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Paradox and Contradiction: An Interview With Otis Mensah

Sheffield based hymn-rap artist Otis Mensah talks on the security found in exploring his fears and insecurities, and his project #OtisMensahExists.

He was named poet laureate of Sheffield in 2019 and spent a year in post, the first person to be granted that honour. Known as someone who brings a lot of energy to his live performances, he has toured with artists like Benjamin Zephaniah, KOTA the Friend, Open Mike Eagle, and Mahalia. Documenting slips in time during periods of isolation - simultaneously caused and alleviated by technology - his #OtisMensahExists project has been a thought-provoking exploration of societal angst over the last year. Otis has a fresh perspective that is easily noticeable, someone who has a nuanced perspective on the ways capitalism leans on his music, and on the intersection of that between masculinity and mental health. From detailing the feeling of a "David Lynch personality" in self-described antisocial announcement ‘40 Years’ to the gentle jazz flow of ‘The Thinks’, #OtisMensahExists is a deeply contemplative project rich with message.

In ‘Breath of life’ you say, ’That’s why I don’t ever leave the north’ – how does place inform your artistry? I’ve got an attachment to home; that line was about struggling to break away from your old idea of things, from the security net and comfort. I love home but I feel if you’ve been in a place for so long you can start to lose touch with what a life outside of those comforts would look and I want to push myself to see my artistry manifest in different spaces. The north has given me a lot of space to reflect and I do have a sense of anxiety around leaving, a fear of over-stimulation, not being able separate myself from the rush of things or not having familiarity to hold on to.

How do you look after your mind while you write on mental health, loneliness in childhood and other difficult topics? In many ways, I feel that exploring these difficult topics through my art is the very thing that is helping ease those mental burdens or improve my mental health in an unconscious way. I never really go into a song wanting to achieve a certain narrative, I’m very much approaching the page and letting the pen bleed. I know that as I’m moving through life there are occasions of suppressed emotion, mask-wearing, or internal quarrel laying dormant. Giving myself the space to put pen to page acts as a process of self-assessment - I call it introspective-documentarianism - delving inwards and making a theatre piece of the journey.

I find myself from time to time getting caught up in the haze of making a career in music, trying to get onto the next biggest magazine or the next biggest stage but I try to recentre myself and think back to why I create in the first place. At it’s core creating art is an act of resistance and I think about what it means to process our traumas, explore our suppressed emotion and give time to our imagination in the face of a capital-driven society that robs us of those soulful human needs everyday.

The production on your songs has become a lot jazzier over the years, you’ve worked with people like Brelstaff. In your description for 40 years you say ’blurred the lines of jazz, art-rap and lofi’. I’m particularly curious about how instrumentals influence your poetics. Could you tell me a bit about that process for you?

I’m hugely centred around the beat and I perceive what I’m doing with the art-form of poetics as jazz at its core. I see a verse like a saxophonists’ or trumpeters’ solo. Hip-hop having jazz in its seams and threads taught me to unlearn structure and form in a very jazz like manner so when I write I like to think of the boundless realms I can take a single verse or poem without worrying to much about not breaking the pocket. I don’t feel we need to antagonise a dichotomy between spoken word and written word or hip-hop emcees and poets, my favourite poets are hip-hop artists and the poetry that derives from hip-hop culture is truly potent, living and enriching.

I did play trombone a little as a teenager but quit to focus more on writing—rapping and now I don’t think that’s so bad through a nuanced jazz lens, it’s just that words became my instrument.

It’s beautiful to have a network of people who I connect with on a philosophical and creative level. I’ve been working with Brelstaff for [many years] and my good friend the intern (who’s based in Berlin). I met the intern when I went a show for Poetry Meets Hip-Hop in Berlin in 2016 and we’ve gone back and forth creating together since, it’s very akin to symbiosis.

Internet Cafe I think is one of my favourite releases from the first half of #OtisMensahExists. You use the line, ’autosave my avatar’ which makes me think of digital selves as an exit strategy. How do you think about technology in your songwriting?

One of my big influences in terms of narrative was Deltron 3030, and within the group in particular, the way Del the Funky Homosapien explored what society looks like when you magnify capitalism and consumption, while considering where technology might take us. He does this in quite a prophetic way. This sparked my passion for art that examines the future, of technology and of how humans integrate with it.

In ‘Internet Cafe’ I was inspired by a documentary called ‘Web Junkie’ about a group of young people who are omitted to a rehabilitation camp for Internet gaming addiction. I think we’re a long way off from truly understanding where we are in terms of our personal and societal integration with technology, what it means and it’s impact. We often pathologize the overuse of technology I think. That’s not to discourage that there are real dangers of the Internet, and the way people suffer from their overconsumption of it. But I do think that sometimes people view these things in a reductionist way - “these kids are spending days and days on the internet, that’s the problem, that’s why they’re depressed” - when in reality, I think there might be a valid reason why a teenager might spend eighteen hours on an online game, maybe that’s what needs to be addressed. Perhaps we should think more about a society that is forcing people into debilitating escapism and how to address the cause as opposed to simplifying and demonising the symptom. ‘Internet Cafe’ was also a critique of my own habits and how the Internet intertwines with them, binge culture and therefore binging TV show or scrolling through social media, this idea of losing yourself and technology being the vehicle to lose yourself in.

You seem to write and talk a lot about a form of spiritual circularity. Your Twitter bio says ‘existed once’. I’m curious about how this relates to the religious imagery you use: ‘Trying to hide my sins in a church hall’ / ‘I’m a plague of locusts’.

I thought of the term “existed once” when thinking about mortality and how my art works as means to document my existence. It’s sort of like this is a collection of work that denotes my very being here in a space and time that is now or has past.

I’m a firm believer in paradox and contradiction, things can exist in deliberate and exact contradiction to one another but in society there’s often a repulsion for nuance and we tend to want to over simplify beliefs and ideas in a way that becomes reductionist so in my work I’m always keen to explore paradox. This relates to how religious themes and imagery surface in my work because as an individual I’m often battling with my belief systems and that happens live in the art.

I don’t want to adhere to an appropriated version of spirituality or faith, and in Western society there’s a lot of reducing a belief system to a glittery sound-bite with the utility to sell a product so I’m also trying to interrogate that in my work.

A lot of my early connection with language comes from reading the bible. The concept behind ‘40 Years’ is thinking of a time of testing and how in the bible the number forty represents that: the Israelites wandering the desert for forty years, Jesus fasting for forty days, it rained for forty days and forty nights in Genesis… I wanted to draw on the idea that the number 40 appears so much and how it’s a symbol for a testing transitory period. I’m thinking of these themes that I was raised with and grew up with, exploring them in my art and perhaps how they connect to my cultural heritage.

Why did you transition from poetry to hymn-rap?

My gateway to poetry was always hip-hop, but the only people using language so freely in my sphere at the time were rappers. Those were the artists who were bending words. It gave me a curiosity for language.

From when I was about 17 and started to take it more seriously, I was always under the impression that first and foremost, I’m a hip-hop artist. My choice to call myself a poet was political, as the poetry world is so elitist and attempts to discredit or rob hip-hop of its poetic and intellectual nature but for me hip-hop had poetry at its core. I would look at Shakespeare and think it didn’t represent my reality or my culture but I connect so much with this poetry that I see deriving from hip-hop culture.

The idea of art-rap or rap hymns are terms I relate to because I think about other genres and how they can be understood in their context like rock has sub-genres of indie-rock, prog-rock, psyche-rock or metal. Yet you go into HMV and it’s this reductionist and racist idea of hip-hop and other Black music, the “urban section”. Sean Paul, Ja Rule, Nas and Kid Cudi just smashed together. It is a political choice to say, I’m not only a hip-hop artist, I’m an art-rap poet and I write rap hymns because it describe the context that music is born from.

If you had a guide to the genre that your music sits within, which artists would you place around you?

I guess it becomes less about how the artists genre themselves and more about how free they are in their artistic expression. Open Mike Eagle. R.A.P. Ferreira, formerly known as Milo. Billy Woods, who is an incredible poet. I’m in love with The Roots, Black Thought. Blu & Exile.

To think about the UK, I love what Kojey Radical is doing, you can see that core to his musical expression is artistic integrity.

Your songs use the first person point of view in your music, and #OtisMensahExists is self-titled. How do you approach the vulnerability of autobiography in your artistry?

There are two reasons why I create. #OtisMensahExists is centred around documenting my existence, and the fact that we are in a place in time where we have a heightened sense of our own mortality (both in terms of our socio-political surroundings and that we are in a global pandemic). It makes me think more about art as a means to say ‘hey my name is Otis Mensah, and amongst everything going on, I was here’. That can be a dulling agent to my anxiety or impending sense of doom and fear of death, it is somewhat liberating and empowering to me.

The other core principle of why I would create is catharsis and therapy. I guess that’s where the concept of vulnerability comes into play because it’s truly freeing to be able to express exactly how I feel in that moment. As a teenager I really quarrelled with my sense of identity and had this protruding sense of existential angst, I felt foreign both politically and personally, estranged from any room I walked into. Being in that isolation forced me to seek out an outlet. Whilst therapeutic, it was also a shield. Childish Gambino talks about that on his first album, (Camp was a huge influence of mine), “I made it for everyone, and you couldn’t go out there and tell anyone something about me because I said it myself”. I found security in exposing insecurities and fears.

Stream Otis Mensah's music below:

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