darker sides of our world, and to lend a hand and a voice to people struggling. I think that people are in pain all across this nation right now, and they’re taking it out on each other. They’re taking it out on Mexicans, they’re taking it out on Muslims, we’re taking our frustrations out on frustrated people in middle America. They have disdain for us, and we’re all misled. Everybody’s just hurting and lashing out. I wanna be a voice that can unify. And I want to make music that a man in rural Pennsylvania, if he opens his mind and just listens to some of my story, can maybe change his perspective on black people. On rap music. On young black people, on the youth, on urban culture.
The last song on the album, “We Could Be Free,” has the lyrics “We make a better today than tomorrow.” I mean, this is different from the other songs on the album. It’s really aspirational, I guess. How possible do you think a world like that is?
I ask myself the same thing. Oftentimes I feel like I can, through the music, paint a picture of something that I can’t look anywhere and see in my real life. And Assata Shakur says, “You’re asking me about freedom — I’ve never been free. I can only share with you my visions of freedom,” or something to that effect. But I think it’s very possible, just with empathy — I really can’t stress that word enough. Because very often, we generalize people as being one thing. “He’s Republican, he’s bad. He’s a Democrat, he’s bad.” When honestly, we’re all bad, good, aggressive, sympathetic — there’s so many different emotions and characteristics to every human being. And if we can start to recognize that and acknowledge that, then I think we can be closer to freedom.
Web intern Karen Gwee contributed to this story.
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