Photography by Danielle Levitt
Fashion by Julian Antetomaso
A casual observer might think that the photo shoot was for a punk rock hero. Leftover Crack and the Clash play over the speakers, but it’s not Johnny Rotten posing by the pool, it’s Vic Mensa, the Chicago-born rapper with a penchant for fiery, frank lyrics.
With a powerful new EP, Hooligans, out December 14 (pre-order here), Mensa is ready to take the helm as one of hip hop’s most outspoken and political heroes—a truth speaker in the mold of Tupac or Dead Prez, exposing the reality of the streets as well as the inner workings of his mind.
“Honestly, I was searching this year and doing a lot of personal work on myself,” Mensa tells me about Hooligans while pulling on a Backwoods cigar after the photo shoot. “I was involved in a 12-step program and trying to be the man I am. I was facing a lot of dark things. I feel like I address those things, and I also address the importance of self-worth.” Because, whether it’s an introspective track or a party banger, Mensa’s lyrics touch on everything from dismantling the patriarchal system in hip-hop to mental health.
“I say the things that I say out of necessity,” he explains. “And I speak for those without a voice. I’m vulnerable about my truths and trials and tribulations so I can grow from them and move past them, and so I can try to let them go. And if in doing so, I’m able to influence someone else to be brutally honest with themselves and also confront their demons, then it’s a win-win situation.”
From “16 Shots,” a 2016 track he dropped in honor of Laquan McDonald after the teenager was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer who was recently convicted of murder (“Jason Van Dyke: 16 shots. [He’ll probably serve] three years plus probation. You know? Is it justice? Eh. But it’s a step, it’s a major step,” Mensa muses), to traveling to Palestine and writing about his experiences in Time magazine, or repping Hooligans—the crew he’s affiliated with in Chicago—Mensa is as close to punk rock as he is to hip-hop.
It shows in his interviews, as well as in his lyrics, where he is open and expressive about his truth, sometimes stirring controversy, i.e. getting into a heated debate with YouTuber DJ Akademiks over his comments about the Chicago rap scene.
“I’ve always just been a nigga with no filter and no concept of what not to say,” he states. “Because I just say what’s true. My mentality has always been: If it’s true, I should be completely justified to say it. But I’m learning right now that not all truths are explicitly necessary. But as an overall approach to life, I like to be honest.”
Moreover, for him, dismantling the patriarchy comes part and parcel with being a champion of the people, whether they’re men or women.
“Even coming up being a rapper, I always idolized these niggas that had bitches falling out of their pockets,” he says. “You think about powerful men in history, you think of kings with mistresses and women doing whatever they pleased—fanning them with gigantic leaves. Bill Clinton, motherfucking JFK, players. So, I adopted that same approach. I was like, These is the niggas I want to be like. I want to be like the powerful men. And within that comes a lot of manipulation of women and shit that I’m unpacking in my life now to completely restructure the way that I approach relationships.”
Mensa backs his honesty and punk rock attitude with direct social action, too. His nonprofit Save Money Save Life recently gave away 15,000 pairs of shoes to underserved kids in the Chicago neighborhood of Englewood. The gesture was a response to the Chicago police department’s tactic of leaving unmanned vans full of shoes in the neighborhood as a bait to entrap citizens.
“My city is under siege,” he explains. “It’s like Gaza, but less overt and less blatant. So, we step in as guardians of the people, being that we are the people. That’s our innate responsibility. So, when the people are being hit with the bait-and-switch by the establishment, we reverse that on them, and we flip it and we give it away.”
Currently, his nonprofit is working on a project to give away sneakers to every child in the DCFS foster care program in Chicago, as well as on a program called Street Medics, dedicated to teaching students in Chicago how to perform life-saving measures in the instance of a shooting
Mensa’s punk attitude isn’t just about his lyricism or his social action. The 25-year-old Mensa literally takes his rock music seriously, having started out in the rock/hip-hop band Kids These Days. Now, he’s launching his own line called 93 Punks—a collection of one-of-a-kind repurposed denim and leather jackets adorned with paintings and punk button badges. And everything is set to turn even more punk in 2019 when Mensa debuts his side project.
“I made a sick-ass record with Joel Madden,” he says. “He did work on a couple of the records from the punk album that I’m doing. That’s going to be coming out later next year, and that’s punk music with trap drums.”
Grooming: Rodney Bugarin
Production: Stephanie Porto (Danielle Levitt Studio)
Digital Technician: Daniel Bray
Lighting: Phil Blair and Keith Schwalberg
Set Design: Lauren Machland (LaLaLand)
Location Manager: Percy Haverson