Vic Mensa talks Standing Rock, police brutality and "conscious" hip-hop

Vic Mensa talks Standing Rock, police brutality and "conscious" hip-hop
Source: Jake Osmun
Source: Jake Osmun

Vic Mensa doesn't mince words. Over Thanksgiving weekend, the 23-year-old Chicago rapper livestreamed and tweeted from the Dakota Access Pipeline protest site near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. 

His assessment of the situation was characteristically blunt: "Standing [Rock] is the most important struggle to support right now," Mensa tweeted on Nov. 28. "What has been done to [Native Americans] for 500-plus years can't continue."

Mensa and other activists at Standing Rock hope to halt construction on the $3.7-billion Dakota Access pipeline, which aims to transport over 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois.

The pipeline — the route of which would span over 1,172 miles upon completion, crossing sacred indigenous lands and passing near the Standing Rock reservation — could contaminate the Missouri River, which provides drinking water for many indigenous people living nearby and which the pipeline would burrow under.

Political activism isn't new for Mensa: In November 2015, he protested the shooting death of Laquan McDonald after video footage showing Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke killing the 17-year-old black teen became available to the public.  

Mic spoke to Mensa over the phone to discuss Standing Rock, police brutality, so-called "conscious" hip-hop and his political activism.

Vic Mensa
Source: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Mic: You were just at Standing Rock last week during Thanksgiving weekend. What was that like for you? 

Vic Mensa: My trip to Standing Rock was amazing. There are so many spirited and committed, strong people there. The resolve of the Natives and everybody supporting them is so admirable and the opposition from the state, city and federal government is so disgusting.

What did you see on the ground at Standing Rock that those outside might have missed?

VM: What you're seeing down here is essentially federal protection of big oil interests. It's government by corporations. This extends to having a completely militarized police force that are down there with armored vehicles and tanks. They are using so-called nonlethal weapons, like rubber bullets and concussion grenades, that still have the ability to blow the bones out of a woman's arm. Obviously, the water protectors are completely unarmed. They're being brutalized, misinformed and wrongfully accused and arrested. In some cases, some are convicted of crimes they haven't done. 

You have planes in the sky literally jamming phone signals on the ground, so it's hard to stay connected for any types of livestreams. You have planes in the sky that have dropped chemicals on people in the camps. There's actual chemical warfare against American citizens. The media's manipulation is so severe that it [has] hardly been reported on as much as it should be because everybody has a huge stake in the oil company. 

The Dakota Access pipeline is funded by so many major corporations and all the major banks. You're really just seeing a complete undermining of democracy and rule of law by private special interest groups.

A banner at the Standing Rock reservation reads "Water is life #NODAPL."
Source: Jake Osmun

You mentioned media manipulation. What were some things, specifically, you've seen that contrasted with the media's portrayal of the conflict over at Standing Rock?

VM: Well, first we have to understand that the main tactic of the Standing Rock Sioux and the water protectors for protecting the land from this pipeline is praying. 

They're not attacking officers. They're not throwing rocks and starting fires. They're literally praying on this bridge. They're praying for victory and praying for clean water. Water isn't something I think anyone should have to pray for in America. As an American citizen in this so-called developed superpower, you shouldn't have to pay for clean water. Everybody is so peaceful and really just committed to a clean energy revolution and respecting the sovereignty of the native people.

Even so, there has been so much misinformation. I have had people speak to soldiers who were down there about what they saw. Soldiers are saying people are being raped in the camps and that the girl who had her arm blown up with the concussion grenade was trying to build a bomb. This is all completely untrue.

Why do you believe it's important for people to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock and the indigenous population?

VM: This is land that belongs to [the Native Americans] by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1852. All we're doing is asking America to honor its word.

In here, you have one of the most oppressed, if not the single most oppressed group in America: Native Americans, ironically. They are the people with the most inherent right to this earth, but they have been beaten down, lied to and had treaties made and broken for 500 to 600 years. We've gone too far as a society to allow for this type of thing to continue to happen.

Vic Mensa is pictured here wearing a top coat with "Free Assata" written on the front.
Source: Mike Windle/Getty Images

In the photos you posted on social media and in your Facebook Live, you were shown wearing the keffiyeh — a red and white scarf that has a lot of symbolism to a lot of people. Were you trying to make a political statement, and if so, what was it?

VM: The keffiyeh is a Palestinian garment. I think that what's being done to Palestine by Israel is also one of the worst human rights violations on the planet right now.

I think it's the job of all oppressed people to support other oppressed people. So what Israel is doing in Palestine — not recognizing their land and their state and continuously settling into their land – is similar to what the United States is doing here to the Native people. They're crossing into their territory, breaking agreements and having a complete lack of respect for their sovereignty and their people.

As of right now, you're one of the most vocal hip-hop artists to have gone to Standing Rock and spoken on the issue. Are you planning on bringing more to join you this weekend?

VM: I've been talking to a lot of artists. Hopefully we'll see a couple more of them down there this weekend when we head back. I think it's important for people to recognize that hip-hop is born out of the black struggle and the experience of Latino Americans. It's important that we in the hip-hop community recognize that same struggle holds so many parallels to [the struggles of] the Native American people.

On Twitter, you said "Standing Rock is BLM," or Black Lives Matter. Can you explain what you meant by that statement?

VM: [Black Americans are] being murdered in the street by police on a daily basis, and Native Americans are actually the demographic group most likely to be killed by the police. They have so many similarities with black Americans, culturally and ethnically. There's so much [crossover] between the two groups. A lot of the protesters at Standing Rock are also black. They're black and Native. It's important that we recognize that.

The power structure of America — the imperialistic and capitalistic greed — is the same way they've destroyed black Americans from the history of this nation. This is what they have tried to do with the Native people.

What you see here is, in a lot of situations, it really looks like attempts at genocide in the Native population. Let's not forget how America was born: America was born by genocide of Natives and enslavement of black people. We're just too far to continue to let things like that happen without making a lot of fucking noise.

Hip-hop artist Vic Mensa attends TIDAL X: 1020 at the Barclays Center on October 20, 2015, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Source: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

There's been some interesting criticisms of white celebrities and activists involved in the #NoDAPL movement in Standing Rock. Some critics say these people are treating the reservation site like [popular music festivals] Coachella or Lollapalooza. What do you think about that? You were there. Is this true?

VM: I would have to disagree with that. Although there's a lot of white people there, make no mistake, those people are sleeping in tents in subzero temperatures. It's not a walk in the park. Being out there is not comfortable. 

You have to commit yourself, and a lot of people committed themselves to being in an uncomfortable position to help support these people. I think what we have to recognize about this situation is first and foremost defending Native sovereignty. This needs to be a priority until now and forever. Second of all, like I said earlier, this is a step toward a clean energy revolution.

The concept of sacrificing human access to clean water and clean air for major oil profits — it's not sustainable. That's why I feel you have a lot of these celebrities coming and supporting it. It just happens to be that a lot of white celebrities are the most vocal about environmental issues. I can't fault them at all for that. Whoever is using their celebrity status to support this and to show solidarity needs to be inspiring to whoever is not — regardless of race.

You mentioned earlier about how certain industries are scared to speak out against the Dakota Access pipeline since they depend on the corporations and banks behind it. Isn't it a risky move then, as a prominent musician, to speak out against police brutality and the pipeline? Why is it worth the risk for you?

VM: I feel like I'm inherently an enemy of state just by being a black man. I was born as an enemy of the state and I have been treated as such my whole life. I feel no obligation to do anything other than challenge the state.

Vic Mensa performs at Made in America on September 5th, 2015, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Source: Jeff Lombardo/AP

You're clearly political and passionate about activism, but in "16 Shots," you rapped "this ain't conscious rap/ this shit ignorant." Also in interviews in the past, you have slightly distance yourself from the "conscious hip hop artist" descriptor. Why is that?

VM: What I mean is that everything I'm saying in my music, in my interviews and what I'm doing in real life is all rooted in action. I think it's easy to get conscious rap or whatever that means confused with a lot of talk. What I'm about is action.

After the Orlando Pulse shooting, you teamed up with Halsey and Le1f to make "Free Love" in support of LGBTQ communities. Are you working on anything similar for Standing Rock?

VM: Yeah, I'm working on it.

Kanye West, someone political just like you, confirmed that he is serious about running for president in 2020. Is there a possibility that you might run for office some day?

VM: No. I would never run for political office. I don't agree with politics. I don't agree with capitalism.

You don't agree with the political system?

VM: I don't agree with that shit.

Last question. President-elect Donald Trump will start his term on Jan. 20. What concerns do you have about the future of Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter and basic social injustices happening around the world?

VM: I think human rights everywhere is gonna be challenged increasingly as soon as Donald Trump takes office. I think it's going to be the responsibility of those of us with a brain and a heart to increasingly oppose the incoming administration.