Hooligan No More: Vic Mensa’s Growth As A Man Is Just As Palpable On Wax
"I'm motivated by the desire to create things that will impact people and help people."
Despite his upcoming EP being named after a mischief maker, Vic Mensa’s growth exhibited in the quarter-century of his life shows that he’s come a very long way as an artist, activist, and man. The Chicago-bred spitter and activist’s latest project Hooligans will be unveiled to fans in its entirety on Dec. 14. Named after his childhood crew who dubbed themselves the “Hyde Park Hooligans,” the eight-track effort is pre-released by two singles, “Reverse” featuring G-Eazy and the “twisted” “Dark Things,” which features a gothic-inspired video.
While at the Public Hotel in New York’s Lower East Side, Mensa shares that Hooligans is a snapshot of the varied emotions and experiences he has dealt with throughout his life. As a musician, Mensa explains that this project found him more focused on songwriting, differing from his intentions for previous work such as his 2017 album, The Autobiography, and his “wordy” debut EP, Innanetape.
Capturing many aspects of Mensa’s life as both a rebel and a revolutionary, Hooligans begins with the powerful “Dancing In The Streetz,” which opens with former Black Panther captain Wayne Pharr’s words about freedom and survival, and features musician Jesse Rutherford. Listeners will also get a taste of turn-up anthems, such as “Reverse” and “Rowdy” featuring Vic’s Chicago brethren, Lil Herb.
“I often make music with a lot of different sounds, because that's just the way I think,” he explains. “I'm a person who just conversationally goes from string theory to gang-bangin' to Balmain, you know? All at once.”
Additionally, the project fortifies listeners with other attributes often associated with the 25-year-old—openness and raw honesty. “The 1 That Got Away,” accompanied by the legendary Charlie Wilson, and “In Some Trouble” featuring his “brother” Ty Dolla $ign, both focus on romantic relationships of yore. However, “Deserve It” featuring Mr. Hudson is perhaps the most retrospective and personal songs featured on Hooligans.
The latter track, Mensa explains, was created as a call for self-love. He recalls a moment last year where struggled with self-worth and broke down during a moment of weakness due to conflict. However, what pulled him through was a self-affirmation that he hopes can help others.
“I was having this internal struggle between my mind and my heart, and my mind [was] playing tricks on me, telling me ‘I'm a f**k up, I f**k everything up,’ what makes you think you're deserving of love or deserving of anything?'” he says, shaking his head. “But there's a deeper sentiment at my core that feels worth it.”
“I've always struggled with self-worth, ever since I was a kid,” he continues. “Growing up a black boy with a white mother, I think when I was very young, I wondered why I didn't look like her. Since then, just questions of belonging have followed me, and so I made this song as an affirmation for myself and for anybody else who ever wonders if they're worth it or if they deserve it, that yes, I am, and yes, you are. Often times, those gnawing insecurities and doubts are the hardest to express. So many of us feel that way, so I wanted to make that song for all of us.”
Elsewhere on Hooligans, Mensa muses about some of his other personal struggles, especially as they pertain to mental health. “Klonopin,” which appears midway through the EP, is named for the anti-anxiety medication Mensa was prescribed at the age of 17. While many may find the song glorifying the drug, he wanted to make sure to include the reality that comes with drug use, whether it's for health or recreation.
“I always make music that deals with intense personal things in my recent life,” he says. “I had stopped doing drugs before I made my last album, and I had moments where I relapsed back into it when I was extremely suicidal. I don't just say these things because they 'sound cool,' I say it because it's the reality of my experience. People are dealing with PTSD and trauma and have few outlets to really address that, especially young black men. People are on these drugs because they're trying to get away from reality because reality is pain.”
He also notes that he learned about Mac Miller’s death from an accidental drug overdose while penning the second verse of “Klonopin,” which prompted his attempt to tackle the topic of drug use in a more cohesive way.
“As I was writing, I was talking to my homies like, ‘well, what's the honest, responsible way to go about this?’” he explains. “I'm making a song about a drug, and I was just faced with the very real, possible mortality that comes from drugs. I try to really paint a picture of the dark side of that, so it's not just saying ‘I'm doing these drugs, and I love it, I love it, I love it.’ Even in a song that may really may seem on its surface that it's just glorifying drugs, I try to paint a more complete picture.”
Such as his artistic intentionality has grown leaps and bounds, Vic Mensa’s personal endeavors are also indicative of his continued evolution. He’s been putting in work with his foundation, SaveMoneySaveLife, which focuses on aiding Chicago’s youth with beneficial programs and resources needed for survival and sustainable change.
Recently, SMSL held an event aiming to provide domestic violence shelters with feminine products for the winter season, and over the summer, they flipped the script on the infamous “bait trucks” in Chicago (trucks designed to lure potential thieves into stealing) and provided about 15,000 shoes and supplies to citizens of Englewood in Chicago without chaos. This holiday season finds Mensa looking forward to donating the leftover pairs of shoes to all of the young Chicagoans in the Department Of Children and Family Services’ care.
“I got all the sizes for all the kids in DCFS care, all the children without a home of their own really,” he says, flashing a gleaming-white smile. “Every single one. We're gonna be giving them a pair of shoes and a Christmas gift bundle over the holidays.”
Currently, SMSL focuses on a few initiatives: StreetMedics, which aims to provide training on how to address gunshot wounds and other street violence-related injuries, and uniVERSE, which provides students with cross-cultural, interdisciplinary programs.
“When I was [at Standing Rock Reservation protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline], I learned that the connection between black and Native people is so significant,” Mensa says, regarding the underlying goal of uniVERSE. “I'm doing this uniVERSE program to help us understand, and help the youth really understand that the Native American experience is also the black experience, and vice versa. Take the kids out of Chicago, out the hood, take them somewhere they've never been.”
Of course, Mensa has a goal of expanding the reach of his foundation to other parts of the city and maybe someday to other parts of the country. He hopes to help Chicago get their own privatized ambulances and wants to influence full-time mental health professionals and therapists to work in the Chicago school system. Right now, however, the intention is to continue to inspire the youth to get involved.
“I wanna speak to the kids before they get to that point, and make them realize they ain't gotta go that way,” he says of choosing to take the high road in an area riddled with crime and violence. “These things make me realize that I can't forgo taking action to try to impact the youth. I think Chicago has given me a very particular and authentic viewpoint of the world. I started to educate myself and learn about the ways that we've been held down, how they try to keep us in the ghetto, you know? Chicago is instrumental in me having a connection to people.”
However you perceive Vic Mensa, there’s one thing you can’t take away from the Hyde Park Hooligan—he keeps it 100 and is striving to become the change he wants to see, and hopes to help others do the same. These commitments are necessary to him, and through his musical and personal endeavors, his evolution continues to be welcomed.
“Creatively, it's like, I have to express these things,” he explains of his art and civil justice work. “This is who I am, this is how I heal. Money has never really been my main motivation, you know? I'm really motivated by the search for the truth, and I'm motivated by the desire to create things that will impact people and help people. Whenever I think of those things, and I speak those things and remember those things, everything else pales in comparison.”