On 'The Autobiography,' Vic Mensa Faces His Personal Demons And Emerges Stronger The rapper tells stories of loss, love and violence on his new debut album. He speaks with Kelly McEvers about his childhood in Chicago and how he views his responsibility to the city today.
NPR logo

On 'The Autobiography,' Vic Mensa Faces His Personal Demons And Emerges Stronger

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/539855846/540088374" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
On 'The Autobiography,' Vic Mensa Faces His Personal Demons And Emerges Stronger

On 'The Autobiography,' Vic Mensa Faces His Personal Demons And Emerges Stronger

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/539855846/540088374" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In 2010, Vic Mensa almost died. He was trying to sneak into the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago. He got an electric shock from a transformer and he fell off of a bridge. A year later the rapper was headlining one of the stages at Lollapalooza. He was a teenager. Vic Mensa's now 24 years old. He's worked with Kanye West, Jay-Z and Pharrell. And he has a new album out today called "The Autobiography." Mensa says telling his own stories has helped him work through some hard stuff like addiction, drug use and violence. The album starts in his childhood.

VIC MENSA: One of the first songs is called "Memories On 47th St.," where I speak about growing up on the South Side of Chicago and the way I grew up, which was in between two worlds.

MCEVERS: I want to listen to a little bit of "Memories On 47th St."

MENSA: Cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMORIES ON 47TH ST")

MENSA: (Rapping) I am the first son of Betsy and Edward Mensa, made love and made a legend. Woodlawn and 47th, gunshots outside my window, drug deals out by the Citgo, but mama always made sure the tooth fairy found my pillow...

My mother is from upstate New York. She's of Irish and German descent. My father is from Ghana. And I live in this two-parent household that is supportive and educated, and outside there's kids selling crack and homicides, you know? So as I start to get older I'm kind of hit back and forth like a ping-pong ball because on one hand, America views me as this general blanket term, black. But at home, I'm me. And I'm half African. I'm Irish. I'm German. I'm all of these things. But the police don't know it. And teachers and schools are treating me differently. And I'm put in individualized education programs, IEPs, just because I got this brand on me. I got the black brand.

MCEVERS: And then in the song you say that age 12 you learned the difference between white and black.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMORIES ON 47TH ST")

MENSA: (Rapping) Between white and black. Police pulled me off of my bike, I landed on my back.

MCEVERS: What happened when you were 12?

MENSA: Well, that's around the time America removes child from black youth. So around age 12, when I'm riding my bike, the police pull me over and start questioning me about running from them the day before, which didn't happen. And when I told them that they were like, well, do you have a twin brother? And, you know, I'm pushed off the bike, slammed to the ground. And I realize like, oh, OK, I'm black, you know? And I'm dissecting being told by police if I have my hands in my hoodie, you know, take your hands out your [expletive] hoodie before I punch you in the [expletive] face, you know? There was a certain aggression that came to me from being pushed around and labeled and marginalized. And I took it out on other people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMORIES ON 47TH ST")

MENSA: (Singing) Memories on 47th Street. One day you will be mine, all mine, all mine, all mine, all mine, all mine.

MCEVERS: Chicago, of course, is all over the news these days and not in a good way.

MENSA: Right.

MCEVERS: The news out of Chicago is violence, gun violence, killings. And you've described yourself as a voice for Chicago. What do you mean by that? And how do you - I don't know, how do you approach that?

MENSA: Well, my perspective for Chicago is empathy. I think that often Chicago is portrayed as being purely violent. And I wanted to humanize these people on all sides of the equation. Like, for example, I have a song on the album called "Heaven On Earth" which is dedicated to my big brother Dare, who was murdered on the South Side of Chicago. And in the song I speak to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVEN ON EARTH")

MENSA: (Rapping) What up, Cam? It's your little bro. Been a while since we spoke, but it's hidden for. Yeah, the other day I saw your sister, bro, sad it had to be at another funeral.

I speak as him back to me, and in the third verse I speak as his killer because a lot of people are pushed to violence and murder through desperation. So I wanted to imagine, you know, maybe his killer just had a child. Maybe his killer was afraid. And maybe his killer is remorseful every night, you know?

MCEVERS: And you don't just go into the mind of the killer. You, like, re-enact the killing of your friend. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVEN ON EARTH")

MENSA: (Rapping) It was a dark night. I got a call from this broad, right? She said I'm hitting you about this [expletive] because I know you got stripes like off white. I got a lick for you. You got a car, right?

MCEVERS: So - yeah, so it, like, in detail imagines the story of what happened, sort of why people would want to kill him, how they did it. And then, you know, at one point the killer's like, I know it ain't right. I didn't mean to take a life. We're living in the streets where blank ain't free. So you're, like, trying to empathize with this guy who killed this really close friend of yours. How did you do that? Like, how did you get into his head space?

MENSA: I had to get into his head space to be able to let go of hatred for him because holding hate in your heart hurts you more than it hurts anybody else.

MCEVERS: Throughout all the stuff that's happened in your life, you know, you talk about a lot of hard stuff in your work, I mean, addiction and thoughts of suicide, obviously violence. And yet you say you're a romantic.

MENSA: One hundred percent.

MCEVERS: Yeah. I want to listen to a little bit of the last song in the album. It's called "We Could Be Free."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE COULD BE FREE")

MENSA: (Singing) We could be free if we only knew we were slaves to the pains of each other. One thing I believe - I could learn to see my enemy as my brother. Then we could be free, truly. We'll make a better today than tomorrow.

MCEVERS: We'll make a better today than tomorrow. I mean, this is different than the other songs on the album. It's really aspirational, I guess. How possible do you think a world like that is?

MENSA: I ask myself the same thing. Often times I feel like I can, through the music, paint a picture of something that I can't look anywhere and see in my real life. But I think that it's very possible just with empathy. I can't really stress that word enough because very often we generalize people as being one thing. He's a Republican. He's bad. He's a Democrat. He's bad. When we're all bad, good - like, there are so many different emotions and characteristics to every human being. And if we can start to recognize that and acknowledge that, then I think we can be closer to freedom.

MCEVERS: Vic Mensa, thank you so much.

MENSA: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Dick Mensa's "The Autobiography" is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE COULD BE FREE")

MENSA: (Singing) Love...

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.