Bringing the artistic worlds of Hip-Hop, spoken-word and poetry together in his music, Sheffield’s Otis Mensah is an individual on a mission, with the 24-year-old determined to blur boundaries, challenge categorisation and cross cultural divides via his unique and imaginative use of language.
Having spent recent years delivering a handful of ambitious EP releases, as well as sharing stages with the likes of Killah Priest, Homeboy Sandman and Brother Ali, this young man’s creativity has continued to grow, with Mensah’s philosophical view of the world providing listeners with the opportunity to see inside the heart and mind of a performer wise beyond his years.
Staying busy with his new #OtisMensahExists single series and the publication of his book “Safe Metamorphosis”, the talented wordsmith recently jumped on the phone to talk about his childhood introduction to Hip-Hop, how he approaches his craft and his admiration for underground rap hero MF Doom.
Obvious first question – how and when did you first discover Hip-Hop?
“I think it must have begun quite early. My dad was a Hip-Hop deejay in the 90s on pirate radio. We had two Technics turntables in the house, and as a child I think I just soaked it in, although I was never consciously interested in Hip-Hop too heavily at that young age. I mean, I liked some of the popular songs like “Stan” and other stuff you could bounce around to, but I don’t think I was showing an obvious interest in Hip-Hop at that point. But then, growing into my early teenage days, maybe around twelve or thirteen, I started having this sort of craving to find an expressionistic outlet for a sort of new existential angst that I was feeling, being at that age, having a quarrel with identity, and maybe a little social anxiety. So I was looking for an outlet to put those feelings into. Around that time I started listening to grime and me and my friends would write raps and have fun clashes in the school yard (laughs). But at some point, whilst I appreciate grime and everything it means to the UK and everything it has become, I think for me at the time as a teenager, I felt there was a vulnerability lacking in the music. I didn’t consciously verbalise that in my head, I think I had a sub-conscious need for something that was more vulnerable where I didn’t have to pretend to be something that I wasn’t. I mean, as a teenager, you try to assimilate to your peers or to what you think it means to be a man. I felt I needed to portray a certain image and at some point that just got tiresome for me and I started to look for music that didn’t have to be anything. I found Hip-Hop to be an answer to that in many ways. So it was an interesting journey because I returned to what I’d already been exposed to when I was young.”
So the music you’d grown-up hearing in the background and considered to simply be your parents’ music then actually became your main focus?
“Exactly. That in itself made it easy when I wanted to discover more about it. Of course, we’ve got the internet, and I would consider myself a child of the internet, and that has made it so easy to find new music and new cultures online. But I could take whatever I found, go to my dad and say ‘Have you ever heard of this guy?’ and of course most of the time he would be like, ‘Yeah, of course I have.’ So I discovered people like The Pharcyde. I gained a new found love for A Tribe Called Quest. I felt like I was starting to see myself represented, and my feelings represented, in the music that I started to fall in love with. That later developed into finding artists like Kid Cudi, who was so open about his depression and anxiety. Then I started getting into the more experimental stuff like Rhymesayers, Atmosphere, P.O.S., Aesop Rock. Then I really started to feel like I’d found a place where not only could I see myself and how I felt being represented, but I could also experiment with my own artistry. So then I went from just writing raps about anything to making a conscious decision to actually say ‘Hey, I want to be honest, authentic and true to myself in whatever I’m writing.’ Because not only had I found that doing that was going to be therapeutic to me, but in the same way that those artists I’ve mentioned created a sense of community and made me feel less alone as a teenager, perhaps I could do that for somebody else through what I was creating.”
Aside from the artists you’ve just spoken about, I’ve also seen you mention Del The Funky Homosapien as being an emcee who had an impact on you. He’s definitely a personal favourite of mine and a very unique artist. How were you introduced to his music?
“I remember hearing the Gorillaz track “Clint Eastwood” when I was younger and just loving it so much. Then, in school we’d have periods where we didn’t have work, it would be leisure time, and we could go on the computers or whatever. There was this website called Grooveshark where you could listen to music, which was before Spotify (laughs). It would give you recommended albums based on other music you’d listened to or other artists you’d typed in. Through that I discovered the “Deltron 3030″ album and I became obsessed with it. I loved it. I remember going to my dad and saying ‘Have you ever heard of Deltron 3030? It sounds like this guy who was on that Gorillaz song.’ My dad was like, ‘Yeah, that’s because it’s Del The Funky Hompsapien!’ So all these little connections were made for me and as those connections were made and I fell in love with the music of Hip-Hop, I also fell in love with the culture and wanted to understand the history of it all. I wanted to watch all the documentaries and, as I grew up a bit, also understand the socio-political climate the music was birthed from and how meaningful the music became and still is.”
Did you already have an active interest in writing and poetry before the interest in music came along?
“This is going to sound like I was some sort of young savant, but I wasn’t (laughs). These influences that I’m talking about I think were way more sub-conscious and way more implicit. They weren’t necessarily direct. Like, my dad didn’t hand me the mic when I was a kid or anything like that. But my mum had an inclination towards poetry and wrote poetry herself. I was always really inquisitive towards language and always had a bit of a fascination with words. I’m also dyslexic. So I would always mix my words up and put sentences together that didn’t really make sense sometimes. But I had this passion for language, and I think that same dyslexia became some sort of superpower in many ways because I was able to write a poem or write a rap and I didn’t feel the need to follow such a strong convention or structure. I was able to bend language a little bit more.”
Was there a particular moment when you decided you wanted to fuse the worlds of Hip-Hop and poetry together in your artistry or was it something that happened organically?
“I think it all began with Hip-Hop. I think I had a tunnel vision way of thinking and it was all about Hip-Hop, learning about Hip-Hop culture, and it was all about writing to boom-bap beats on YouTube and stuff of that nature. I just fell in love with it. I think being so engaged with it as an artform, and seeing how it had impacted my life and how I all of a sudden felt this surge of unification, in many ways I was able to build my identity around Hip-Hop. Knowing that I found that power from Hip-Hop, it was only when I became maybe a bit more politically savvy or a little more inclined towards philosophical contemplation, I started to see that Hip-Hop and rap as an artform wasn’t being accredited as a viable and intellectual means of art and people weren’t seeing it as a true form of poetry. Like, I would listen to something like The Roots’ “Things Fall Apart” and then I’d go into my English class, and I actually loved English, but I’d wonder why I had to study something like “Of Mice And Men” and why couldn’t we delve into this other incredible literary piece of art that was so meaningful and impactful? It was at that point that I started to see the disaparity between the practical impact that Hip-Hop was having on my life and the impact that these novels I was reading in school were having. I couldn’t see myself represented in those novels, you know. I couldn’t see my feelings being represented fully and I couldn’t see my actual self being represented. So I wanted to stand in opposition against that. I wanted to stand in opposition against people trying to keep Hip-Hop out of the intellectual conversation and say ‘Hey! This is a potent form of poetry.'”
Your 2016 project “Days Over Damson” came with the statement that “Nostalgia is the inevitable human curse” – what led you to that conclusion?
“I guess what I was talking about when I wrote that was my own personal relationship with nostalgia. I guess I was referring to this feeling of what I would call crippling nostalgia and a rose-tinted reminiscence. I think I tend to walk through life romantacizing certain moments that have happened. Like, for example, if I just played a performance last week and it was a great performance, I’m then always hindered by that experience in terms of thinking ‘How can I top that?’ and how does anything else then live up to that experience. So if you’re living your life like that, then in the grand scheme of things, it can really start to hinder your experiences when everything you do is comparable to the past. It can distort your present. But when I actually put that mixtape together, it was when I’d just left the college of music that I’d been going to when I’d left home to go and study. My experience of being away from home had included me having a strong social circle for the first time, being around like-minded people, being able to connect to artists. So feeling like I’d been stripped away from that when I came back home was sort of this debilitating experience which meant at that point I was only able to look back at what had come before and I wasn’t able to see into the future.”
You also dropped the concept-based EP “Computers Outside” in 2016. What was the inspiration behind that particular release?
“I think it was again based around this feeling of being isolated from the outside world, being isolated from a social group, and just spending time with my thoughts bouncing around the walls and me looking into a computer screen almost 24/7. It was around the time when the “Mr. Robot” television series had come out and I’d binged watched it and had this feeling of being detached from society after engaging in so much entertainment. I’d sort of lost touch with myself. Which sparked a thought around that feeling and the idea that perhaps we’re moving into a society that encourages that feeling moreso than something that’s more interpersonal or emotional.”
As you’ve continued on your journey combining Hip-Hop and poetry, do you feel you’re constantly having to deal with people’s perceptions, and misconceptions, of what to expect from you as you move between those two creative spaces?
“That’s a great question and I think about it a lot. What I’ve found is that I’m always trying to push my creativity first in the sense that I’m always trying to share a piece of art before giving people the chance to label it. So if I’m at a particular performance perhaps I’ll try and avoid someone announcing me using a certain label. I’ll go on, share my art and then describe to the audience what I consider to be the multi-faceted nature of my work. So I can say that I’m a poet who was born from Hip-Hop. Then there’s a dialogue that’s created and I can say, ‘Hey, what if we didn’t have this conditioning that exists, this white-washed, elitism conditioning that exists in literature and other ‘traditional’ art forms such as classical music and jazz?’ I’m trying to combat the conditioning that people have around that and say actually that Hip-Hop is poetry. So you’re right in asking am I juggling different labels and things like that because I think I am. But once I share the art I hope that it breaks down some of those barriers and perceptions, y’know. Sorry, that was a bit of a waffly answer (laughs).”
Not at all. It’s probably quite a difficult question to answer definitively because every experience you have is no doubt different in some way. But I think what you’ve said in terms of how you want your art to be consumed first before people get into the labelling process makes absolute sense. Now, the follow on question is that I’ve seen the ‘alternative’ label being used in connection with you and your music on a number of occasions. Is that a label you’re comfortable with or do you reject it?
“So I’ve been thinking about the nuance of this because, as I’ve said before, I would much rather the art be heard and someone make their own mind up about the music rather than be influenced by a pre-conceived label before they’ve even heard what I do. At the same time, I feel like every other musical genre is allowed to exist within its sub-genres, so you have psych-rock, you have prog rock, you have metal, death metal, indie rock. But then there’s a tendency for people to just slap Hip-Hop all under the same roof and usually it’s so misinformed. You’ll go into a CD shop and the labelling of the music is always so confused. You’ll see Migos next to Rakim and then you’ll see Rakim next to Sean Kingston. I find myself thinking ‘What are the preconceived ideas that are informing your decision to bunch all these artists together?’ I’m not opposed to labels entirely. I’m only opposed to them when they start to impact how people see the quality of my music, y’know. Like the way the ‘lo-fi’ label can lead people to question the actual quality of the music rather than using the term to describe the style or sound of the music. However, with the alternative label, I think it’s perfect because let’s say you’ve got Migos, J Cole and Kendrick Lamar. We can happily all say that they all contribute to the artform of rap. Perhaps they’re not all existing under the umbrella of Hip-Hop, but we can say that they’re all rapping. Now I’m happy to try and explain to a friend who possibly isn’t into Hip-Hop that artists like CunninLynguists, Murs, Atmosphere, I would argue they are alternative Hip-Hop. Though you never really use those labels when you’re in love with the music or invested in the music yourself, sometimes it’s just easier to help people understand because they may have a very limited idea of what it means to be a Hip-Hop artist.”
So you’re happy with the label if it’s used to describe you as being an alternative to the mainstream image of Hip-Hop that people outside of the culture may have, but not if it’s being used to describe a particular sound people might then expect to hear from you?
“Exactly. When the label becomes limiting, that’s when it becomes problematic. But at the same time, a label can be used for good to sort of steer people and educate them. If I say to someone that there’s this whole world of Hip-Hop that exists that they haven’t invested in, sometimes to ease them in you’ve got to give them a label because as humans we have this need to slap a label on everything to try and understand it. But then further down the line, those labels start to fade away and you start to see the music as Hip-Hop in its true context, y’know.
Labels aside, you also carry the title of being Sheffield’s first Poet Laureate. How did that happen?
“It happened in 2018. I was trying to put out as much music as I could. With that, certain opportunities arose like being able to play Glastonbury on the BBC Introducing stage, which of course was such an honour at the time. A video circulated from the Glastonbury performance and Sheffield’s then-to-be Lord Mayor discovered it and I think he did a bit of research into my work. He reached out to me about this role of poet laurate that he wanted to create as a means of championing what people were doing in Sheffield under this idea that there’s always this huge focus on London and the South and sometimes what’s going on artistically in the North doesn’t always get the national look. So it was a means to celebrate Sheffield and also I think break down the barriers of tradition that had been put in place. I think our former Lord Mayor Magid has always been about connecting with people on a human level and connecting with community. Even if that meant defacing traditions that might have stopped him from being able to do that. So in many ways it was a political choice, but also I think he saw that I was doing something different in the city artisitically, y’know.”
In the information you sent me about your new series of #OtisMensahExists single releases it refers to you as being “outside the London echo-chamber” as an artist. Is being accepted within the London scene something you see as a challenge or a goal?
“I had quarrels with myself and my partner about whether to even put that in the press release (laughs). I guess it’s polarising and you’re either going to want to hear more or you’re going to run in the opposite direction. I think that line about the echo chamber, it’s never representative of the people and the artists in London, I think it’s moreso a description in many ways of a long history of politics, national politics, the North-South divide and when money is injected into the country, what places are often left deprived. So it’s more a question of institions who always feel the lazy need to focus on one specific thing, one specific identity and one specific place. But in regards to the London scene, I think it’s incredible, especially everything that’s happening in terms of the resurgence of jazz. To me it’s so inspiring. So yeah, I don’t just want to continue doing what I want in Sheffield and then create my own echo chamber, y’know. I want to encourage collaboration. I also want to break down the barriers and perceptions that have been created by institutions to market specific sounds and attach them to specific places. So the echo chamber is more about how companies market people. I feel that’s the echo chamber. I feel in a lot of ways, the heads of radio playlists, the heads of blogs,, magazines and newspapers, perhaps it’s more a burden of truth for them to face rather than the actual people and the artists in London.”
When you recorded last year’s “Rap Poetics” EP did you feel you had a point to prove from a Hip-Hop perspective? I ask that, not because it was radically different to your previous releases, but there was an overall feel and tone running throughout it which seemed to be you saying ‘I’m here and you need to take me seriously as an emcee.’…
“You’ve hit the nail on the head. I was exactly feeling that. My whole goal in the first place was to prove that Hip-Hop was poetry and not split the two things in people’s minds. So on “Rap Poetics” I wanted to get back to the roots of how I started writing in the first place and spend more time writing in a way that was fun for me. I think at some point I drifted away from writing because it was fun. It became about productivity and writing the next song. A lot of that was very introspective and in many ways it became quite suffocating. So with “Rap Poetics” I wanted to take it back to its roots, put myself forward as an emcee and play with language. I think it was also a build up and boiling point to a lot of frustration I had with the elitism in the art world and poetry world, the snobbery and the racism. So “Rap Poetics” was about taking all that frustration and putting it out. I don’t often look outwards when I’m working on material, often I’m looking inwards to see how I feel about society. “Rap Poetics” was about taking the artform that I love, looking outwards and projecting it back out. I felt hungry again, y’know.”
With the #OtisMensahExists series, you’re dropping a series of individual tracks over a period of time rather than releasing one full project. What prompted you to consider releasing your music like that this time around given that you’ve become known for cohesive, concept-driven EPs?
“I think people’s attention spans have changed and I’m definitely not judging when I say that because I also look at how my own attention span has changed. Often I find myself wondering if I have an attention deficit disorder, y’know (laughs). I have this love for bodies of work and full conceptual pieces of art. I see albums like books and I sit and listen to them like you’d appreciate a full novel. So I always want to keep that in mind when I’m working on my own music, but I thought perhaps injecting an episodic nature into the way I release music could help with the attention span situation. I wanted to use the term #OtisMensahExists as a means to say that amongst the noise of everything that’s going on, I hope you remember that I exist and if you didn’t know then now you do know that I exist. That was the beginning of a shift in the way that I saw art. I’d always viewed art as a means of catharsis and therapy and community. It was helpful to me on an individual level because I was getting my problems out, and then it’s helpful to the outside world because we’re unified by the sharing. But a lot of my art is about documenting my existence and especially in today’s fear-induced times there is an uncertainty about life and I’m often plagued by how mortal we are and how fleeting this life can be. With that comes this need I have to leave the Otis Mensah stamp on the world. So that’s where the statement Otis Mensah Exists comes from. Also, I created these songs as a pre-cursor to my debut album which I’ve already finished with The Intern.”
There’s a line on “Blowaway Dream” from the “Rap Poetics” EP where you say “I just want MF Doom to know I rap” – do you think he knows yet?
“He definitely does not know that I exist (laughs). So hopefully through the #OtisMensahExists campaign he will find out. He represents a mystery and an allure in Hip-Hop and I would love to be able to attain that kind of mystery behind my creativity. He’s steered himself away from that capitalist need to market yourself and has created an anti-image in many ways. His ethos and what he represents is extremely interesting to me.”
So when are you looking to release the full-length album?
“After the #OtisMensahExists series has played its due course. So sometime in 2021. So the first single from #OtisMensahExists is out on May 26th (note: this interview was conducted on May 21st) and a new track will be released every three weeks from then over fifteen weeks. I’m definitely excited to see what people think.”
Otis Mensah’s numerous releases can be found here on BandCamp.