“I just made a million and still militant” is the kind of line that jumps out and catches you by the throat with its unlikely juxtaposition of wealth and war. That kind of statement would sound farcical delivered by the wrong person, but here, its implied contradictions are quashed by virtue of who is speaking: one Victor Kwesi Mensah, a radical son of Chicago’s South Side. That line above comes from his breakout 2016 single “16 Shots,” a song which viscerally describes the police murder of Laquan McDonald and hinges on the protest-ready refrain of “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-f*ck 12!” (“12,” of course, being slang for the police).
Known better by his nom de guerre Vic Mensa, the 26-year-old has become known as one of the most revolutionary-minded rappers in the game. Whether he’s tackling racism and police brutality in his lyrics, speaking out for Palestine and Flint in interviews, or performing at the March for Our Lives rally against gun violence, Mensa’s activism is personal. His poetry is that of the oppressed and downtrodden, born of both his experiences in the streets and of the radical political education he undertook as a teenager.
“We are in a moment in time when the art should reflect the temperature of the culture, and the dire circumstances in which we live,” he tells Teen Vogue. “I do think that things move in cycles, and music is no exception. I feel like the situation we find ourselves in is only getting crazier, and that we could be seeing a resurgence of social commentary in music.”
Since 2016, he’s put out several critically acclaimed releases including 2017’s full-length The Autobiography and a 2018 EP titled Hooligans, been nominated for a Grammy, and launched his own social justice nonprofit, SaveMoneySaveLife. That hunger for justice underpins every syllable of his work, and his latest endeavor, 93PUNX, is no different. The rap/rock hybrid project was produced by Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker (who Mensa met three years ago while performing on Jimmy Kimmel), and sees Mensa taking a more structured approach to songwriting, writing songs on his guitar instead of relying on the more improvisational studio style that he defaults to with his hip-hop work.
The project’s punk-influenced tenor is nothing new for Mensa, who’s been playing and writing rock music since high school. While writing the 93PUNX album, he listened on repeat to Dead Kennedys, Public Enemy, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, and Rage Against the Machine, reaching for old classics as well as newer favorites like Leftover Crack’s 2001 album Mediocre Generica.
“I feel that protest is music, and it’s inseparable, and so much of the music that I grew up listening to was protest music,” he explains. “Rage Against the Machine is one of my biggest inspirations; the song ‘16 Shots’ carries a sample of Chuck D [from] Public Enemy; this is radical, revolutionary music, and that’s the sh*t that lit the flame in me.”
93PUNX is a brand-new endeavor but has already made waves with a pair of unapologetically confrontational music videos. “Camp America,” which was released in early July, is a brutal condemnation of ICE’s squalid detention camps at the Southern border, and features Mensa clad in a guard’s uniform amid cages full of conspicuously white children — a conscious choice that was made to underline the racial dynamics behind who exactly is being held at the Southern border. It’s a powerful, uncomfortable image, and struck a negative chord with the landlord of Mensa’s nonprofit office in Chicago. He ordered the foundation to vacate, calling Mensa a “disgusting pig” who was “racist against white people.”
“A lot of people in this nation and around the world are indifferent to the oppression and the struggles of other people until it includes them, and affects them, and we can’t get anywhere like that,” Mensa says. “Sometimes you have to shock people into humanity, and you have to force them into apathy, to imagine if the shoe was on the other foot.”
The song “3 Years Sober,” which dropped last week, is a violent, gender-bending fever dream that shows Mensa donning makeup and a Confederate flag dress, being beaten by homophobes, playing tug-of-war over birth control with a Mike Pence look-alike, and being dragged out of a women’s bathroom by police. The video — which Mensa co-directed with Franc Fernandez — was inspired in part by a movie called To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, a 1995 comedy about New York City drag queens, and he explains that his primary goal was to defy convention in a way that was new and shocking for the hip-hop space.
“With 93PUNX, the whole idea of it is about being unapologetically individual, and about being passionate about things that matter [so] wearing a Confederate flag dress was a fun way to say f*ck you to white supremacy,” he says. “Like anybody, I do long to be understood, and I understood that me doing this was going to make people say that I'm gay, or phony, or I’m co-opting someone else’s culture, all of which are not true. But I feel to take chances artistically and to push the limits and break down barriers, sometimes you have to put yourself in the line of fire.”
For Mensa, that impulse to turn up the heat is almost instinctual. Raised by a Ghanaian professor and a white mother from upstate New York, he was taught from an early age to ask questions and to be skeptical of power. His parents, who met in Nigeria, imbued him with a worldly perspective that led him to reject “misguided ideals, like American exceptionalism,” and to embrace the writings of Malcolm X and Black Panther cofounder Huey P. Newton as a teenager. He perks up when asked about the genesis of his own political education, and cites his early exposure to revolutionary thinkers as a starting point.
“I got to be where I’m at politically by reeducation,” he explains, “because you get taught one narrative in school: Christopher Columbus gets a pizza party, and [former Black Panther] Assata Shakur is on the FBI’s most-wanted list. I had to address that miseducation and decide my own heroes and villains — and that was Assata as the hero and Columbus as the villain.”
Ultimately, that’s his recommendation for other budding activists too, and for those who might stumble across “Camp America” or “3 Years Sober” on YouTube, or hear a 93PUNX song or see a photo of a refugee child crying for her mother and realize that something’s got to give.
“I would tell them go educate yourself, go read Malcolm X’s autobiography, go read Huey P. Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide, learn about Palestine,” Mensa says. “Once you have that information, it becomes more difficult to not use that information. The first step is that.”
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue