Vic Mensa is an acclaimed Chicago rapper whose new single “SHELTER,” with Wyclef Jean and Chance the Rapper, is out now. Below, he tells Billboard about his mission to help save Oklahoma inmate Julius Jones from death row, and why prison abolition is still a priority for him.
“This is a collect call from Julius Jones, an inmate in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.”
The familiar sound greeted my groggy morning mind this AM as I scrolled through my Instagram in the back of an Uber on the way to the airport. Julius and I have been in communication for almost a year now, and more so over the past few weeks as I geared up to release a song called “SHELTER,” inspired by our relationship, in which I address him by name – – as well as mass incarceration as a construct, and reality for so many in our broken union. Sometime in the early summer or late spring of 2020, I learned that Julius had been signing his outgoing letters from Death Row with “Theme Music We Could Be Free by Vic Mensa.” Around this same time, I had recently been a part of helping to bring a friend named Brian “Moosa” Harrington Jr. home from an Illinois prison 12 years early on a 25-year sentence, implemented when he was just 14 years old.
My journey fighting for incarcerated individuals’ freedom began in earnest when my friend James Warren got locked up a few years ago and eventually sentenced to 15 years. Although we were never particularly close when he was in the world, we were part of the same clique, and for that reason, I felt called to help in any way I could — be it friendship, hiring legal counsel, helping to bring awareness, etc. As our relationship developed over a jail phone, my conversations with James began to be a form of therapy for me, and he a source of strength and counsel in my life as I may have hoped to be in his. His resilience and optimism in the face of soul-crushing oppression have often given me perspective and light in my frequent moments of darkness. And not only James; Moosa, and Julius, and Iceface, and Suavelle, and Mumia, and George Jackson and Huey and Angela and so many other brothers and sisters have shown me, from behind iron walls, the true power of humanity and the transcendent potential of the mind and spirit.
It is true that diamonds are produced from pressure, yet it is also true that to mine them requires immense difficulty, and most people will never own or know the beauty of a diamond. Is not life in America, particularly while wearing the darker-shaded skin, enough pressure as is? Must we hide our diamonds in the proverbial rough for the consumption and enrichment of a select few bourgeoisie beneficiaries? The spark that illuminated a path of freedom fighting was, for me, a simple window into the precious humanity of a man living inside of a cage. Not a criminal, not a shooter, not an “evil-doer”, but a man, with triumphs and failures like any other. Looking closely at the explosion of the American prison population over the past five or six decades, it is ever apparent that this transformation of chattel slavery has been allowed to take place, largely without widespread public uprising until very recently, by the insidiously deceptive and often subconscious categorization of Black and Brown people as “criminal” and therefore deserving of punishment, falling perfectly into place with the 13th Amendment’s clever caveat outlawing slavery, except as a punishment for a crime.
There was a time in America’s not-so-distant history when the idea of a world without the right to own another human being was so unfathomable that an entire generation of young men gave their lives to preserve it, albeit in vain. And yet, before it was politically expedient to destroy the ruthless system of bondage that claimed an untold number of millions of African lives, there were abolitionists, many of whom had emerged from the depths of that oh-so-American hell hole known as the plantation. And so, as we assess the role of the plantation’s most profitable progeny, the prison, I say we turn to those who have lived its horrors; we recognize and celebrate their humanity, and we hear their calls — not only for reform, but for the abolition of the prison in totality.
Stream Mensa’s new single “SHELTER” featuring Chance The Rapper and Wyclef Jean here. Also, make sure to check out his conversation with Okayplayer & OkayAfrica Editor-in-Chief/VP of Content Rachel Hislop, which “will center culturally relevant topics of discussion with the intention to inspire and share amongst our digital community.”
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