[Photo by Danielle Alston]

Chicago-based musician Vic Mensa rose to fame with his 2013 debut INNANETAPE and follow-up debut album The Autobiography. But that’s not all: He decided to turn to rock music with his project 93PUNX, which tackled mental health on songs such as their Good Charlotte collab “it’s a bad dream.”

Since the start of his career, Mensa has also been vocal about his own experiences regarding mental health and the importance of having conversations surrounding the subject.

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As a musician and activist, Mensa speaks out against issues such as homelessness, gun violence, racism and incarceration, among others, whether it’s appearing on the Defund The Sheriff compilation to defund the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department or 93PUNX performing at a rally to protest ICE. He also makes a point to talk about these issues in conjunction with mental health.

“The toll of injustice on the human spirit is depression,” Mensa says. “It’s taxing to live in a racist society. It’s taxing to live in a carceral society.” He launched the nonprofit organization SaveMoneySaveLife in 2018, which seeks to empower people of color through the arts.

Mensa got on a Zoom call with Alternative Press to discuss the relationship between mental health and music: how creating music can often help with processing and healing but how it’s often difficult for artists to release such personal and emotional work, especially in an industry that profits off that. He speaks candidly about how reflection, meditation and avoiding drug use have helped him take care of his own mental health. And even though he does want to push for change, his honesty and transparency come from a place of genuine personal catharsis that his music provides for him.

You’ve been very vocal about mental health and the importance of speaking out about mental health for years. What kind of positive changes have you seen in the conversation surrounding the subject, and what still needs to be improved?

I would say perhaps in hip-hop, it’s become more of a commonly addressed topic. I don’t know that I would necessarily label it as change. I’ve seen efforts for change, though, which is all you can really do. And some people in the music industry have started to speak about the role of labels in subsidizing and supporting their artists’ mental health, and some labels that I’ve heard of [are] hiring therapists.

Artists are often very troubled people. And record labels make so much money from their trouble, and that shit really sells. I was having a conversation with somebody about how you turn on the radio and you might be hearing songs by three or four dead artists that are all more successful posthumously than they were alive. And the record labels are benefiting from that greatly. That’s just one example of a way that the music industry profits from the pain of artists. Rap music is so often born of pain.

I also think that compared to maybe 2016 or even 2013, when I was first speaking about my mental health, not just in music but also in the conversation surrounding my music to now, I see more artists speaking openly about this shit. Obviously, it’s taboo in our community and particularly intense for Black men, and I think it’s opening up a little bit.

Like you were talking about, there’s a stigma surrounding talking about mental health. How can we work around that stigma or break down that stigma?

Being real, being honest and challenging tradition. So often it seems to me like tradition is being beholden to the ideas of the past, right or wrong. And a lot of our traditions in our community surrounding mental health are rooted in denial. [Laughs.]

Fuck tradition and fuck denial. As far as music is concerned, I just think that the more people tell their stories in an honest and unfiltered way, then things are pushed forward. I never try to speak about my mental health because I’m like, “Yeah, we gotta push the world forward.” I’m just like, “This makes me not want to kill myself”—to talk about it and be honest about it and make something dope out of it, make it into something that makes me smile.

I have songs where writing them made me cry. That’s often how I might know that it’s a great song because it gives me an intense emotional experience, so I know that it will touch other people that way, and really that will sometimes be the only outlet I’ve found for thoughts and wars inside my head. And then I can turn it into something that will make me feel good, and [it] can do something for other people.

What have you found to be helpful for you when it comes to taking care of your own mental health?

I just keep trying. When I’m at my best, I’m meditating every day, [and] I’m drinking less, not doing drugs—I would say that not doing drugs I have found to be very helpful. [Laughs.] I’m not at all gonna act like I’m sober or act like I don’t ever do drugs. I ebb and flow. But I used to abuse drugs for real. Now, I do drugs very, very rarely. And when I do, I find that I’m like, “Oh, this is why I don’t do this shit anymore.” Because doing drugs just brings me to a bad place.

I always liken it to climbing a hill, but the place that you want to be is at the top of the hill. And the drugs artificially transport you to the top of the hill, but you didn’t do the work to get up to the hill. So then once you’re not on the drugs anymore, and you’re trying to go back up the hill, [it] will frustrate you to death because you’re like, “I can’t get there unless I have the drugs.” But then when you actually just do the work and run up that hill sober with no teleport, then you can keep doing it, and it’s sustainable.

I was watching an interview where you were talking about meditation, and I was wondering how you got into it.

I’ve been meditating, and just learning about meditation, since I was 16. Because I’ve been taking anti-depressant medications since I was 15. And they didn’t work. I was in fear of them stealing my soul. So I started meditating. I found a meditation class in Chicago… I remember it being counting breaths. I’m always learning new meditation techniques. 

I’ve been adding in some self-inquiry, asking myself where, or what, am I, where’s the voice in my mind coming from, and delineating, separating between my ego and my source of creation. And that’s been interesting for me because I had a thought the other day that, as a musician, it’s very easy to forge your sense of self with your creations. And one of the things that will make artists so fucking volatile and mentally tormented is because we often believe that these things we make are us. So if people don’t like it, or if it doesn’t sell a million records, or if one of my friends doesn’t really nod his head when I play it, then I’m like, “You’re not nodding your head for me. I’m not valuable. I’m not worth shit.”

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So I had this thought the other day: I was recording late into the night, and then I came back, and I was still working on the lyrics. And I realized that a song is composed of my thoughts. My thoughts come from somewhere. That’s the source of that voice in my head that I’m talking about. If the song is composed of thoughts, and I’m not my thoughts, then I must not be the song. And more than that, the song must be coming from the place where the thoughts are coming from. So thinking more isn’t gonna help me make a better song. And I’ve just been thinking about creating space for that source, to be comfortable and [the] conditions under which I can cultivate favorable scenarios for the source of my thoughts.

We’ve talked a lot about how being a musician is really difficult for your mental health. Are there ways in which it has a positive effect on your mental health?

Yeah, the actual act of creation. 100%. My most effective catharsis is making music. It’s definitely what I’ve found that helps me process things that I go through mentally the best. The internal conflicts have been there long before I made a song or wrote a rap. I was dealing with that shit when I was 5 years old. And in the past 23 years, the thing that I’ve found to be most effective to help me just make sense of it has been making music about it, putting it into words.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, there is help to be found. Please consider these online resources and talk to your regular doctor about your symptoms

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. You can also reach out to Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

MentalHealth.gov – Get Immediate Help
ImAlive – Online Crisis Network
International Association For Suicide Prevention – Resources
The Anxiety And Depression Association Of America
The National Alliance On Mental Illness
American Psychiatric Association – Finding Help
National Institute Of Mental Health
American Psychological Association – Psychologist locator
The Trevor Project – A confidential hotline for LGBTQ youth
To Write Love On Her Arms – A nonprofit spreading mental health awareness
Hope For The Day – Suicide prevention and mental health education

This interview appeared in issue 396, available here.