After teasing new music on social media, Chicago rapper and activist Vic Mensa dropped his latest bomb Friday with “Shelter.”
The brazen track and stunning music video feature appearances from frequent collaborator Chance the Rapper and former Fugees star Wyclef Jean, rallying behind a call to recognize and respond to injustice and the systems that perpetuate it.
The track begins with Jean singing about the “war going on outside that nobody’s safe from” before Mensa unleashes stacked verses on inequities such as finding more money for riot gear than PPE and neighborhoods with more funeral homes per capita than schoolyards.
It’s a song of reckoning and reflection that had been boiling up for the Hyde Park-born artist — his “South Side” neck tattoo a symbol of pride — as he watched 2020 unfold in underserved Chicago neighborhoods.
“I thought a lot about, while we are all sheltering in place, that there’s a lot of people that don’t have a place to shelter or don’t have shelter from the forces that are destroying us,” Mensa says of the track, the first cut from his upcoming “I Tape” release on Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label.
The project is a continuation of last summer’s acclaimed “V Tape” collection, which showed Mensa reconnecting with his rap roots and continuing to be vocal about violence, police brutality and the inequities of being Black in America.
“There’s so many ways that our community has been disproportionately impacted by everything deadly, not only with the pandemic,” he says.
It’s the focal point of the sweeping music video for “Shelter” that Mensa made with visual collaborator Andre Muir, whose mother died from complications of the coronavirus.
“And at the same time, we are in the streets because there’s people that keep killing us on camera,” Mensa says.
The layered “Shelter” gives specifics — touching on stories of victims of police such as Philando Castile and Breonna Taylor, highlighting the case of Julius Jones, an Oklahoma man who has supporters including Kim Kardashian West assailing his wrongful conviction for murder. Mensa was inspired by Jones after learning that his 2017 hit “We Could Be Free” has given solace to Jones, who’s on Death Row.
“Hearing that sent chills down my spine,” says Mensa, who has since talked with Jones by phone. “I was in the studio working on a song about freedom at the very moment I heard that, and it made me feel a cosmic significance. It made me feel purpose. I’ve struggled with my self-worth my whole life, and it reminded me I’m doing things that have real impact on real people.”
Mensa’s headline-making career — which began as one-eighth of the now-defunct avant-garde troupe Kids These Days (made up of Whitney Young and Lane Tech alumni), tutelage from Kanye and Jay-Z and the formation of the punk-rap group 93Punx — has been matched by his contributions to social causes.
In 2018, he established the Chicago foundation SaveMoneySaveLife, which aims to “use art and entertainment to foster sustainable change.” His recent initiatives have included broadcasting an overnight “Sleep Out” to advocate for homeless youth in Chicago, a back-to-school event and peace walk with Chance, “Anti-Bait Truck” drives to distribute 10,000 pairs of shoes to underserved kids, providing COVID emergency supply kits and starting the Street Medix initiative, which trains people to help medically treat victims of violence, including those teargassed at Black Lives Matter protests.
“I do want to be remembered for the things I do, not only the things I say,” he says.
One initiative he hopes to launch is to provide kids from the South Side and the West Side with trips to Africa to connect with their roots and learn about their history. Mensa’s father is from Ghana — he’s featured on an upcoming “I TAPE” track narrating his story of coming to America. And the rapper recently returned from a trip to Ghana, where he explored the juxtaposition of the Black American and African experiences.
“This program will be so important to me because it can give these kids a window into themselves that America will never give you,” Mensa says, decrying an education system that often relegates Black history to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement and forgets the “immense contributions to civilization.”
It’s a gap Mensa hopes to fill with his music — the way Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common and others did for him when he became disillusioned with school.
“I really do want to use my music among other things to inform,” he says. “I feel like hip-hop artists, we are journalists in a way. I want to try to be somebody to give the truth or something to learn.”
Selena Fragassi is a freelance writer.