A group children downing pills and drinking toilet water behind bars makes for uneasy, provocative imagery in the video for Camp America, the debut single from Vic Mensa’s politically charged new project dubbed 93PUNX. A song meant to protest Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (Ice) controversial network detention camps and their policy separating children from their parents, it’s part a new direction for the rapper both lyrically and musically.
“There was one particular comment made by Matthew Albence that inspired the song,” Mensa says from his label Roc Nation’s New York City headquarters the current deputy director Ice. “He said that immigrant detention centers were more like a summer camp than a prison. It was obviously an extremely disrespectful and fensive distinction, but I also found it to be really interesting in a dark way.”
With his creativity piqued and with an urge to speak out, Mensa started jotting down lyrics and took the idea crafting a song about a summer camp literally, right down to its singalong chorus that brushes up against brash verses, such as: “Take your clothes f baby, let me see what you got / We can have a good time if you’re legal or not / It’s an ignorant, arrogant, terrorist, heritage / You can finally be an American.” Explains Mensa: “Thinking about the artists I’ve loved through the years, my favorites are the ones who’ve made music with cultural, societal and political significance. The Clash is pretty much my favorite band, and their songs like Rock the Casbah are political dance tracks. I like music and art with dimension that you can appreciate on different levels.”
Fans Mensa won’t be surprised by his increased desire to make music with an added dimension given his specific worldview, built on a foundation growing up in Chicago and a childhood spent on the city’s South Side, a reality he likened to living in a dual world. “I came from a two-parent household and my father is a PhD from west Africa, but at the same time I grew up five blocks from where Obama lived and five blocks from the projects,” he says having a front-row seat to social injustice while also gaining an appreciation for his own fortunate situation. “The disparity between the haves and have-nots was always blatantly obvious to me, and it’s that exact gap that drove me to start writing and pick up a pen. I wanted to explain and understand the world around me because it was easy to see it was corrupted.”
With that in mind, Mensa started building a career. The strength his 2013 mixtape Inanetape (which also featured close friend and fellow hip-hop social activist Chance the Rapper) landed him on the cover XXL magazine’s Freshman Class in 2014 and he signed a deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. Along the way, he’s helped pen tracks for Kanye West (his Wolves scored a Grammy nomination for best rap song in 2014) while Mensa’s debut album, 2017’s The Autobiography, cemented his status as a hip-hop force. But despite his success in the genre, Mensa is quick to point out that he was actually a fan rock before he developed an appreciation for rap. He was most taken with acts like the aforementioned Clash and the Cranberries, releasing a cover Zombie on the anniversary lead singer Dolores O’Riordan’s death this past January. “Some the most punk people in my mind are Nick Cave doing piano ballads or Lou Reed. He wasn’t the loudest, but he was singing about transgender people in Walk on the Wild Side. It’s a spirit rebellion, anti-establishment and counterculture.”
Taking its moniker from a clothing line the same name and using Pharrell Williams’ band NERD as a template, 93PUNX (the 93 derived from Mensa’s birth year) turned into the perfect vehicle to channel his frustration concerning the current political climate. “It felt to me like an opportunity to use music as a commentary on the ills society, and as a way to say ‘fuck you’ to the oppressors,” says Mensa. “It was a different creative process for me than doing rap music where I’d listen to a beat over and over again and write on top it. With a lot these 93PUNX songs, I’d sit down with a concept in mind and figure out how to convey the message in that concept.”
When Camp America was released earlier this month, it received immediate blowback from conservative news outlets like Breitbart, attacking Mensa for the video in which he stars as an Ice agent. One article (headline: Rapper Vic Mensa Puts White Kids in Cages in ‘Camp America’ Video) garnered over 1,300 comments including one calling Mensa “a tattooed racist thug” and many others sharing that sentiment.
“I think that we get so desensitized to egregious human rights fenses today because the advent social media, global interconnectivity and instant gratification the internet,” Mensa says his overarching goal the video and song. “Seeing so many images immigrants detained and being treated like criminals and kids with emergency tinfoil blankets sleeping on the ground behind chain-link fences, people forget how fucked up it is. I’m talking] specifically about those who support the people who push these policies family separation through.”
While it’s clear Mensa doesn’t support President Trump, he’s throwing his weight behind Bernie Sanders to unseat him in 2020. “I voted for Bernie last time around and went to a private talk he was doing in Hollywood the other day,” he says, noting that Sanders’ track record is what sold him. “I like the fact he was fighting with us as far back as the civil rights movement. You can see the receipts on Bernie, he was getting beat up alongside black people in the 70s. So his motivations to me are clear.”
At the same time, Mensa is frank about what he calls the perils imperialistic capitalism. “Whether it’s Trump, Obama, Clinton or Bush, behind the scenes the same things go in any presidency by nature when the dollar is the most valuable commodity above all else, even human life,” he explains, pointing out that labels like Democrat, Republican, liberal and progressive are “ones people hide white supremacy behind”.
Says Mensa Clinton in particular and the increased incarceration rates under his presidency, “At the time, he was playing the saxophone and it was like, ‘He’s the first black president!’ But in actuality, his 1994 crime bill (the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act 1994) destroyed our communities. He didn’t objectify us in the same way as Trump, but the policies that passed through his pen destroyed us just as much, if not more.”
With a full 93PUNX album due by the end the summer, Mensa alludes to lyrics that will touch on hot button issues concerning sexual assault and toxic masculinity. But at the same time, don’t expect it to be a protest record either. “While there are moments that are political, it’s not explicitly a political record,” he notes. “There are also moments that are personal as well. But at the same time, there’s a famous refrain in the movement spaces that the personal is always the political.”