Chicago rapper Vic Mensa is no stranger to activism. The 29-year-old once dedicated a song, “16 Shots,” to Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager shot and killed by Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke. Earlier this year, Mensa launched 93 Boyz, a company that makes and distributes cannabis products in Illinois. 93 Boyz is the first Chicago-based, Black-owned brand involved with the city’s recreational cannabis industry.
Mensa recently spoke with WBEZ’s Reset about his new company and how it inspired him to start his latest initiative, Books Before Bars, which provides underserved prison libraries in Illinois with books and tools he says can potentially transform inmates’ lives. Here are some highlights from the conversation, which you can listen to in full by clicking the player above.
On why he is interested in helping incarcerated people
“Cannabis has been criminalized and weaponized to incarcerate so many. I didn’t feel it would be responsible or right to enter the cannabis space legally and ignore that. Lives have been torn apart behind it. […] Even if we say we’re expunging records for people that had simple possession of marijuana, you can’t even quantify the number of people who might have caught that charge.”
On why he’s responding to the challenge with books
“Books made sense to me because that’s what I’ve personally been able to send into prisons. I’ve seen the radical transformation that people can have when given the right book in that circumstance. I started sending books into the prison when I was 17, and my big homie Iceface, an amazing rapper from Chicago. He was incarcerated, was one of the first people I knew who was doing a long bit, and I sent him Huey P. Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide because I had just read it recently. He talks about how he was mastering his mind and his memories while he was in solitary confinement, and essentially liberating his spirit while his body was incarcerated. I sent that to Iceface and it changed the dynamic of our relationship. […] I just see like this transformation in people and that’s been one of my primary vehicles of transformation, is the things that I learned through literature.”
On the books that helped change Mensa’s perspective
“I read this book last summer called The Game of Life and How to Play It. It’s a little metaphysics book by a woman named Florence Scovel Shinn. When I tell you this little book has done so much to lead me towards radical transformation and changing the ways that I think and the words that I allow myself to say and actions I allowed myself to take part in. And I gave it to one of my guys at the same time who was serving a life sentence in Massachusetts, and it really did the same for him. It kind of sent us on this snowball effect where it’s like, I probably sent him 30, 40 books while he was locked up. […] But that little book was really a catalyst, like I’m sober a year and a half.”
“The first book, though, that changed everything for me was Malcolm X’s autobiography. His transformation to go from this designed, toxic lifestyle, you know, drugs and streets and robbery and things that are like, I experienced […] and to watch him go from that and find out how to harness his power and go on to be the shining light that he did […] that was really, really impactful.”
On what incarcerated people are saying about the initiative
“You know, they love it. We’re still looking forward to getting some letters back from people that we sent books to individually […] But I’ve been sending these books to my guys personally, and their response has just been phenomenal. I think the most impactful response you can receive is seeing a change in a person.”