Vic Mensa Pays It Forward

The Roc Nation hip-hop artist discusses prison reform, problems with pharmaceuticals, benefits of plant medicine, and empowering the youth.
Mensa
Photo by Gabe Oviawe

Victor Kwesi Mensah—known professionally as Vic Mensa—is a man who fully embodies what it means to be an artist. He’s got the drive, the spirituality, the sound, and most of all, the confidence. But how does one attain the knowhow to be a successful artist, let alone be successful at anything?

The answer lies in a strong support system. Mensa has been surrounded by supportive people for most of his life, dating back to high school where his band Kids These Days was drawing the eye of major record labels and prominent record producers. It was during these formative years that Mensa realized he had talent, honed his craft, and was propelled by the love and support of family and friends to tap into his potential. That potential is now culminating with a second full-length album, a record that’s sonically rooted in hip-hop, jazz, and African music.

When we connect over Zoom, Mensa reveals more about his upbringing and how it helped shape the man he is today. He lays bare his longtime relationship with cannabis, morphing from a teen trying to sell pot he didn’t possess, to owning a socially conscious weed company—93 Boyz—Chicago’s first Black-owned cannabis brand, and how the intersection of weed, fashion, art, and music provided the bedrock for his ascension from a Chicago fresh kid to an inspiring artist kids can look up to.

High Times Magazine: Growing up in Chicago, did you always know you wanted to pursue music?

Vic Mensa: I was a skateboarder first from age 6. By the time I was in third or fourth grade, I was starting to choose my own music, and was more interested in rock and roll. So I started playing guitar when I was 10. After that, I started writing graffiti, and that was really my introduction to hip-hop.

I was climbing 15-story fire escapes, painting rooftops and jumping on train tracks to paint trains before I was technically in my teens. Zoo York was a big influence of mine and there was a Zoo York video—I think they called it the Zoo York Mixtape—that had some KRS-One in there, which was probably the first hip-hop that really resonated with me.

Did you have a particular style of graffiti art and/or skateboarding, and did that style evolve into what you were doing early on with music?

I think all of those things are intertwined because they’re street culture and counterculture. As far as a particular style of graffiti art, in Chicago, we have a lot of styles but I think we’re most known for straight letters, and I was influenced primarily by the Chicago graffiti legends. Straight, block letters, a kind of straight letter tag style. But I was also a student of the game from my earliest days. I was studying Los Angeles graffiti crews like MSK and New York guys like SKUF and Cope—all the OGs.

When I started to release and promote music, I was already familiar with traveling across the city promoting my name [through graffiti], even though at first it wasn’t my real name. I’d do my own wheatpaste posters and shit like that when I was in high school. I mean, I’ll still do a wheatpaste poster to this day, don’t get it fucked up, but off top, I’d definitely be out on a street corner with the bucket and the posters, treating it like graffiti. Because in a way, graffiti is street marketing. A lot of the people that do street marketing for record labels are graffiti guys. So graffiti and skateboarding are my two primary stylistic inspirations.

Mensa
Photo by Gabe Oviawe

So you’re immersed in the graffiti world. Was there a moment when music suddenly became the primary focus?

Probably around freshman year of high school when I started to record. Just receiving positive feedback and reinforcement from people around me—not everybody, obviously, but from some people that I respected—did a lot for me. I recognized that I had a particular talent for writing rhymes, but you know man, honestly, I think one of the reasons why I focus myself on doing so much for the youth is because in the dawn of my youth, I know how much those votes of confidence did for me.

Like my big brother Dare who I have tatted on my wrist and who I’ve written a bunch of songs about—may he rest in peace. He was older than me—near my age now when I was a kid—and he brought me into Jam Crew, which was the primary southside Black graffiti crew and took me under his wing. He was like, “This my shorty, he’s dope. He’s dope in general.” Nobody knew I could rap, but they were just showing me love, boosting my confidence, and giving me opportunity. As I found my own path in what I really wanted to do, I already had that network of older guys in the city who supported me and would let me rock stages when they’d have shows and stuff like that.

So your brother helped you see that you were dope in a particular way—just as a human—and then from that, you were able to grow into yourself musically from that sort of base.

One-hundred percent. Those same people who showed me love when I was a kid trying to dress cool and do graffiti and all of that shit—those same people when I picked up a mic or released music to this day still give me opportunities.

In Chicago, one of our primary forms of cultural currency and a hub of creativity came from the boutiques and sneaker stores. We had a shop called Leaders that’s still around that was incredibly impactful to all of our upbringings, a place called Sir & Madame, which is also still in existence, and a place called PHLI. All of those places were these centers of inspiration, creativity, sneaker culture, art, hip-hip, and graffiti all at once.

Some of the first guys I knew who were heavy with weed, who were cutting edge, having the best weed and the most knowledge and information—all played into our existence as fresh kids from Chicago. We’ve always been involved with art, we’ve always been involved with fashion, we’ve always been involved with music, and we’ve always been involved with weed.

How did your relationship with the plant start and how did it evolve as you evolved as a human?

My relationship with cannabis began when I was 11. I was just like any other kid living in the city, sneaking out of my mom’s basement to smoke in the middle of the night, before school, or after school. In those ways, I became very familiar with weed and trying to sell it. But the problem was, I didn’t have any weed to sell!

So I was trying to sell all types of shit. I was trying to sell blunt guts in a bag to the kids at the private school down the street. I remember the first time I tried to sell some weed I was in seventh grade and had a dime of Reggie. I tried to take it across the way to the high school in the area and tried to sell it to one of my friends. He was like, “Damn, man. You ain’t even got no mids?” I was like, “Man, this is all I got right now. You gonna buy it or not?”

As I got into high school, a lot of my big homies sold weed and I caught a couple plugs and became the guy with the specialty product. It was me and my boy Joey Purp—we had the best weed in the school and we’d pride ourselves on having cutting edge strains at the time. I really thought I was the man when I had Jack Frost, which was a Jack Herer cross strain. I’d be having the OG Kush, the Master Kush, some OG Master Kush. That was our thing, being at the cutting edge of our community as far as weed was concerned.

I used to go as far as bagging up my weed in Nike SB lace bags. For somebody I was trying to impress, I’d bag up an eighth of Jack Frost in the Nike SB lace bag and they’d be like, “Oh, this thing’s fresh.”

I honestly learned so much from selling weed. Selling weed was my first entrepreneurial pursuit. Before I was selling a mixtape or anything like that, I was selling weed. To make it to school on time, I had to get up and bag up mad early. Sometimes people would want to shop super late, so I’d need to stay awake. I had to be punctual—or as punctual as a weed man is—but I’m just a punctual person in general. In those ways, selling weed provided the building blocks for my understanding of work ethic, and through selling weed, I funded all of my first music projects, purchased all of my studio time, paid for all of my music videos—everything. Cannabis enabled me to be in the studio and to express myself.

Photo by Gabe Oviawe

When it got you into the studio, was there a moment or set of experiences where it became clear that music had taken over and was going to be your main path?

The moment when I sort of stopped everything else was when I got robbed, as a high schooler selling weed inevitably does. I was hustling serving guys who were way older than me—guys in their 20s who had newborn babies but were shopping with me buying quarters and halves daily—and I’m just a little ass kid. Eventually, I did get set up and robbed and lost a laptop with a bunch of important music on it. But around that same time, my father was really supportive of my music shit and was sometimes giving me money to go to the studio. So I just kind of fell back, you know?

It was the same way with graffiti. We kept getting arrested and eventually that was just in the way because music was starting to support itself. Everything else became ancillary—graffiti, hustling—things that were not my primary focus anymore—and I dove into music headfirst.

As you started to hit a certain level professionally, was there a “good omen” like in the Alchemist book that made you feel entrenched in music?

I was in a band in high school and we were performing at SXSW and different festivals courting all of the major record labels. In fairness, a lot of that was people reaching out to me, but I was loyal to the band. People loved the band as well, don’t get me wrong, but No I.D. reached out early on and was rocking with me so much that he was like, “I’ll check the band out.” The real life attrition was there, and this was the blog era, too, so we were getting love on all the blogs—2DopeBoyz, iLLRoots—and building relationships with all of those people. Even before music was paying anything, it was already real in high school and we were building a grassroots fanbase. We were selling out 1,500-person venues in Chicago when we were 16 and 17, so pretty quickly, the music became real.

I personally already had an understanding of grassroots marketing and communication from graffiti and hustling, so I’m selling tickets in the hallway the same way I’m selling dope, you know? Maybe at the same time. I’m putting up posters and stickers all over the city the same way I was just busting tags. On top of that, we were just making good music. The music became a clearly viable pathway pretty quickly.

Throughout your career, you’ve been outspoken about psychedelics and mental health. When did you start to understand the benefits of psychedelics and did they play a role in your success?

I got into psychedelics when I was 18 or 19. The first day I ever took shrooms I was sleeping on my manager-at-the-time’s couch and Chance [The Rapper] came over and he had a hook and a verse for a song that would become Cocoa Butter Kisses. I took the mushrooms, went into the other room, started writing my verse, and just caught a spirit. It was like, “Whoa, this is different.”

From there, I was taking mushrooms constantly in the making of that album called the INNANETAPE and [mushrooms] became a real part of my lifestyle. Throughout my life, plant medicine has been important to me and has played a big role in my different journeys as a human being. I chilled out on shrooms for a while after [INNANETAPE] because I had just overdone it.

The ways in which I’ve used mushrooms in recent years have been in a microdosing capacity and in a much more healing capacity. I started taking antidepressants when I was 15. I started seeing psychiatrists at that same age—therapists shortly after—and in the last 14 years, I’ve taken over 10 antidepressant medications. In that same time period, I’d probably had one year when they were effective, which is a dismal efficacy rate.

I’ve found that plant medicine has just been far more impactful to me in addressing my mental health than pharmaceuticals have, and I think the pharmaceutical industry is scared shitless about the potential for disruption that all of these different medicines present.

It’s like you start taking [pharmaceuticals] and you think that it’s helping because if you miss a couple of days you’re like, “Oh shit, I’m really bad, I’m suicidal now.” Then you remember you were never suicidal when you started taking the medication! The medicine is making me dependent on it. I was struggling when I first started taking it, but I wasn’t trying to kill myself. When you’re dealing with some of these plant medicines, you’re getting a more straight deal.

In the best moments, I think [plant medicine] can help move inhibition. Creativity is not of man in its purest form. It’s given to us from whatever you believe is above us. If it’s God or it’s Allah or the universe or the ancestors—at the end of the day—I believe we’re all just a vessel for a more powerful, divine energy. In the best moments of our creativity, we’re the most uninterrupted sacral. It’s like a radio, and [plant medicine] can help you pick up [the frequency]. They can help pick up the signal.

I’m learning more how to harness things as tools, but to train myself to be the primary influence. These days, I stray away from relying on being under the influence of anything other than myself. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever have external influences, but I work on my meditation a lot. Meditation has been the most powerful tool for me in addressing my mental health.

I’ve been meditating since I was 16, and in recent years, my meditation has become far more consistent and more extensive. I’ve learned more techniques, I’ve been on five-day silent meditation retreats, and I’ve studied different meditations from different places in the world. In terms of cannabis, some of its traditional uses were as a meditative tool. People think of Rastafarianism as a happy-go-lucky “by the beach, mon,” lackadaisical idea. In reality, those Rastas are vegan, deeply spiritual, deeply meditative, deeply revolutionary, and they meditate with the ganja. Meditation is my medicine above all.

If I haven’t meditated in a day, I find myself getting aggravated over little things I can’t control. Meditation is my first line of defense.

The paradox is that sometimes you’ll need a plant medicine experience to understand that you don’t need plant medicine to get to an elevated place.

There are breathing exercises and meditations you can do that will get you as high as any weed or psychedelic spirit medicine. One of my favorite things these days is to microdose mushrooms and complete an hour-and-15-minute-long meditation from a book by Dr. Joe Dispenza. I usually don’t do guided meditations because I like the practice of disciplining myself, but the meditation in this book Breaking The Habit of Being Yourself is so wicked that it’s like being on an astral plane. When I microdose, I’m taking non-psychoactive doses, which helps me tap into my internal power.

Photo by Gabe Oviawe

In January, you had an incident with psychedelics that made headlines. How did it go down?

I was headed to Ghana for about a month and I’d decided to get off my antidepressant medication. For the past few years, I’ve been dabbling with microdosing, but not really in the most consistent way. I had that experience that I mentioned previously where I had recently started taking a new antidepressant, took a few days off and started to feel suicidal. But I then realized I wasn’t suicidal when I’d started taking the medication, and decided to get off of it.

So I was off to Ghana and was going to quit the antidepressant cold turkey. I was going to get on a real microdosing regimen, not have a drink when I got there, and take this step for my mental health. I reached out to a couple different companies just to get the right microdose of shrooms and they sent me a bunch of shit. Pretty carelessly, I threw it all in my bag and took off.

I had a great experience there, no issues getting off of the antidepressants. All of the microdosing was cool and I just put all the shit back in the bag, wasn’t thinking too hard about it, and then I ended up going to jail.

In all honesty, what I had on me probably added up to an eighth of shrooms and a single tab of acid—which was an LSD microdose—so the entire bottle was one dose. It was a very miniscule amount of psychedelics in big packaging. But I was in such a cool place in my mind, had been meditating a ton, and was in such spiritual alignment that I wasn’t stressed.

I’ve been working with a lot of folks recently in the prison release space and was actually able to help a friend of mine come home 12 years early on a 25 year sentence in 2020. So at the end of the day, being involved in clemency processes and legal processes for bringing other guys home made being in jail for a couple days—especially with the perspective that I have of these friends who are living years of their life in prison—a miniscule experience.

My meditations also gave me a brilliant edge in there, to the point where I was just meditating the whole time to avoid thinking negatively. I’d come in front of the bail court and she was like, “Yeah, we’re going to move your court date to three months from now.” It’s those things that will make your mind want to freak out, but I was in a place of real alignment, so I wasn’t stressed and decided to see things as a blessing in the form of a lesson, and was like, “I’m going to get into the psychedelic game, too!”

Photo by Gabe Oviawe

At this point, the medical and health benefits are undeniable.

The actual, tangible, biochemical serotonin levels in your mind are boosted. It’s like the laws of this nation are proven time and time again to be ineffective at meeting the needs of the people. The people are sick, are in constant fear and danger of gun violence, are poorly fed nutritionally, and the laws of this nation are incapable of addressing any solution to those many needs. So sometimes, you gotta go to jail for some shit that’s stupid.

In May, I launched the first black-owned cannabis brand in Chicago, Illinois—93 Boyz. We’re in quite a few dispensaries and are rapidly expanding. We all know what the War on Drugs has done to Black and brown communities, but it still stands that our representation in the industry is miniscule. So we’re taking steps to change that.

Our brand is standing on high quality and cutting edge genetics in a market that doesn’t really have that yet. Also baked into our ethos is that a portion of all of our proceeds are going to community-driven efforts. And that’s what 93 Boyz is all about: Tastemaker weed mixed with socially-minded initiatives.

Our first project that we’re launching in August with the release of our full strain portfolio is a project called Books Before Bars. We’re putting over one-thousand books into Illinois jails and prisons. This is an idea I had from my own experience sending literature to people in prison and seeing how their entire life experience can be—and has been—shifted by reading the right books. If you can’t attain freedom yet in the physical, you can get it in the mental while you’re still in the cage.

vicmensa.com 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It was published in the October 2022 issue of High Times Magazine.

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