As KRS-One articulated throughout his catalog and in his many teachings, “Rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live.” As the culture continues to evolve today, many feel it’s not only important, but vital to preserve and honor the fundamental elements: Graffiti, emceeing, breakdancing, deejaying and knowledge. This column called “Each One, Teach One” aims to do exactly that. It will highlight various lessons that can be passed between new and old generations alike.
Vic Mensa’s artistry, much like how he divides his time on a daily basis, is very intentional. While he’s no stranger to working late nights and getting up early mornings, this past Thursday (June 20) wasn’t because of a late night in the studio or an early flight to catch for a tour stop. He instead, found himself meeting a production crew outside of his home in Los Angeles. Mensa may have technically been running on four hours of sleep or up late from an acting class running into the night before. But he was focused, calm and curiously animate when I first shook his hand at that ungodly hour.
The itinerary for the day ahead, full of activations coinciding with World Refugee Day, was one that further reinforced why such a demanding schedule is more than worth it to him. At this point in his career, Mensa has found his voice, his mission and, his purpose; three invaluable cornerstones that are shaping his legacy one dedicated creative act at a time. While we all have the same 24 hours, Mensa is making sure none of his go to waste. Even if that means catching up on sleep in hourlong pockets, while riding in a minivan on his way to Mexico, all before 7 AM hit.
Having celebrated his birthday weeks prior to his hometown of Chicago, the freshly minted 26-year-old’s first trip across the border wasn’t able to make his way to the beach or to wander the streets as a bright-eyed tourist on vacation. Such thoughts didn’t even cross his mind, with his dedication to his activism a sentiment that was further enforced when a fan recognized him at the border and asked him what he was doing in Mexico in the first place.
Mensa was kind, explaining the initiative and his intention for the day to the fan, whose demeanor flipped in reaction to hearing a response he wasn’t anticipating from a celebrity figure he ran into randomly in public. However, as Mensa learned firsthand, the gravity of the magnitude of the situation is hard to escape in Tijuana once you open your eyes to it, even as the plethora of advertisements for inexpensive prescription drugs and specialty tequila do their best to push the humanitarian crisis back into the shadows in which it operates.
On World Refugee Day, Mensa partnered with Revolve Impact, an award-winning movement building creative agency, to meet with various nonprofits working tirelessly in Tijuana and learn more about what is happening at the southern U.S. border. In addition to learning more about the work of community nonprofits, Al Otro Lado, Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), Haitian Bridge Alliance, [Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans – San Diego (PANASD)] (https://www.panasd.org/) and Pillars of the Community, Mensa gave a guerrilla-style performance of his latest song, “Camp America;” a political anthem that doubles as the introduction of his alternative rock/rap band, 93 Punx.
In the provocative music video, Mensa condemns Donald Trump’s immigration policy. Specifically calling out ICE director Matthew Albence for his comments likening ICE detention centers to “summer camps.” During the accompanying visual, Mensa casts white children, as opposed to minority children, and places them in cages as they outwardly celebrate while they are subjected to torture and forced to drink out of toilets.
“Sometimes people will ask me, ‘Why are you talking about all of this?’” he remarked. “With something like ‘Camp America,’ I really try to play a line (between the serious subject matter and listenability of the song). It’s something that makes me dance every time I listen to it, but it takes a very heavy turn when you understand it and when you see the visual. It’s like, man, the reason I talk about the things I do in my music is because those are the things that I talk about in my life. Those are the things I care about.“
The political satire is a tongue-and-cheek interpretation of actual occurrences reported from the detention centers. This makes a statement about how disproportionate the treatment of migrants would be if those directly being impacted by the immigration crisis at the border weren’t children of color, showing how absurd the claim is that these centers are less like prisons and more like summer camp.
“Breitbart and a bunch of other right-wing outlets wrote about (Camp America), they were mad I put the white kids in cages,” Mensa reflected. “I think when Breitbart starts hating on you–my dad told me this too–that means that you’ve made it.”
What separates Mensa from others is his dedication to elevating his advocacy through his art by following up his creative expression with action, something he refers to as a “necessary” part of the process. Throughout his burgeoning career, Mensa has helped spearhead several campaigns in his hometown of Chicago, including raising money to aid homeless people through his SaveMoneySaveLife foundation, as well as has protested against police brutality and racial inequality.
“When you look at the inner workings or the behind-the-scenes of organizations such as CoreCivic or GEO Group, the ones who operate these immigrant detention centers, you see they also operate private state prisons full of Black men,” Mensa explained. “They operate prisons in Palestine to illegally detain political prisoners. It’s all related. It’s all connected. Just follow the paper trail and you find out that it’s the same people. So, that’s why I feel like… action is necessary.”
After spending hours with representatives from the nonprofit groups and discussing the complicated issues at hand, the Roc Nation artist and his team traveled back to San Diego, making a strategic pitstop in front of the Otay Mesa Immigrant Prison. Mensa jumped on the back of a flatbed truck with members from his band–fully aware that while the street was public property, the police could be called at any moment. He then erupted into a powerful performance of “Camp America” and another track off the upcoming 93 Punx album.
With security vans from the controversial CoreCivic-owned private prison circling the parking lot as Mensa’s potent lyrics poured out of the portable speakers, it was hard not to imagine how the politically charged songs pierced through the presumably tense silence and fear found on the other side of the concrete walls housing thousands of adults and their children, hopefully bringing a message of hope and reassurance that their experiences won’t go unnoticed for much longer.
“It can be discouraging. It can be overwhelming,” Mensa says, touching on his decision to continue placing activism at the forefront of his artistry. “But that’s where courage comes in. Courage and resilience.”
In addition to raising awareness through his art, Vic Mensa is also currently raising money to help ensure the safety and freedom of unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children in the United States through his Camp America t-shirt, with proceeds going to Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). See more information here.
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