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Otis Mensah Local rapper on new singles, life in lockdown and collaborations

Sheffield-based hip-hop artist tells us more about his brand new series of singles.

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We've long been fans of Otis Mensah so we were thrilled to hear that he'll be helping us to break up the monotony of lockdown by releasing a brand new series of singles, the first of which will launch on 26 May.

We caught up with Otis via the socially-distanced medium of email to hear more about his new project.

We hear you've got some new music coming out. Tell us about it.

Being the first hip-hop artist in the UK to be titled Poet Laureate, I wanted to create a series of songs that stand testament to my poetic influence.

Peculiar for an artist in the north of England, growing up I gravitated towards Aesop Rock, The Roots, Blu & Exile and, later, Open Mike Eagle, Quelle Chris and Billy Woods. I felt a unifying and powerful community was created by engaging with art transcending borders through its vulnerability, social commentary and nuance. These artists not only became my favourite poets but urged me to create music that could represent vulnerable and philosophical lyricism in Europe.

Featuring one of my favourite lyricists, Hemlock Ernst of Future Islands, 'Breath of Life' explores themes such as anxiety, fear and claustrophobia on a backdrop of soulful, mellow instrumentation created by longtime collaborator, Brelstaff from Edinburgh.

You're collaborating with illustrator Jim Spendlove. How is he involved in your upcoming release?

I discovered Jim Spendlove through [his feature in] Now Then and instantly became a fan of his work. I loved his quirky depictions of characters merging one with nature and got the impression that hip-hop culture had a huge impact on his work, with his dedications to MF DOOM, J Dilla and beat culture. I later found that Jim was Sheffield-based and we sat down, had a coffee and chat about our favourite LA avant-garde emcees, and the collaboration simply spiralled from there.

I wanted to build a visual world around the music and depict a sort of millennial solitude, where our lives are one with the internet. I've always loved the use of animation in hip-hop. One of my favourite verses of all time has to be from Del the Funky Homosapien on the Gorillaz track, 'Clint Eastwood'. I remember how the video made me feel and I got inspired.

I felt I needed to explore something more atmospheric and minimal that could provide the mental space to interpret my music being so lyrically dense. When thinking up the concepts for the animations, I considered how this collection of mellow, jazz-inspired songs came out of a comfortable claustrophobia-induced creativity -- feeling you're locked inside yourself but with all the 21st century pleasures, Netflix and all the cereal to binge eat, to keep you shackled in complacency.

From a creative perspective, how have you been responding to the pandemic?

At first, I really struggled to adapt and found it quite depressing that no live performances were taking place in the physical, anywhere. This just seemed to dampen any creative endeavours because so much of music and poetry is made to manifest in a live environment that allows for a tangible exchange of emotions.

This restriction still burdens me, given that my main source of income and so much of my sense of purpose comes from performing. However, I'm building alternatives and this series of singles is a big part of that. I've found more time to delve into my record collection, I've found a newborn inspiration to record at home, finally learning [music production software] Ableton and have since been inspired to write. I've also dabbled in a few live stream shows, which was fun.

With gigs in public places on hiatus, how will you be sharing your new music?

I'll continue creating and releasing new music via my Spotify and YouTube channels. The series #OtisMensahExists will continue after 26 May from 'Breath of Life' with a new song and animation every three weeks. My debut poetry collection, Safe Metamorphosis, will be published on 15 June by Prototype Publishing with a virtual launch (live conversation & performance) and will be available for purchase on prototypepublishing.co.uk.

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