Vic Mensa wants to be the voice of Chicago. That means speaking out against gun violence, the drug trade and other issues that have found the 24-year-old rapper’s hometown in national headlines.
One subject that animates the artist is education, particularly how Black students are treated differently than White ones. Mensa, son of an Irish-German mother and a Ghanaian father, experienced both sides of that while growing up in Chicago’s diverse Hyde Park neighborhood.
Mensa spoke to NPR’s Kelly McEvers about his experience in the education system and how it informed his new album, “The Autobiography.”
“Teachers in schools are treating me differently,” Mensa said. “And I’m put in individualized education programs, IEPs, just because I got this brand on me. I got the ‘Black’ brand.”
Mensa said that he considers the age of 12 to be the end of his—and many Black kids’—childhood, when the police began to take notice of him. Mensa turned to educating himself:
From age 16, I was reading Malcolm X and reading Huey Newton—my album “The Autobiography” is inspired by “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” So I’m a person that’s just informed, you know? Informed by some of the greatest thinkers, and started making music and spreading my voice, from people like Tupac and Common.
Mensa said that he views it as his responsibility to help kids who are in a similar spot to him, “to lend a hand and a voice to people struggling.”
These views are not new for him. In November, he spoke to Billboard about the cynicism that can crop up in young Black kids as they deal with things like the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Before [age 13], sometimes I was in the White crowd, sometimes in the Black crowd, and I didn’t really fit into either,” says Mensa. “Once I became a young Black man, it felt like the decision was made for me.”
Mensa isn’t the only Chicago-based hip hop artist talking about these issues. In October, Saba and Noname collaborated on a song, “Church/Liquor Store,” which derided the school-to-prison pipeline.
On the song’s third verse, Noname cites the system failing so many Black kids these days:
They sold, they sold
They sold prison the way they pipeline
Socially-conscious musicians are pushing the conversation about harsh educational practices that lead to disproportionate amounts of Black and Brown youth getting suspended or expelled from school, which lowers their options for further education or employment.
When 68 percent of the U.S. prison population doesn’t have a high school diploma, it’s time to rethink how we treat kids who make mistakes in school.