Vic Mensa came to town just when we needed him.
In case you hadn’t noticed, politically and socially aware voices are in short supply in pop culture. In recent days, after being pounced on by Twitter, A$AP Rocky walked back from comments made in a 2015 interview in which he defended his right to make escapist, un-woke music (“What the f— am I, Al Sharpton now?” Rocky asked); and Michael Jordan, after decades of bottom line-dictated avoidance of any political stands, was finally moved to make a gesture on behalf of black lives.
So, hallelujah for the rare presence of an artist like the continually outspoken and fearless Vic Mensa, who took the stage at Brooklyn Bowl on Monday (July 25) night, the latest stop on his Back With a Vengeance tour. Flanked by cutout figures of cops with skull faces, amid flashing lights that naturally evoked police cars, the Chicago rapper soon launched into “16 Shots,” his fiery remembrance of Laquan McDonald, the teenager from his hometown killed by police in 2014 after being shot sixteen times in thirteen seconds. “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11, f— 12!” chanted the room, as Mensa front-loaded the most rousing song of the night. But there was more awareness to come.
Could there be a more apt caption for life in 2016 than the title of Mensa’s latest release, There’s Alot Going On? Since early June, when Billboard spoke to Mensa about the EP — which besides police shootings tackles poisoned water, urban neglect, and Mensa’s own struggles with addiction and a bumpy career path — we’ve seen yet more video-documented incidents of law enforcement killing black men; the retaliatory murder of cops; the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, targeting LGBT people in Orlando; brutal terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, Nice, Kabul and more. Additionally, we’re in the midst of the most outrageous presidential election in modern history, with a dark and dystopian Republican convention led by an aspiring autocrat, followed by a fractious Democratic gathering, noisily playing out this week in Philadelphia. As the DNC was struggling to find unity on its first night, Mensa was just getting going in Brooklyn.
“This next song I wrote about what happened in Flint, Michigan,” he said, offering for the uninitiated a synopsis of the obscene story of lead poisoning through government neglect that occurred in one of America’s more economically deprived cities. The song, “Shades of Blue,” is a rap/sung reflection on Flint as well as larger racial inequalities. “I guess we all got room for improvement,” the track concludes, with a call to action: “Change gon’ come, it’s all on you.”
Arguably the most courageous track of Mensa’s 2016 output is the one that’s not necessarily preaching to the choir: “Free Love,” his declaration of alliance with the LGBTQ community, inspired by a family member came out this year as queer, and released as a single last month in the wake of Orlando’s Pulse attack. “I’ve realized it’s about empathy,” Mensa explained to the Brooklyn Bowl crowd. “I need to have it in me to fight for the struggles of all people,” he said as cheers erupted. And then an almost unheard-of sight played out: A straight hip-hop artist got hands in the air as he sang, “You can love who you wanna love.” You have to believe in possibilities.
Mensa lightened the mood with the slinky, girl-chasing “New Bae”; a sentimental “Liquor Locker,” on which he was accompanied by rock guitar (he’s long been about 30 percent rock star, tbh) and a glass of Amaretto on the rocks; and the 2015 rager “U Mad.” On the latter, he managed another stroke of kindness, bringing on stage a fan named Mitchell, who had connected with Mensa’s tales of anxiety and depression on There’s Alot Going On‘s title track, and who Mensa flew to New York to join him on Sway In the Morning.
Finally, it was that title track that ended the night — a raw, confessional account of Mensa’s last few years, the highs and lows, addiction and uncertainty, and ultimately, an evolution into an artist who speaks truth to power. “I’m still alive,” he proclaimed under a sunburst of orange lights. In precarious times, we’re lucky to have him.