Rapper Vic Mensa was just 12 when he first realized how race affected his life, as Chicago police officers ripped him off his bike and sent him crashing to the ground.
“Around the time you enter adolescence is when they start to view you as a threat,” Mensa told the Daily News. “I never felt black until I realized they were treating me like I was black.”
Like many young rappers, Mensa, now 24, has used hip-hop as a survival mechanism and a means of processing traumatic events like seeing his close friend stabbed to death and other peers struggle with drug addiction.
Mensa’s socially conscious perspective, showcased on the autobiographical “Memories on 47th St.” and Laquan McDonald tribute “16 Shots,” has won him many fans including Jay-Z, who signed the Chicago-born rapper to his Roc Nation record label and invited him to open his “4:44” tour shows.
Mensa was raised in Chicago’s diverse Hyde Park neighborhood by his black father, who immigrated from West Africa, and his white mother, who’s from upstate New York. It was in the Windy City that Mensa first began to grapple with his racial identity.
Mensa attributes the stigma surrounding mental health to ‘hundreds of years of mental conditioning’ in the black community.
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“You could be 23 and be a white, American, recently-graduated swim team captain and rape a girl at a party and you’re kind of ‘just being a kid.’ But you could be 16 years old and black and have police officers describe you as a ‘brute force’ and ‘have the look of a demon in your eyes,’” Mensa said. “That’s when you start to realize that this decision has been made for you between black and white. These are fraudulent, made-up concepts, but we live in a society where they hold weight.”
One of the biggest disparities Mensa recognized in his adolescence was how white and black people view mental health, a topic he’s explored in-depth in his music.
“I feel that some of the people I know that really would need therapy the most are those really living that life in the streets, in the hood,” Mensa said. “I don’t know one hood n—a with a therapist.”
He attributes the stigma surrounding mental health in the black community to “hundreds of years of mental conditioning” and “the idea of ‘crazy blacks.’”
That idea, Mensa said, comes from one of his favorite books, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
“Malcolm depicts how after his father is killed by white racists, social workers labeled his mother as ‘crazy’ in order to destroy the family,” Mensa explained. “They said she was crazy until, one-by-one, they stripped all the children away from Malcolm X’s mother and eventually she ended up in a mental hospital.”
Mensa believes that the hesitance to open up when it comes to mental health can be traced directly to the gun violence that plagues black communities in places like Chicago.
But he bristles at rhetoric coming from people like President Trump, who has consistently singled out Chicago as “a total disaster” when it comes to gun control.
Mensa is particularly outspoken about the issue of gun violence in Chicago.
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“We don’t make guns in Chicago. There are no Glock, Smith & Wesson or Ruger factories in Chicago,” Mensa said.
The artist intends to continue using his platform to influence social change, as well as follow the example set by his boss and tour mate, Jay-Z.
“Hov has always given us lessons on ‘how to move in a room full of vultures,’” Mensa said, referencing the Jay-Z track “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).” “How to transform the angst and pain and struggle that we all experience growing up in urban communities into legit money and independence and positivity.”
The “4:44” tour makes a stop at Long Island’s Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum this Saturday.