Vic Mensa walks with purpose, gliding into his backstage dressing room at the Whiting Auditorium in Flint, Michigan, propping himself up on a counter, bare light bulbs shining bright behind him. Mensa is here on Oscar Sunday (Feb. 28) to perform at #JusticeForFlint, a fundraising event organized by Creed director Ryan Coogler’s activist organization, Blackout For Human Rights, to bring attention to the unfathomable water crisis plaguing the citizens of the impoverished, largely African-American Michigan city.
For Mensa, long an outspoken voice in the fight for equal opportunity — he was on the front lines last year in his native Chicago protesting against the Chicago Police Department in the wake of the 2014 Laquan McDonald police shooting — performing in Flint was a no-brainer.
“That’s the person I am,” says the “U Mad” rapper, dressed in a typically slick outfit —black-on-black jacket and torn jeans, leather boots. “That’s who I was raised to be by my family and by the people that are important to me. That’s how it’s gotta be.” To further exhibit his outrage at the McDonald situation, Mensa debuted a new song that evening, “16 Shots,” a reference to the number of times police shot the unarmed teenager.
In a lengthy conversation with Billboard, Mensa opens up on the situation in Flint, how social injustice is a systemic, nationwide plague, and why he feels art — and more specifically, hip-hop music — can help facilitate change. The Roc Nation artist also details work on his forthcoming debut album, Traffic, as well as what it’s meant to him to work alongside his idols like Jay Z and Kanye West.
Billboard: Take us through how you came to participate in #JusticeForFlint.
Vic Mensa: I was connected with [Ryan] Coogler through a friend of mine named Ludwig [Göransson], who’s an amazing producer. I’ve worked with him a lot for my new album. So Ludwig called me a couple days ago and told me Ryan wanted to reach out about this event. Ryan and I hopped on the phone and he broke down the situation to me. Immediately I was ready to go. I’ve been obviously informed on the Flint situation and have spoken about it in music that I’ve been writing since it really came to light. We were in Michigan not too long ago, just south of Flint, and I was just thinking about how it would be amazing to be involved in some way. Having been in Chicago, having some of our turmoil and it all being interconnected, I’m very happy to be able to lend what I can to this cause.
keep in mind Flint Michigan is a poor 60% black city. they’ve been drinking LEAD POISONED water for over a year
— cerebral bossy (@VicMensa) February 29, 2016
it’s a systematic genocide of the poor and black and you need to pay attention
— cerebral bossy (@VicMensa) February 29, 2016
You’re no stranger to directly addressing social injustice in your music.
Since the first raps I ever wrote, I was always rapping about the things I saw. Just being from the South Side of Chicago, and being close to both privilege and severe under-privilege, that’s been the content of my music since I started making [it]. Being here today reminded me of when I was in high school. I was a sophomore in high school and there was a lot of budget cuts going on in Chicago as in Flint. It’s not our specific mission today but a lot of teachers and schools have also been cut in Flint. When all those teachers were cut in Chicago, it was f–ked up because they were a lot of the best teachers. They were cutting the teachers based on seniority so the old, senile teachers were the ones keeping the jobs. A lot of the dopest people and the ones really dedicating their lives to teaching and the most equipped ones to actually help the youth in the Chicago public schools were cut. We did a walk-out from school and walked from Whitney Young [high school] a couple miles downtown to City Hall. I had written some raps that morning in Spanish class. This reminded me of that.
Despite gaining a higher profile, given your Roc Nation signing and songs like “U Mad,” I assume it remains paramount to address issues of inequality and societal ills in your music?
I definitely think that we can help make a change. The statement of this event is helping to make a change. The bottom line is that a lot of people still don’t know what’s going on here, the same way they don’t know that a lot of the root causes of the impoverished and African-American struggle in America is fueled by legislation and crooked policy. I [was] on my way here from L.A. last night and I mentioned to the girl who was working at the Hudson News in the airport that I was going to Flint. If I said that to some people they’d be like, ‘Oh, super dope,’ but she was like, ‘What’s going on there?’ She [didn’t] even know. I definitely feel like my voice should be used to help spread the fucking facts. There’s not a lot of information that’s being given to people in ways they’re really paying attention to. N—as is checking they Twitter and if there’s a hashtag — which this is and has been — they see it. But it’s not in plain sight. It’s not the same as whatever happened with Kim Kardashian yesterday. That’s bigger news. We’ve got to get our f–king heads and words together and do what we can to have people know what’s going on so it doesn’t take as long as it has taken for this Flint situation to come to light. Because it was just poor people that were being affected and being poisoned. It’s really slow-motion genocide. And it’s not that slow. But when it was just poor people, they wouldn’t even listen.
Sadly politicians don’t hear the voice of the impoverished.
I read an article when I first found about the lead in the water in Michigan. There was this woman that was conducting tests on her own house, on her own water, and it was coming up so fucked up and full of toxins. Enough shit in the water for it to be registered as toxic waste. Two times more than the amount you need for something to be considered toxic waste. It’s what they have coming out their sink in the kitchen. But when it was just her, she was taking it to City Hall and they were saying ‘Oh, your tests are wrong.’ But then she got some other people involved — some scientists from outside — that weren’t just poor people in a poor community and it even took them time, over a year, to be recognized. It’s like people are not listening. That’s why it takes all of us that care to put our best foot forward as far as trying to change this shit because we can’t live like this.
The world saw you on the front lines last year in Chicago protesting the release of the Laquan McDonald dashcam video. Talk to me about that experience.
That experience was amazing, man. I was out in L.A. working on the album and my man Malcolm London called me. I was aware that the Laquan video was ordered to be released by a certain date. Malcolm called me the night before it was supposed to come out and he was like, ‘It’s going up in Chicago tomorrow. This video is coming out and we’re organizing.’ It was 10 p.m. that night and I got a flight for the next morning and went to Chicago. I’m from Chicago so that was less of ‘I’m going to take a stand’ and more of ‘I have to take a stand.’ That’s just who I gotta be. That was an electrifying experience and to see everybody in unity and connected for our basic human rights. It was completely necessary. It was less of an opportunity to use my voice for something positive and more of I just see all this shit as being completely necessary. That’s the person I am. That’s who I was raised to be by my family and by the people that are important to me. That’s how it’s gotta be.
Do you feel like art has the power to incite change? Or is that too idealistic in our 24-hour news cycle, politically fractured 2016?
I definitely think that art is one of the main mediums with potential to incite real change because people gravitate towards rap music in particular not just for a message but because they like how it sounds. People aren’t usually gravitating towards public speakers and politicians because they’re like, ‘This is fresh. I want to listen to this in my car and vibe to this.’ Rap music, in my mind, is the art form with the biggest potential to incite global change. It spans so many different races, colors, creeds, ages, nationalities. It’s really come to a point where it’s so global and there’s so many people listening that if you give them something that can actually help them while they’re listening it’s the best way to get messages across.
Let’s talk a bit about your music. You’ve been slowly trickling material out over the past few months.
We haven’t really put out much. We’ve been really going crazy though on the album. At this moment, I’m working on Traffic and really crafting something that’s so fully representative of my life experiences, my stories, my opinions and my innermost feelings that I want it to be a complete, full representation So that’s what we’re doing — just making a masterpiece. That’s why the output has been scarce. When my album comes out, you gonna know me better than you know a lot of your friends. They don’t tell you their deepest darkest secrets and loftiest aspirations. My album is so personal to the point where it’s like somebody listening to it that really sits and takes their time with it is gonna know me more than I might even want them to know me.
Is Traffic going to be a super diverse album or a more cohesive one?
I wouldn’t say any of those records are indicative of what we’re building for Traffic. The sound of the album is very cohesive but it still draws from a lot of different influences musically. Lyrically, it’s a very personal narrative; every song is kind of like a train down a different track of my life.
What would you say has changed about your approach to making music from the Innanetape days to now?
At this point, I think my approach is more straightforward and to the point. Innanetape was a super dense project, with a lot of meaning message and emotion packed into it, as is Traffic, but I feel like Traffic is laid out a lot easier to understand.
What collaborators are you working with on new music? Any one in particular you’re especially psyched to be working with?
My main collaborator right now has been Papi Beatz, my longtime engineer. He’s been producing a lot of the records for Traffic. I’m producing a lot too. I’m trying to keep the album as much me as possible though. My innermost thoughts and most personal stories.
You signed with Jay Z’s Roc Nation last year and worked with Kanye West on “U Mad” and “Wolves.” How important is it to get affirmation from icons like those two?
It’s very dope. Jay Z has been my favorite rapper forever. Kanye likewise been one of my favorite artists of any kind forever so having their support is super appreciated. At the end of the day, I know, without anybody else’s confirmation and affirmation, what I’m doing is being done for a reason. I’m so appreciative of their support and blessed to have but at the end of it all, I know in my heart that I got my own confirmation.