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Otis Mensah: Confessional Poet and Rapper Gets Deep

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Otis Mensah is a 24-year-old rapper, poet and Sheffield-based creative powerhouse.

He's recently released his second EP, Rap Poetics, following a collection of well-received singles in 2017 and the Mum's House Philosopher EP in 2018. Mensah also brought out a book of poetry, Safe Metamorphosis, earlier this year.

When we speak Otis is in Berlin, touring with heavyweights including Blu & Exile and spending time in the studio working on his next project. Known for his searing lyricism and social commentary, we discussed everything from the origins of hip-hop to political apathy.

Tell us about the new EP, Rap Poetics.

The EP was an accumulation of lyrics and ideas that I had over the last six months. After releasing the book in May, I wanted to get back to the philosophy and ethos of why I started writing poetry outside of music.

Hip-hop culture and rap had given me the confidence to move beyond music. It taught me a certain creative freedom, a creativity without walls where I didn't feel so stuck to just writing over beats. The book was an opportunity for me to show people that poetry without music still relates back to hip-hop culture and everything it taught me. For me, the EP is the continuation of that creative freedom.

What role does hip-hop have to play in confronting the sense of divisiveness in politics?

Art is about exposing the truth and hip-hop came from a need to be honest, as a form of social anthropology. It was a need to report what was going on, what wasn't being reported. If you think about where hip-hop came from, a lot of these people were in a state of dire poverty through the actions of the US government. For instance, during the 'crack era', where a harmful drug was placed in particular areas to subdue certain communities. People were continuously seeing themselves misrepresented by the media or ignored altogether.

The word 'ghetto' is used in hip-hop a lot, which actually comes from the Italian word to describe Jewish areas in cities, where Jewish people were segregated from the rest of society. This is the sort of environment it came out of and hip-hop was a need to diffuse the symptoms of this environment. It was to tell the truth and to have your voice heard about what was going on.

An art form with this history, in its origins to give people without a platform a voice - that's a legacy that I take with pride and seriousness. I feel a responsibility to be honest, both about what's going on around me and my internal processes.

Your music is very open and raw, even confessional, which is not always the case in mainstream hip-hop.

I think those [confessional] artists have always been there, I just think we're able to work outside of a commercial narrative now. The internet helps with that by giving the power to the people, in the sense that the middle man has disintegrated.

It doesn't have to be a label dictating what works or what doesn't, or what's marketable. Artists in the past relied on that way more, but now we have a direct connection to the people and more freedom to produce certain music.

You put out brilliant videos alongside your music. How important are the visuals to you?

We exist in such a visual world. There seems to be a need to see something to connect with it, particularly with the internet. It's important to see how people are representing themselves. It's not enough for people these days to just have the music. They want to see the art in action.

art is a place where we can be reminded of our humanity

I think it comes back to the need for authenticity. I want to see if this person is who they say they are, to see who the person behind the art is. I think it's also important from an aesthetic perspective. When I'm writing I have visual renditions in my head. Visuals are one and the same for me. They are a fulfilment of the music.

What's your lyrical process?

It comes from a build-up of emotion, an accumulation of thoughts and feelings that happen over time and result in a melting pot. It's catharsis, a need to let go as a sort of therapy. I call the process of writing 'letting the pen bleed'. It sometimes doesn't feel like me. It feels like I'm unravelling everything that's already happened.

I have such an elusive relationship with creativity though. I think that I have a tendency to fall lazy. My preset is the maximisation of comfort, but often creativity isn't comfortable, it's excruciating. When you hear other artists talking about their process, it seems like it's something that comes easily to them, whereas for me it's such a turbulent journey and I often feel I'm fighting for the next piece of work.

I can't just rely on a hit of inspiration. I have to be able to create outside of that, and when I'm trying to do that it can become a more difficult process. I always try to stand by the mantra of being as vulnerable and poetically honest as possible. That's what grounds me when I'm writing.

What do you think of elitism in the arts, particularly given the effects of austerity on arts funding?

As a nation, the fact that people in power see art as something that's airy-fairy or unnecessary is a symptom of the sort of society we're living in now, driven by a need to maximise profit.

There's a strategic tendency by the people in power to try and make us forget that we exist outside of the need to accumulate profit. It's hugely detrimental given that art is a place where we can be reminded of our humanity, it's a catalyst for emotional communication. I don't think our syllabuses are teaching that or cultivating the importance of emotional communication, and it has to be one of the reasons we're in such a mental health crisis. When you take away any forum for truly expressing oneself and communicating emotionally, then you shed people of their humanity.

It seems like young people engage with music but don't engage with politics, with low voting numbers for under 25s. Why do you think that is?

I think there's a general feeling of apathy, which is mistakenly looked at with judgement rather than understanding. At its core, the apathy is because we see through the facade that politics puts forward. To look at the fact that young people don't vote as much and say they don't care as a result is wrong. They're two completely different things.

I have total empathy for those who feel apathetic. The manipulation of democracy, for instance through Cambridge Analytica, makes it so hard to feel represented and engaged. For me, party politics is not something I could ever be truly represented by.

Not that I would ever discourage people [from voting]. It's vitally important to have your voice heard. The fact remains that politics is everything. Everything we've been talking about - music and art - is politics, and I hope we can work towards a system where our voices can be properly represented and heard.

What's inspiring you right now?

I'm really inspired by this idea of artistic expression and hip-hop being a refuge. Political malaise, general apathy, social media, all this stuff can take a toll on you and exhaust you. It can be difficult to find a purpose.

For me, the creative process, and trying to pick apart the truth from the lies, is my refuge.

Georgina Collins

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Photo by Andy Brown

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