Pollstar Live’s fourth Rainmaker session saw Billboard executive director, R&B/Hip-Hop, Gail Mitchell sit down with Vic Mensa for an exciting conversation that touched upon Mensa’s multi-faceted career as much as it captured his cultural and social awareness, and good sense of humor.
Mensa, whose father is Ghanaian, said he felt privileged for having a direct connection to his ancestry, which is something he said “has been stolen from black Americans. Ultimately a large source of discord within our mindframe, the way we interact with each other, the way our communities operate, is this lack of perspective of home. It’s uprooted.”
The wish to connect the music of the African diaspora, in which he exists, and the people of the continent, was one of the main reasons he conceived The Black Star Line Festival alongside Chance The Rapper, which celebrated its debut Jan. 6, welcoming more than 50,000 visitors, who saw a lineup that featured local stars like M.anifest, the Asakaa Boys, Tobe Nwigwe, King Promise, or Darkovibes, and international ones like T-Pain, Erykah Badu, as well as both co-hosts.
Mensa said the festival proved the rap music was one of the most ubiquitous genres in the world, but added that the people’s appetite went beyond music. “It’s an appetite for connections as human beings. The seeds of division have been sown deep, but all divisions are man made. Ultimately Ghana has been welcoming black Americans [for a long time].”
There’s a reason Africa was mentioned several times on other Pollstar Live! sessions as the next big touring frontier, for instance on this one.
Africa has a young and expanding population, which is the opposite direction the West has been taking, and internet connection was spreading like wildfire, according to Mensa, which brought the conversation to the heart of all matter at Pollstar Live: touring, which, at this point in time, “rarely reaches African soil. Even I, a first-generation immigrant, had never performed in Ghana,” Mensa said.
He’s currently looking into getting partners involved in The Black Star Line Festival to make it a sustainable event. The first edition was free of charge, as it was important to Mensa to not continue the endless cycle of arriving on Africa’s shores and immediately start exploiting.
For future editions, he envisions a mixed model, with affordable tickets and high-priced VIP offers on sale to price each according to their ability. “My cousins make $85 a month. A $100 ticket won’t work. We want to be socially minded, while making money,” he said.
More of Vic Mensa’s social mindedness is revealed through 93 Boys, the first black-owned legal Cannabis store in Illinois, which opened in April 2022. A portion of its proceeds go towards a program called Books Before Bars, which provides incarcerated human beings with books.
Mensa had been routinely sending books to incarcerated friends way before launching the program, thinking “even if I cannot get you out physically, the books may give you spiritual freedom, which will then lead to your physical freedom.”
Since the widespread legalization of Cannabis in the U.S., Mensa said, the black community had been bought out of the industry, accounting for maybe 4% of the legalized Cannabis business nationwide (“just a function of classic American socio economic shit”).
Launching 93 Boys was one way of changing that. And he joked, “I’ve been selling weed for a long time, before I was even rapping. It was nice to finally do it legally.”
Mitchell also asked Mensa about new music, and he confirmed that an album would follow his latest single, “Strawberry Louis Vuitton” feat. Thundercat and Maeta, like Mensa, a Roc Nation signee.
The new album, as of yet untitled, would feature more of his own production, he said, and be sonically rooted in Hip Hop, but with a lot of rock and roll influences, as well as African samples. “Ultimately, it’s a story of redemption. My superpower with my pen is vulnerability,” he said.
Mensa closed the last Rainmaker session of 2023 with a beautiful homage to 50 years of Hip Hop, which you’ll find below in full:
“Hip Hop is much older than me, man. It’s been around my whole life. It honestly speaks to the immense power of Black American music that this music is so young and so global, and has been able to inspire and touch people of so many different walks of life.
“I was on a Native American reservation in 2016, when the pipelines were being built, for the protest at Standing Rock. There was one night, when we were at a local casino theater, and they were doing performances. It was random. The crowd in a South Dakota casino on a Friday night is random.
“But I was watching this dude rapping, and he was rapping about his realities in the Reservation. Reservations are the hood, reservations are the trenches. Hip Hop is music borne of pain. So, him speaking about his pain and his hood on the Reservation was so ill to me, because he’s talking about shit I can’t even fathom. They spray hairspray and get high off of it, that’s the depth of poverty.
“So, he’s talking about how the old man outside the store is begging for 25 cents to get some hairspray, and it’s mind-blowing to me, but it’s parallel to the man begging outside the liquor store in my hood to get crack. It was just beautiful to see him represent his struggle through Hip Hop.
“Or being in the West Bank and seeing young Palestinian girls rapping about their realities in a refugee camp through Hip Hop.
“In such a short amount of time Hip Hop has been able to become a vessel and a vehicle for so many people to not only express their realities, but also to transform their lives, and their families’ lives.
“It’s a time to put respect on Hip Hop’s name, and not just in that ‘we’re going to sign you guys and make you stars, but respect in ownership. The reality is that, yeah, Hip Hop is dominating the streaming, but are the Hip Hop artists really making the lion share of the money from it? That would be an interesting chart I’d like to see.
“Hip Hop is one of the most American art forms. In that same breath, Hip Hop suffers from whatever the fuck America suffers from. And being such a true American art form, Hip Hop is a potent representation of what America is.
“Hip Hop is fiercly hopeful, and imaginatively genius. And Hip Hop is also extremely violent. Hip Hop is also extremely misogynistic and patriarchal, because America is all those things.
“I hope that as Hip Hop grows, and America seems to be trending the direction it is, I would like to hope that Hip Hop is going to go in some split direction from where America is going, but that’s not true. We’re along for the ride.”