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Otis Mensah: “I’ve always got this whispering voice in me that’s saying I need to cut through the noise of everything else that’s going on”

Ahead of the release of the first single from his new collection #OtisMensahExists, last month Eloise Feilden got chatting to Sheffield’s Poet Laureate Otis Mensah about the fresh project and how he’s holding up as we move through a time of socially distanced art and performance.

So you’ve got a new project coming up called #OtisMensahExists. Do you want to start off by just telling me a little bit about what it is and how it came about?
I found that all the songs that I’d created fell under a similar sound aesthetic and they all touched on the same concepts or came from the same vein, and I envisioned it like a TV series with an episodic nature. The creativity that brought about all the songs came from a place of claus-trophobia and ‘millenial solitude’ – this idea that it’s just us with the universe we create for ourselves through the internet and through our own curated sense of reality. I felt they all fit well under the same umbrella, so I thought I would create it as a series. I reached out to a Sheffield-based illustrator called Jim Spendlove, who I’ve been a fan of for some time. It’s quite obvious that his work has been impacted by hip-hop; he’s done dedications to J Dilla, to MF DOOM, and just beat culture overall, so I was quite fascinated with his work and wanted to see if we could collaborate. I had a few different visual ideas for each song and I put those forward to him and that became the collaboration.

Illustration: Jim Spendlove

So is the visual aspect of it is really important as well as the music?
Yeah, I think so. I feel that often when I’m writing or when I’m sitting back and looking over a piece of work I’ve got a whole world of visual ideas running through my head. My writing is not always easy to follow because of a strong sense of narrative, but I hope it helps because with the imagery that it creates, and the creation of individual worlds throughout one verse.

Why did you choose to call the project #OtisMensahExists?
In many ways I think it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that we’re all linked to our integration with the virtual world, especially in quar-antine, and we’re all trying to work towards proving our existence. I often think about how my art will be perceived when I’m no longer here, or how it will survive, so this is my introduction to the world to say, ‘Hey, my name is Otis Mensah; I do exist, I’m here, and this is a piece of my story.’ I also hope for this to be an introduction to my album that will come later on down the line, to let people know about my existence before my album comes out.

Can you talk us briefly through the inspiration for the first episode, ‘Breath of Life’?
‘Breath of Life’ came from an exploration of fear and linking to the overall theme of claustrophobia, being locked in, and trying to create a sort of theatre play out of our anxieties. I think in doing that it’s somewhat therapeutic and cathartic, because I’m able to create some-thing tangible through something that puts me through angst, adorning my experience overall. It sends the message that whatever it is you’re going through in life, hopefully you can enhance your experience somewhere down the line.

How did you come to collaborate with Hemlock Ernst who features on the track? Hemlock Ernst is one of my favourite MCs. He put out an incredible album called Back at the House with producer Kenny Segal, and I came across that and was instantly a huge fan. Having heard his collaborations with some of my favourite MCs, I knew of his voice and his prolific poetry, and then after discovering his album I became a fan. After that he followed me on Instagram, or I followed him, and I let him know that I’m a big fan of his work and that it’s an inspi-ration, then later down the line I reached out to him because I created ‘Breath of Life’ and I just thought his voice, his cadence, his poetry, would fit like a glove on the song. He gave me nothing but pure poetry, so it was such a blessing to be able to collaborate with one of my favourites.

How do you think that this project differs from things that you’ve done in the past like your previous EPs Rap Poetics and Mum’s House Philosopher?
I think that in Mum’s House Philosopher and Rap Poetics there’s more social commentary and satire to the way I’m commenting on my personal experience of society. Whereas with this the songs feel very visceral, and like diary entries in many ways. It feels very true to life, and though both of the other EPs also do, I think there’s less social commentary and maybe more self-exploration. It’s really therapeutic to have a piece of art finished and to say this was a documentation of this moment in my life, so it’s really cathartic to see that. It almost gives me control over that period of time and makes me feel that it wasn’t a waste. It’s a sort of way of proving that I’ve not wasted my time. Perhaps it’s just another feather to the bow of proving myself as an artist or proving my existence as a human being in the plethora of voices out there.

“I think there’s less social commentary and maybe more self-exploration”

And how do you think your background as someone from the North, from a working class Sheffield background, has influenced the way you make music and poetry?
I think I’ve got a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to writing and my ability to make music and rap. I’ve always got this whispering voice in me that’s saying I need to cut through the noise of everything else that’s going on, to work twice as hard and put up twice as much content and be twice as profound. I feel like I have to work overtime in order to prove my ideas, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a positive thing. A lot of artistic freedom can come from the privilege of not worrying about getting your art heard, and that can be easier if you’re in a circle that’s well connected or you’re in a very well-established scene. Often I feel alone in creating. Not to say that there isn’t a great network of artists to reach out to in Sheffield because there is, and I’ve had incredible advice from people like KOG and Matic Mouth, but often growing up in Sheffield and trying to put out art that’s not inherently reminiscent of what people would consider to be British, given that a lot of my influences are MCs from LA or Chicago, I often have this feeling of solitude in my creativity.

As someone whose art merges poetry and hip-hop together, what has the response been like from those on the more traditional side of the poetry community?
Amongst performing poets and people interested in spoken word who actually have a true love for language, they are forced to, or probably already do, recognise the poetry that exists in hip-hop and how potent and effective it is. I think that people who under-stand poetry and language on a nuanced level will tell you that. However, when you have people who buy into the snobbery of poetry or the institution of art, often you get the impression that they think hip-hop isn’t poetry, but I think people who really understand it recognise it as such.

When you first got interested in music and making music, have you always made the link between music and poetry? Have you always described yourself as a hip-hop poet combining music and poetry, or did that develop afterwards?
I think it developed as a means to acknowledge that what was going on in hip-hop was poetry for people who refused to see it. First and foremost I see myself as a musician and a hip-hop artist, but you have to be a poet to be a hip-hop artist. I don’t think you have to be a poet to rap or to contribute to a more commercially viable means of hip-hop, but I think to be someone who truly wants to represent and add to the culture and be culturally envelope pushing, honest and authentic, I think you have to be a poet to do that. People seem to be talking a lot at the moment about this idea of a new normal as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak.

How is COVID-19 affecting you as an artist, and can you foresee anything that you think is going to have to fundamentally change in the art industry as time moves on?
I dont know, I’m very perplexed by the whole situation. I just pray that there is a new normal. We know that this is going to be really hard for independent venues and independent businesses, but the hope is that they will see through these hard times and this will bring a resurgence to or refocus on independent venues and local artists, and maybe give voice to the artists who aren’t packing arenas and aren’t doing worldwide tours. I always act under the philosophy that the room might be small but the vibe can be big and strong, and I would like to see a focus on artists that work on a small scale and give them a chance.

The launch of #OtisMensahExists seems to be coming at the perfect time in the sense that it’s an online experience, and despite the fact that no one can get close to each other, this can reach people within their own homes. Was the release of the series at all influenced by that kind of thinking?
Before all of this happened I had the idea of doing ten songs with ten animations, but I think the whole pandemic really shook what I placed my security in. I’ve never been a fan of building a career on the internet; I’ve always sort of absconded from the idea of building an internet presence and an internet persona, and I always thought the internet could shut down at any moment. These companies like YouTube could suddenly decide that they’re not supporting independent artists anymore, so I’ve always had this sort of nagging feeling in the back of my mind saying don’t give too much attention to that sort of stuff, and focus on real life. But I didn’t ever account for real life actually shutting down. It came at the perfect time that I had this idea of the anima-tions and how well they could exist through online platforms, but it wasn’t preconceived, just very convenient in that sense.

Otis Mensah YouTube Channel

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