Vic Mensa is a rapper with a message for sexual predators at music festivals: “You’re not welcome here.” The "16 Shots" singer will be join Jay-Z's 4:44 tour in October. Mensa headlined the September 15 night of Chicago's Riot Fest, but before he took the stage, Mensa took some time to sit down with BUST and talk about rap, feminism, and sexual assault.
“My artistry is extremely influenced by my experience,” said Mensa, “and feminist women have been some of the biggest catalysts of my growth as a man and as a human.”
Mensa has surrounded himself with strong intelligent women who have made a great impact on him and his artistry. He credits his mom for always instilling ideas of equality and resistance to oppressive authorities. He also credits a very dear friend from New York, poet Aja Mone, who was the first person to give him Malcolm X’s autobiography and directed him toward Assata Shakur’s book. “It is because of the feminist women that play a part of my life, that the ideas of feminism play a part of my music,” he says.
This feminist experience shines through in his music and performance. At Riot Fest, Mensa performed songs from his album The Autobiography. The songs he performed did more than entertain, they taught. They taught the audience about the black experience both for men and women from any poor black neighborhood. Mensa is from Hyde Park, a neighborhood that has both extreme wealth and poverty, depending on which part you live in.
Sexism is, unfortunately, a part of all communities, whether rich or poor. Mainstream rap and hiphop has been criticized for glorifying violence and rampant sexism for decades. But Mensa sees beyond what mainstream hiphop is selling. He is actively a part of activist communities and sees women for how they truly are.
“I find it to be an interesting situation because I spend a lot of time in activism and organizer circles,” says Mensa. “And often times these movements are spearheaded by women of color.”
Women have been a major part of Mensa’s artistic growth. Although Mensa has been asked from time to time to co-opt a movement in order to bring more attention to the issue, he chooses not to. Instead, he realized he could use his fame to empower these powerful women around him by shedding light on them and their great deeds. Women like Laundi Keepseagle, an activist who played a major role in the Standing Rock protests, and an engaged activist in Chicago.
“The music that I make and the ideas of perseverance and freedom and resistance and radical love, I feel like these are ideas that male, female, gay, straight, trans, it’s applicable to a lot of different empowerment movements," Mensa says. He seeks equality on all fronts. His music touches on police brutality and the Laquan McDonald case in "16 Shots." He also has very strong feelings about violence against women. Mensa is a feminist, and as a feminist, he feels there is a duty he and other men have to uphold.
“Hold other men accountable and inspire others to hold other men accountable,” Mensa said, “I mean, I am absolutely fucking disgusted at the current state of hiphop, where beating your pregnant girlfriend, or beating a girl’s ass on camera is something that can get you on. Shit makes me sick to my stomach, I want to throw up every time I think about it.”
Mensa makes the point that in order to fight sexism and negative behavior in men, we as consumers need to be conscious of the artists we support. “Me being who I am, I wouldn’t feel right if you asked me that question and I didn’t say that we need to be far more critical of the artists that we choose to support,” Mensa said. “A lot of people want to make this subconscious or conscious differentiation between somebody’s actions and their music, but from my vantage point, you make a conscious decision to support what you support. And I only try to support things I believe in.”
Mensa acknowledges that he has made mistakes, made jokes, and said things in the past he shouldn’t have said. But Mensa says he has seen the error of his ways and apologized for it. “We all have the power to choose what we decide to spend our money on,” said Mensa. “Stop supporting these insecure little boys that are beating up their girls!”
It’s no surprise Mensa also has strong feelings against sexual assault, especially at concerts. “I’ve never been okay with men at festivals at shows grabbing women,” he says. “I’ve gotten into full fights on stage with people in the crowd because they were manhandling women and trying to either touch them sexually or get them out the way. I’ve never been okay with that.”
Mensa was happy to hear about Riot Fest's new efforts to prevent assault at the festival. When Mensa heard about the festival’s work with the activist group Our Music My Body, he was thrilled. Music festivals are supposed to be a safe space where people can have a great time. Towards the end of our conversation, Mensa gave a warning and some advice aimed at sexual predators: “First of all, you have no place here, and second, if you act like that you might get beat the fuck up. Be careful.”
Top photo via Facebook/Vic Mensa
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Isabel Sophia Dieppa is a writer and actor. She is a part of the performance duo Of This World in Chicago, IL. Dieppa is the recipient of a 2018 Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant, which she has used to report on property rights in Puerto Rico. Her interests lie in science, art, and history. Past writing includes interning for the Chicago Field Museum ECCO program, the national theater blog HOWLROUND, music reviews for UR Chicago, and in a former life was a beat reporter for the Indiana Daily Student. She loves archaeology, kitties, and dancing. The next big adventure may include an archaeological dig in Peru. Follow her on twitter @isabelsdieppa.