Vic Mensa has never been one to stay quiet. Since his earliest mixtapes, the Chicago rapper has made it a point to use his music to address societal inequity and reflect the trauma of the oppressed, working tirelessly on behalf of social justice.
As his fame and platform have grown, so have Mensa’s actions: the Autobiography MC has served on the front lines in protesting police brutality in his native city, drawn attention to the dire water situation in Flint, Michigan, spoke out on behalf of unarmed black men killed by law enforcement and stood in solidarity with Native Americas at Standing Rock. He even traveled to the Middle East last summer with a group of African-American artists, scholars and activists, organized by Dream Defender to take stock of the dire situation in Palestine.
Now, Mensa is taking an even more deliberate step. This Friday (March 16), the rapper launches his own non-profit, SaveMoneySaveLife, focusing on two key initiatives: StreetMedics, a program to train first responders in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods, placing mental-health professionals in Chicago’s at-risk schools, and UniVerse, an education program targeting indigenous and black youth via a summer mentorship program. The foundation launches with an inaugural gala at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall. In addition to food, art and a silent auction at the event, Mensa will be performing alongside fellow Chicagoan Jamila Woods. All proceeds for the evening will benefit his new charity.
Prior to Friday’s event, Mensa phoned Billboard to discuss his motivations and plans for SaveMoneySaveLife, and why as he’s gotten more successful he’s only come to further embrace the need to serve his fellow man.
Billboard: You’ve long been a social justice activist — but why now launch a formal foundation?
Vic Mensa: I’ve been doing social justice work for some time, just out of my own resources and out of my own pocket, just because it’s important to me. So whether that’s taking a bunch of people from Chicago down to Standing Rock or being in Flint, Michigan, or being in Palestine or Baton Rouge after Alton Sterling’s killing, I’ve been trying to, just as a man, be present and stand with the struggling and oppressed people around the world. I just thought I could broaden my impact and my reach by starting a non-profit and putting investment into our community.
All of our initiatives, to begin with, are going to be very Chicago-focused. Oftentimes, people ask me, “What is the main cause of the unrest in Chicago?” And I point to the lack of investment in the community. To everything being sapped from the community. To young men being snatched up and generations of fathers being imprisoned. And drugs being pumped into the community. And guns being pumped into the community. But there’s still no positive constructive resources being put into the community.
Some of your initiatives like, StreetMedics seem obvious but sadly have never been addressed by local leaders.
My brain’s always working, and gears are turning 24/7. So I was trying to think of solutions. I’m also inspired by people that are spearheading community work globally. For example, the StreetMedics program was inspired by my trip to Palestine, where I met a kid from an organization called Build Palestine that had raised maybe $5,000 and trained and equipped 35 first-aid responders in Gaza. And Gaza is under siege and under Hamas control, so there’s virtually no ambulances…just nothing.
When I learned about that program, that inspired me. I thought, “We should bring that back to Chicago.” And upon putting feelers out, I found there were people working like this in Chicago already that I could partner with, and just expand their reach. I want to be a young black man owning and inspiring ownership and investing in my own community.
The foundation’s second initiative aims to place mental-health professionals in those schools serving underprivileged children. Mental illness, or seeking treatment for it, has long carried with it a stigma. And especially in the African-American community.
The amount of trauma that the kids in these neighborhoods are dealing with is almost unprecedented, in what we consider to be first-world society. These murders are affecting everyone, every single person in the community. And this violence and this police brutality and the drugs. Almost everybody I know has seen someone they love killed in front of them. But it’s very rare that they get an opportunity to talk to somebody about the trauma and to work through it.
Because that’s the only way you can really heal: by processing it and working through it. So I wanted to specifically focus on kids around the age of fifth or sixth grade because they’re still at a point where things can really be turned around and where they can really shape and decide how they want to grow into adolescence. I don’t believe on giving up on people at all, but I’m not too far removed from high school, and so I know that a lot of times, those four years are dictated by how you come into them.
And you believe if a traumatized child waits until high school to seek mental-health assistance it can be detrimental?
It might be a little late.
I take it this is the sort of service you wish you had when you were a child?
Well, I was actually talking to a therapist when I was that age. Or maybe a psychiatrist. Either way, I was talking to mental-health professionals when I was that age.
Though I’m sure you’d be the first to admit, your parents both being educators and putting value on your well-being gave you a far better support system than many children from underprivileged neighborhoods.
Yah, my family was very encouraging. I felt that I needed to get help. I felt something different, and I felt it would be good for me. And my people helped me to do that. But like you said, not everybody has those opportunities put around them.
The third and final initiative of your non-profit, UniVerse, is aimed at connecting arts-minded Native-American and black teens, correct?
My foundation director Laundi Keepseagle and I conceived the UniVerse program while we were at Standing Rock. He was the main organizer and fundraiser for the movement down there. When I went there, I really had my eyes open to the parallels between the black and native communities that had never occurred to me so much. There was a lot of black and native solidarity there and just a lot of connections to be drawn.
Black and native people are the most oppressed people in America, and are locked up at higher rates than other races are, are alcoholics at much more staggering rates. The United States of America was built by the hands of black people on the backs of Natives. I really connected those dots when I was at Standing Rock. So I thought it would be really dope for us to create a program that gives the next generation that information early on, because strength and power is in numbers, and I think we have a lot to learn from the Native American people.
Like the presence of the ancestors and taking care of the land — that’s something that Native Americans understand far more. And as water becomes a scarce commodity I think that it’s a perfect time, if not a little bit on the late side, to as a nation — and specifically as a black community — really heed the lessons that Native Americans have to teach, on a lot of levels.
Overall, before you announced your foundation it seems in recent times — most notably with your op-ed on Palestine and the “We Could Be Free” video — you’ve only intensified your efforts towards social justice.
I’ve been politically minded and socially conscious for a long time. I got a tattoo of a black panther with “Free Huey” on my shoulder when I was 16. So these things have always been on my mind. But more so recently, I’ve started to realize that this life is about service. It’s not just about personal gain. Service is key. And as I have more on my plate, and I have more ambitions and more goals and things I want for myself, I’m realizing more and more how important it is to be a servant.