Revolutionary Rapper Vic Mensa on Palestine, the Chicago Police, and the Poisoning of Flint

Hip-hop artist Vic Mensa has emerged as one of the most uncompromising political voices of our time.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 17: Vic Mensa performs onstage during TIDAL X: Brooklyn at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on October 17, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for TIDAL)
Vic Mensa performs onstage during TIDAL X: Brooklyn at Barclays Center, in New York City on October 17, 2017. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

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The Chicago-based hip-hop artist Vic Mensa has emerged as one of the most uncompromising political voices of our time. He is a 25-year old artist who not only raps about Chicago police killings of black and brown people, about apartheid in Palestine, the poisoning of the water in Flint, Michigan, but he also goes to where the silence is and speaks out. In the aftermath of the police shooting of Laquan MacDonald, Mensa was in the streets and gave voice to the movement that led to the conviction of second-degree murder for Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke. Mensa has traveled in Palestine with the poet Aja Monet and he has gone to Flint to help amplify the voices of a community that was poisoned and continues to be poisoned.  During the Standing Rock movement, he joined to support the water protectors fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. He speaks about his activism, what he saw in Palestine, being a gun owner who supports gun control, and the revolutionary figures that inspire his work.


Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

[Musical interlude.]

JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City and this is a special bonus episode of Intercepted.

We are going to be back next week with a regular episode of Intercepted, but over this long holiday weekend we wanted to share with you a recent conversation that we had here in the studio.

The Chicago-based hip-hop artist Vic Mensa has emerged as one of the uncompromising political voices of our time. The 25-year-old artist not only raps about Chicago police killings of black and brown people, about apartheid in Palestine, the poisoning of the water in Flint, Michigan, he actually goes to where the silence is and speaks out.

In the aftermath of the police shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Vic Mensa was there in the streets and also giving voice to the movement that led to the conviction of a Chicago police officer for Laquan McDonald’s murder.

Vic Mensa has traveled throughout Palestine with the poet Aja Monet and he has also gone to Flint, Michigan to help amplify the voices of a community that was poisoned and continues to suffer from the effects of that poisoning.

This year Vic Mensa launched his own nonprofit, Save Money Save Life. It focuses on two key areas. StreetMedics is a program to train first responders in Chicago’s most at-risk neighborhoods. Part of the work the group does is also helping to place mental health professionals in Chicago’s most vulnerable schools.

Last summer Vic Mensa and his Save Money Save Life Foundation handed out over 7,000 pairs of sneakers in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, an anti-bait truck response to a Chicago police plot called “Operation Trailer Trap” that was designed to entrap residents into taking shoes from what was made to look like an abandoned truck. He also traveled to Standing Rock to support the water protectors fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Vic Mensa is a gun owner, but he advocates for gun control and he’s called for a ban on AR-15s. The students from Stoneman Douglas High School invited him to perform at their massive March for Our Lives rally in Washington, DC this past March. That of course followed the massacre at their high school.

Vic Mensa has been nominated for a Grammy and his most recent album is The Autobiography. He also has a new track on the new Tom Morello album, The Atlas Underground.

Vic Mensa joins me now for this special bonus episode of Intercepted.

Vic Mensa, welcome to the show.

Vic Mensa: Thank you for having me.

JS: I want to start off by talking about Palestine because we’ve seen yet another incursion into Gaza recently by the Israelis. It’s basically just been sustained killing fields there. You took a trip with the poet Aja Monet and others to Palestine. We had her on the show as well. But talk about what you saw when you were on the ground in Palestine and how it maybe changed your perspective on things in the U.S.

VM: I’d like to briefly just shine some light on Aja Monet because she’s shown so much light on me and my life. I met her when I was 16 years old. And she was the first person to introduce me to Malcolm X, and Huey Newton, and things like that.

So, she kind of was the genesis of much of my learning and understanding about being a man. So, she reached out to me to tell me that she was doing these delegations to Palestine. Her and another friend named Ferrari Sheppard who went and he wrote a piece on it. This was before I was even educated on Palestine. Like, I probably couldn’t have told you much of a difference at that point in time between Palestine and Pakistan. Which I think to begin with is pretty interesting because I’m quite an educated person and I consider myself to be in the know, but the media manipulation surrounding Palestine has been so severe that the issue itself is kept from much of American public consciousness. Obviously, things have been happening recently to really thrust it into the spotlight, but Aja was talking to me about Palestine for some time, telling me this is the major human rights violation of our time. And so, when she eventually invited me to come on her delegation, I felt that it was the right moment for me.

You know, I had been studying for the last year. I had just kind of picking up bits and pieces of the information and I wanted to see for myself. So, I went on that delegation. It was the day or a couple days after I released my album, you know. So, my label is like you’re supposed to be doing press but I’m like, “Yo, I have this planned all ready to go to Palestine and I’m definitely not going to cancel this.” You know?

We get into Palestine — or we get into Israel actually. You land in Tel Aviv, and you know, we spent time going through the old city of Jerusalem. And some of my first observations while I was there were the treatment of young Palestinians by the IDF soldiers. I felt so much similarity and familiarity in those situations as I watched these young brown kids be pushed against the wall, you know by young IDF soldiers, the Israeli soldiers. You have to do it, mandatory, at like age 18. So, you know, these are kids and kids as with most wars.

But so, I watched the kids with power — the soldiers — push the young Palestinian kids up against the wall and just the mannerisms of the interaction like the pride in the Palestinian kid, but also knowing he can’t do much because this soldier has an open M16. They always do, all of them.

So, I just see it in his face and you know, I don’t understand the language, but I could just see what he’s saying is probably like the same thing we say to police over here. “Bitch, if you didn’t have that badge on you, I’d knock you the fuck out right now,” you know. I saw that energy coming from him and it was so interesting to me because I’m on the outside looking in and it was like, I wasn’t really the nigger anymore right here.

The Palestinian was the nigga, you know what I’m saying? My American passport had ironically given me like a higher social status in the old city of Jerusalem, than it does in Chicago, you know what I’m saying? So, I’m watching from the outside looking in and I’m like, “Oh, so it’s not me this time.” I saw a lot of things though, man. One of the first days we went into a refugee camp right across the wall and it’s called Aida Refugee Camp and they live in squalor. They live in dilapidated project-building looking homes. Walking through that stairway, it reminded me so much of walking through the projects in Chicago, walking through the stairway in like a Lawless Gardens or something or like a Cabrini-Green, you know. It felt like a project building in Chicago with even less amenities though.

You get to the roof. The roof is the chilling part though. The roof is where you see that every home, every Palestinian home has a water tank where they get a certain amount of water ration to them, you know per week, or bi-weekly, or whatever it is. And I looked down into the water tank and there are worms swimming in the water and just the ripples from the worm swimming in the water hit me hard because then you turn to the right and you look maybe 50 meters, 100 meters across the wall and it’s just rolling green pastures in Israel, in a Jewish settlement rolling green pastures, an Olympic swimming pool, beautifully constructed homes. It looks like a utopia and then you look back at the worm swimming in the water. And you think about the fact that this whole land was once occupied by these people. These people that live in this refugee camp, in this project with worms in their water, they actually lived across this land, and they lived well, you know, and that their entire existence has been stolen from them, and they’ve been relegated to second-class third-class citizenship in their own home.

We went to another city called Hebron. Hebron was where I saw some of the most blatant racism and discrimination. We’re walking down the street and we’re stopped by a soldier and our tour guide, he felt kind of like he was trying to play it up a little bit just to show us what’s really going on. So, our tour guide is like — because they’re telling [our] tour guide he can’t come through. They’re telling all of us that we’re good because we have our American passports.

JS: The tour guide was Palestinian?

VM: Yeah, but he’s kind of, “Please,” like you know, so I’m saying something too. I’m like “Yo, what’s up?” And so, then a Jewish settler jumps out of a truck, and runs up, and what he says to us is, he says “Arab cannot come down this street. Arab come they make terrorists attack. So, this street only for Jews. Here you have your Apartheid,” sarcastically, you know. And that too was new to me because the brand of racism I’ve experienced in my life living in the north, living in Chicago is more like police being like “What are you doing on the North Side? Shouldn’t you be on the south side?” But they’re not like “You can’t walk down Lincoln. This street is whites only.” You know, that’s real Apartheid shit.

So, what they’ve done is that they’ve taken the most effective elements from different oppressive structures, from American Jim Crow vibes to Apartheid, and they’ve made their, concocted their own, you know, 21st century version. Seeing things like that is crazy, you know, seeing that, learning that Palestinian kids in Jerusalem can get a mandatory minimum sentence for throwing stones. For throwing stones. And then you see five minutes later, a Jewish person walkthrough with an open carry M16, flip-flops, and a yarmulke. And you’re just like, the absurdity of the scene is crazy. You know what I’m saying? It’s like just imagine a priest walking down the street with an M16. You know what I’m saying? It’s just like it feels ridiculous.

I actually had a conversation with one of the high-ranking officials in the Israeli government. I don’t know what they call them minister of public relations or something. But really the propaganda master like, real 1984. I’m asking him — I came with a long list of questions because while I was in Palestine, I was taking so many notes. I was taking notes on everything I learned, taking notes about 1947, 1967. We’re taking notes about all the dates that all these things happened.

So I’m asking him, I’m like man, this one I thought for sure he wouldn’t be able to have a real rebuttal to: “I’m like mandatory minimum sentence for throwing stones.”  You know coming from the perspective of an American where like gun violence is everything and gun laws are so lax that you know, you’ll be actually carrying around open carry weapons, you know, legally everybody. You know, there are places where everyone can carry a weapon legally. And I’m like “mandatory minimum for throwing stones?” And the propaganda Master proceeds to describe to me, “Well, the stones can be very big. You know, and anybody I think throwing a gigantic stone to kill a child should go to prison.” And I’m like, “Right, but stones could also be very small, you know.” But that’s just to show you how it is that they’re rationalizing this extreme oppression. I’m going to give you a couple other scenes from Palestine.

JS: Before you do that though, it’s also the case that the Israeli government and its spokespeople have defended giving the death penalty for people throwing stones because they are preemptively shooting them. It’s not just if they arrest them, they give them mandatory minimum. It’s that they’re also just —

VM: Oh, you’re killing them for that.

JS: — Shooting and killing people who are throwing stones or using so-called kite bombs.

VM: The thing is that it’s not about stones, you know. It’s about ethnic cleansing. And when you start to even focus on the minutiae, then you’re playing their game, like, point-blank, it’s ethnic cleansing. The existence of a Jewish state in a land that was just 50, 60, 70, years ago majority not Jewish is ethnic cleansing. It’s Manifest Destiny. You know what I’m saying? That’s why I’m like just the words Jewish state in a land that has so many people that are also not Jewish you have to ethnic cleanse.

So, they’re killing these people. They’re locking these kids up. They’re settling in the West Bank past everywhere that they said they would and everywhere that most places in the world, except for the United States, condemned. It’s because they want to remove these people from this land. They didn’t do the job that the Americans, or that the Europeans did when they settled here and they wiped out the Native Americans until Native Americans are such a small population that it’s not that much of a factor for them. They didn’t do that. So, they still are faced with a population of people that they don’t want on the land.

JS: Donald Trump, of course, loves to talk about your home city of Chicago.

VM: Yeah, one of his favorite things to say.

JS: He uses Chicago clearly as a way of talking about black people in general.

VM: He’s like “Look over there, what they’re doing.”

JS: How have you read what Trump is doing when Chicago comes out of his mouth?

VM: With Chicago? Yeah, obviously, it’s racially motivated and you know, what’s so funny about it, this is the American way is revisionist history. So, what they’ll do is that they’ll create this toxic situation through, you know, years of oppression and redlining and all of the things that create the hood as it is today, and then they’ll point to it and be like, “Look how fucked up it is. The blacks just can’t do anything right.” When you have to look through the history of Chicago and think about even, you know, the people in charge. Old Man Daley used to beat up black people on Sunday at the beach.

The city was constructed in a way where even the highways were built so that blacks stayed in their area, you know, what I’m saying? The city was redlined so heavily. If you read about black people trying to move to different communities like Portage Park and Northside communities, they would be firebombed out. So, you put all of these black people in this neighborhood, in these areas on the south and west side, give them no options to leave, and you limit the resources. The schools can’t compare —

JS: Right, and you build the towers up, up into the sky as opposed to out in a horizontal way so that you have all these people confined to small areas. That’s the Chicago model of public housing.

VM: The Chicago model is that you put poverty on top of poverty, let the gang banging fester, tear it down, let it spread even more and infect the community, everything’s taken from the community. I mean, it can’t be overstated the effect that mass incarceration has had on our communities. It’s absolutely destroyed us, you know. The war on drugs is a completely different approach to how they’re looking at opioids now that it’s a white drug crisis.

The war on drugs destroyed our communities because you’re giving football numbers to first-time offenders. So, all of these kids are growing up with no father. Now, you have generations of children that have grown up in fatherless households. That alone, statistically, is so much more likely to make you a criminal by the time it’s all said and done. You add that to the lack of resources that are in the neighborhoods. You add that to the lack of upward mobility, and you end up with a perfect storm for intense violence and drug addiction, and that’s where we are.

But what’s funny about it is that these guys will know about the Contras, will know that Ronald Reagan and them were feeding dope coming into America that was being cooked into crack and sold through our communities. They know that they’re heroes and this President — Ronald Reagan is considered by the Republicans to be the best Republican president ever and we —

JS: Nancy Pelosi also said that the most quoted politician that she cited in the last round of elections was Ronald Reagan.

VM: All of these guys, I don’t trust the politicians at all. That’s why I don’t even, I don’t consider myself to be a Democrat or anything. But what I’m getting at is that they all know what Ronald Reagan did with the Contras and the CIA to poison America with drugs that were really going to the black community and cooked into crack, and then they declared a war on drugs and gave us mandatory minimums.

So, they destroyed our community, then 20 years later they point at our community and say, “See look how criminal the blacks are, look at Chicago, how much of a mess it is.” When they know that they created the mess, but the masses don’t know.

JS: Let’s talk about the Chicago Police and the killing of young black men. When Laquan McDonald was killed –

VM: And women.

JS: – And women. When Laquan McDonald was killed, you put out the track “16 Shots.” Talk about that moment and what inspired “16 Shots.”

VM: Yeah, I got a call from Malcolm London who we were speaking about earlier.

JS: Yeah who was on our live show in Chicago and performed.

VM: Yeah, I got a call from Malcolm London, and he said this video is going to be released tomorrow. It’s going up. And I was in L.A. at the time living in like an Airbnb. And I knew about Laquan’s situation, but I hadn’t seen the video yet, and I just wasn’t that familiar, but I knew what was about to happen. And he said, “It’s coming out tomorrow.”

So, I jumped on the plane and I got out there and you know, we hit the streets. We saw the video. I mean everybody was like tense, you know, on ten after seeing that video. I got out there one of the first people I saw out on State Street was my boy Paris Hall. Now, Paris, Laquan was his little man. So, that was like one of his best friends from his block because Paris is from the west side. And he saved money too like me and Malcolm, but he’s from the west side, like Malcolm, you know, that’s one degree of separation to the kid.

And so, we were marching through the streets and there’s all this “16 shots.” There’s all this “Fuck 12” going on. I mean, we tried to hit Lake Shore Drive. I was actually the first one that they set up the barricades, but you know, I just kind of jumped around and tried to lead the charge to hit Lake Shore Drive. So, then they wrapped me up and they were trying to lock me up. But the people came and they surrounded me until I got free. And I mean it was just a powerful electrifying energy out there.

They framed Malcolm. An insurgent came in and like lit a smoke bomb and jumped on the ground like some weird white guy in that smoke — some real movie type stuff. In that smoke, Chicago police came and they wrapped up Malcolm and snatched him up and took him away. We tried to hold the cars, shake the cars, but nothing really worked. He was freed not long after. We just kept our foot on. We kept our foot on the neck. We kept applying the pressure and I was so inspired by that moment.

So, I went and I wrote the song just explaining the situation and I’m like

“Ready for the war

We got our bootstrap —

100 deep on State Street

Where the troops at?”

[Vic Mensa’s “16 Shots” plays.]

We all are just trying to figure it out. I mean we know the truth, but we want the truth to be recognized. So, I did a music video for that song where I’m like shot a lot kind of to represent what happened. And like I said, we kept applying the pressure.

So, more recently, I was the grand marshal of the Bud Billiken Parade. So, that’s the largest African-American parade. It’s beautiful like, it’s just amazing coming down King Drive with the marching bands and I’m riding a motorcycle in the front. And I get to the end of the parade the director of my foundation calls me. She’s super frantic. She’s like, “The police.” She’s like, “The police. They’re trying to get us.” You know what I mean? Because I had my people out there, these young black women doing amazing work with Good Kids Mad City and Assata’s Daughters, two groups in Chicago. And they were carrying a “Convict Van Dyke” banner. And we anticipated –

JS: This was Officer Van Dyke who went on trial for the killing of Laquan McDonald.

VM:  Yeah, Jason Van Dyke, you know, because he shouldn’t have been a police officer anymore anyway. He had like 30 complaints up to that point, using racial slurs, and brutality, and excessive force. He had all of these —

JS: Yeah, he was like a Chicago Mark Fuhrman.

VM: He had all these things and, you know, if you don’t get them proved and the people that are supposed to prove it are the police themselves, so that’s not going to happen.

So, we’re saying convict Van Dyke. The police are literally trying to get us out of the fair, of the parade just because we have a banner saying, “Convict Van Dyke.” They come up to me threatening to arrest me. They said, “if you don’t get the people to move, you got three seconds. This is your only warning. I’m going to start making arrests.” So, I told him “Arrest me.” Because that’s only going to make more people wake up and realize that. This man needs to be convicted.

So, when we got the news that there was a conviction wow, such a vindicated moment. It was just like so, so cathartic, such a release, so emotional because to be honest, I had no hope for a conviction. I didn’t do what I did, and I don’t think most of us did. At least, I can only speak for myself. I didn’t do the things I did and keep talking about the situation because I thought Van Dyke was going to be convicted. Because police officers historically, they never are held accountable for their crimes.

You know, I mean, they can rape, kill, sell drugs like they could do everything and not receive convictions. Only thing they can’t really do usually, is kill white people, but they can’t even do that without getting convicted and that’s an accomplishment.

JS: Yeah, I mean, they call it “The blue wall of silence.”

VM: Yeah, The Thin Blue Line, you know what I’m saying? So, when I saw that conviction I was like wow, look at the power that we have, you know. I mean, they even played my music video for “16 Shots” in the trial. Jason Van Dyke’s defense used the music video to argue that there were too many influencers in Chicago for him to get a fair trial.

So, they wanted to move him out to the suburbs, which we know is going to be all white. It’s a classic play. Nothing’s changed. Rodney King, I mean, far before that too. Even the trial that they did had like one black person on it, I think. It had like one black woman which is ridiculous to me because Chicago is far more than 10% black. But when I saw that man, I was like, wow, we really have power and we really impacted that. And I think that this could set a new precedent because this case can be pointed to, because officers never get convicted. To see an officer convicted of any type of murder is so so rare and I believe that it can happen.

I think we’re in a new age, and we need to be emboldened by this because we’re in a new age when all this footage, man, all these cameras, all the social media is really making it hard to sweep under the rug. This is like when those photographs of Emmett Till really sparked [the] Civil Rights Movement because it was graphic. It was visceral. When you see it, it’s so much different than when you read it or when you hear it.

And I think that those of us with voices need to be empowered by this to keep going, to go harder, to apply more pressure on them because you know, justice can be served. This is not — I wouldn’t call it justice per se because I talk to my man who’s in Cook County right now.

JS: Cook County Jail?

VM: Yeah, and so he’s saying Van Dyke probably serve at the most like six years or something like that, even with all those concurrent sentences, because the judge will probably just treat them as one. God willing he’s in there for longer than that, but my man James Warren is facing — they want to hit him with 30. And he shot somebody in the leg and that person is OK. That guy can walk. So, 30 years, leg shot, James Warren. Six years, vicious homicide, Jason Van Dyke. We can’t really say that’s justice, but it’s a step.

JS: You know, in a way too, the conviction of Van Dyke is similar to what happens with torture at Abu Ghraib and other places. They’ll go after like the foot soldier that’s carrying it out.

VM: One guy.

JS: Yeah, you’ll go after one guy, but the reality was Daley was involved with this, Rahm Emanuel was involved with this.

VM: Garry McCarthy.

JS: Garry McCarthy. The list goes on.

VM: McCarthy thinks he’s running for mayor now.

JS: Right.

VM: I mean, I’m like dude. I don’t even — your pride is ridiculous because we’re not going to let it happen. Didn’t you just see this? Like we applied the pressure. We’re not going to let you be elected mayor after being involved in this ridiculous scandal and cover-up.

JS: Well again, this is a Democratic Party machine in Chicago also and none of the people except the officer were held accountable in any way whatsoever.

VM: I mean you see the same thing in Flint, Michigan. That’s how it goes, you know, because although I’m very anti-police and you know, I stand on that, the biggest problem is not the police officers. It’s the system that enables them. You know what I’m saying? The biggest problem is just this American system of everybody’s life having a price, you know. And that goes beyond police brutality. That goes into gun violence and the mass shootings we’ve been seeing.

Our issue here is that our brand of capitalism is so vicious and strong that every single thing has a price on it including the priceless commodity of human life, you know what I’m saying? Human life, I believe, under divine order, and I’m not religious or anything, but there’s no price for a human life and ours are for sale.

JS: On your album, “The Autobiography,” you had a track “We Could Be Free.” Can you talk about that?

VM: Yeah, “We Could Be Free” was a record that I wrote trying to really theorize the concept of freedom. Assata Shakur says don’t ask her about freedom because she’s never been free. But in her opinion, freedom is the right to grow, the right to blossom, the right to be who you are, right to be who you want to be. And so, in my song “We Could Be Free,” I’m saying if we could learn to see our enemies as brothers, you know. And that’s such a difficult thing to do is to be able to see your enemy as your brother.

[Vic Mensa’s “We Could Be Free” plays.]

There’s a TED Talk that I’ve been watching and showing people recently. Some people don’t like it, but I really like it. There’s this dude who’s a musician like a keyboard player: Daryl Davis has been collecting Ku Klux Klan robes for like, you know, 20 plus years from Grand Wizards, like really changing these people’s mind. It’s crazy and I’ll just give you the summary and where he ends up because you know, he got the policeman uniform from one of these guys. Then he also got that same guy’s Ku Klux Klan robe because we know police are the Ku Klux Klan. They always have been.

So, Daryl, he forms relationships with these guys, man, and he started by trying to interview the Grand Wizard and over many years, like he formed a relationship with him. The Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard would come speak, would come eat dinner at Daryl’s House. Daryl would go to rallies, you know, and just be there until at the end of it all, the man who said he would never change his views actually gave a black man his Grand Wizard, Grand Dragon uniform and left the Ku Klux Klan.

And the point that Daryl got to, his climax of his story, was respect. He said if we can respect each other as human beings and I may not agree with you, you may not agree with me but be able to listen, empathize and have respect for one another that that shit is the answer to racism. Now, I just thought it was —

JS: But what if the people that you’re disagreeing with do not believe you even have a right to exist, which is the case of Nazis and a lot of Klansmen?

VM: That was Daryl’s interaction with the Klansmen. The Klansmen were not — he didn’t say a right to exist. The Klansman was definitely standing strong on his platform that Daryl was inferior to him. He didn’t tell him he wanted to kill him but —

JS: Well, that’s the history, as you well know, of the Klan, and you mentioned Emmett Till earlier.

VM:  — 100 percent. And I really told that story just to put the idea out there that respect for the people that you really disagree with may be the key to coming to common ground and it’s not something that’s easy for me to do. I can’t act like I live on that principle. I’m team kill racists, you know, like I’m aggressive, and I’m upset, and I’m angry, and I’m righteous in my shit, but I wrote the song “We Could Be Free” imagining that if I could learn to see my enemy as my brother because all of us are brothers and sisters in humanity, you know. And if you can learn to view your enemy as your brother, then you know, that would bring us closer to freedom.

[Vic Mensa’s “We Could Be Free” plays.]

JS: And just to clarify for people that maybe haven’t heard of Assata Shakur, she has been living in exile in Cuba for decades. She was accused and as always maintained that she’s innocent of killing a New Jersey state trooper. And she managed to make it to Cuba and has lived in Cuba for many, many decades. You own a gun or guns, yes?

VM: Yes.

JS: Why?

VM: Man, I’m from the south side of Chicago like for me to stay alive, I feel that I don’t want to be a toothless tiger in the jungle.

JS: When did you first get a gun?

VM: I think I first got a gun when I was around 21. I have [a] legal conceal and carry, legal FOID. That’s the firearm owner identification. And I’ve also spoken about gun control.

JS: In fact, you’ve written op-eds about it too.

VM: Yeah, I wrote an op-ed about gun control. And so, some of the media on the right picked up a story because I had actually caught a gun charge in California. And it was crazy because it was like man, being from a war zone, you know, that paranoia follows you. And I have been going through a situation in Chicago where, you know, some things happened and I was robbed by, set up to be robbed by one of my closest friends, one of my 10-year-niggas and really finessed, thrown into this whole cycle of violence that I didn’t want to be a part of it all.

But that paranoia from that I carried it out with me to California. So, I’m still riding around, moving like it’s Chicago but my gun was registered in Illinois. So, long story short, I caught the case and after that I kind of started moving a little bit differently. But I also was invited to come perform at the March for Our Lives and I did that song that you just referenced, “We Could Be Free,” and it was an amazing performance. There were like a million people straight back.

And later on, I decided to write an op-ed piece about gun control, and I think that being somebody that owns a gun, somebody that has had issues with the law concerning firearms, that it makes me even more qualified to speak on gun control, on common-sense gun control because I’ve been on both sides of it.

I mean just on some real shit, I don’t think that America is a land of laws because I don’t believe that a law in one part of a united nation should not stand in another. So, I take issue with that to begin with the fact that people are incarcerated for weed right now in Chicago, or in fucking Texas, and niggas is making billions of dollars off weed in California tells me that law doesn’t mean law in America. So, I don’t really worry about my own troubles with the law.

But as far as common-sense gun control goes, this is another situation like what I was speaking about with Palestine. They focus in on the minutiae so that they can keep our eyes off of the bigger picture. The only reason that we don’t have common-sense gun control laws in America is because the corporations that make the guns and the bullets are ridiculously profitable and they’re in bed with the politicians. The politicians are making money off of these corporations. The politicians are having their campaigns supported by the NRA. I’m like $30,000 Marco Rubio? Something doesn’t add up to me. The fact that you can’t say anything bad about guns or the NRA for $30,000 contribution to your campaign. I’m like dude, I could donate $30,000 to a politician. I’m by no means rich. Like $30,000, something ain’t right to me. What’s going on underneath the table in the back rooms is far more significant.

Those gun lobby’s run Washington. They run Washington. And so that’s why they make it look like anybody trying to ban anything that has to do with guns is trying to take away your freedom, your Second Amendment rights because as a public speaker you learn that if you speak about those lofty ideals that you capture the hearts of people, and they know that. Donald Trump knows that. So, they just appeal to your most basic feeling of what you consider to be freedom or pride, and a lot of people feel that their Second Amendment right to bear a weapon is like, that’s their freedom. You know, you’re taking away my freedom. We don’t break it down into the fact that I mean, you’re still having your freedom if you can’t own an AR-15. You still have the freedom to own a weapon, but who needs these long rifles? Who needs these AR-15s? Who needs these extended magazines and these bump stocks? Who even needs that stuff to hunt, you know?

JS: In a nutshell, what do you think common-sense gun laws would look like? I mean, like what’s the bottom line of what you what you think needs to be done?

VM: One of my bottom lines is AR-15s and assault rifles, they all need to be not available for civilian use, point-blank because that’s the weapon most commonly used in all of these mass shootings. And we got children being killed, man, like, that’s crazy. Like, actual elementary school children being slaughtered and if that man was not able to purchase that one weapon, then so many less lives could have been lost in many situations. Also, like real background checks, intense background checks because we have them in Chicago. It’s not easy to get a gun in Chicago. It takes time.

But the fact that there are so many guns just in the nation. It’s difficult, man because real background checks, because you go into a lot of places. You go to a lot of places in the nation and you can just walk in and walk out same day, you know. And even if they have background checks, it’s like if it takes over 3 days or 48-hour period or something, then they’re required by law to give it to you.

JS: Well, and there’s a lot of loopholes, gun show etcetera.

VM: There’s so many loopholes. Chicago is full of guns because people from Chicago just drive out of state, get guns, and come sell them in Chicago. You know what I’m saying? That’s what I’m talking about with these laws not meaning anything when they differ so drastically state to state, you know what I’m saying? And they also send freight trains that niggas be having to drop on. Niggas have the info. They send freight trains of guns through the hood.

Now, I don’t know how y’all see that but something ain’t right there to me. It doesn’t line up, you know what I mean? That you send — that the freight train route with the gun shipments has to go through the violent South Side areas. Something ain’t right with that. I think that in general, man, we need to pull the sheet mask off of the wolf, is what I mean. We need to pull that mask off and call it what it is and continue to call it what it is. That this is a greedy pull for unlimited money by the powers that be.

JS: What did you think of this controversy when Killer Mike did the interview with NRA TV where he said that if his own children participated in a walk-out against gun violence, that they need to walk out of his house?

VM: Yeah.

JS: He says now he thinks he was used by them for political purposes.

VM: I got with him. I talked to him. I respect Killer Mike. I think he let himself be used. But I really respect Killer Mike and you know, we were going to like debate that publicly. And as it kind of spun on, I thought about it and I was like, you know what? This is distracting from the real point because if I’m going to debate somebody about gun control, I don’t need to be debating another black man about this.

JS: Well, and also what was lost in a lot of this is that Killer Mike, first of all, he knows — as you were referencing Reagan earlier — I mean, Killer Mike knows very well the story and the history of what you were describing earlier about this—

VM: Killer Mike is ridiculously informed.

JS: He’s one of the most intelligent, political people operating on the scene. At the same time, his political defense of gun ownership is rooted in the politics of self-defense of the Black Panthers and other movements — It’s not about “I want to go running around AR-15” —

VM: I understand where he’s coming from, but the AR-15, point-blank and that’s what we were really talking about. It’s just not necessary and I would really love to see somebody explain to me how it’s necessary. On the NRA website, they have a host of reasons that range from like, you know, the obvious, self-defense to the ridiculous, tinkering with something, they mentioned, and collectibles, and hunting, you know, something that you just don’t need AR-15s for.

But Killer Mike’s position on that, you know, my problem with that was that yeah, I understand the whole, you know, obviously, the police have them and wanting to protect yourself from a racist, oppressive nation and system. But let’s be honest here, brother. There’s no chance that an AR-15 is going to protect you when the militarized police, or military of America come to get you. Andre 3000 had a good line about that. He said “While y’all ranting and raving ’bout gats, nigga, they made them gats. They got some shit that’ll blow out our backs from where they stay at.”

I mean, look at that situation with the Texas shooter Micah X whose name is just not right to begin with that. That whole thing was funny, but they sent a robot around a corner to blow him up. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that we can protect ourselves from the militarized, what I said from the militarized arm of this oppressive society with an AR-15. Not happening.

JS: You mentioned Flint, Michigan earlier, and you also have met with residents of Flint, and you also wrote a track about Flint. Maybe you could share some of that experience of talking to that man and the track “Shades of Blue.”

VM: Yes, so I went out to Flint, Michigan a couple times. The first time I went I was invited by Ryan Coogler, actually.

JS: The great director of Fruitvale Station, Creed, and now, probably most people know him for Black Panther. But really people should see all of his films.

VM: Definitely should, but Ryan Coogler invited me out there some years ago, 2016, I think. He was doing a benefit concert in Flint and it was like a black-out against the “Oscars so white.” So, I went down there to perform and I was able to spend a little bit of time and meet a few people. The second time I went back, I really, really got a drawing for the situation it. It was so, so disheartening. I mean, it was just horribly sad to see these people show you actual milk jugs full of brown water, you know, somewhere between piss and Hennessy, you know. It’s just like, the shit just makes the hair on your back stand up.

I remember a kid, while we were doing like a thing handing out food, and water, and canned goods, and things like that. And a kid rode down the street on his bike and he jumped off. And I was chopping it up with him for a second and he showed me his head and he’s like, yeah, my hair started falling out right here. He’s like showing me patches —

JS: From the lead poisoning?

VM: — Patches from the lead poisoning because the water was poisoned by lead once again. Reoccurring theme for a couple bucks, you know, for a couple people somewhere to keep a couple bucks the city of Flint had their water poisoned with lead, put into old pipes, and run from the Flint River. Like, I went down to the —

JS: Instead of Lake Huron. Right, exactly.

VM: I went down to the Flint River. Imagine in Chicago, if they ever told us our water was going to come from the Chicago River. There’s too much money in Chicago. I mean, you can’t even propose something like that because those people that have money those with wealth will never stand for it. You know what I’m saying? So, Flint, Michigan is somewhere where it’s actually majority black, over 50-something percent black, and also the majority of the people live beneath the poverty line.

So, these are people without real representation. These are people who the system views as people that they can exploit and they can push around. So, to save a couple dollars in their annuals. They switch their water to these pipes that is poisoning people and it’s still is poisoning people, and that’s the thing. These things happen and they’re a big topic. But the news cycle is so fast that everybody forgets and it’s still happening. Like the water situation there without real intensive resources being put into that situation, takes 20 years for that shit to get right. And who knows the long-term effects of this lead.

[Vic Mensa’s “Shades of Blue” plays.]

We just got to keep the Flint, Michigan conversation alive because people will forget or people want to forget because it doesn’t affect them. But when you’ve been there and you’ve seen like the havoc that that shit is wreaking on an already like struggling, struggling community because Flint used to be alive, man but all of the production for cars started going overseas everything left.

JS: Yeah, we just had Michael Moore on the show recently who was from Flint and made the movie “Roger & Me” about what happened when all of the auto jobs left Flint, and that was the beginning of the economic implosion of Flint.

VM: And Detroit.

JS: And Detroit, certainly Detroit. You know, I also wanted to ask you about the bait truck story in Chicago and the way you responded to it.

VM: I was actually in Chicago at the time. It was Lollapalooza weekend

And so, it was a hot weekend — 75 people shot, 15-20 at least, dead in two days, you know, two, three days. And on the third day, we see this video emerge on the internet of some people in the community that were filming a truck that had been brought into the hood. And it was like filled with Air Force 1s and Louboutins and it was set there by a basketball court in the ghetto for poor people to break into, steal, and get arrested. A bait truck and you know, it was just, it was so offensive because we literally, we’re 75 shootings in. That’s a lot and for it to feel like the approach, the response from the Chicago Police Department was to bait us like animals. It was so —

JS: What happened?

VM: A couple [of] people were arrested and I’m actually not sure what happened to them. But really, just that as a tactic is just so offensive and so disrespectful. It goes back to what I was talking about. Everything’s always taken from the hood. There’s no resources being put into the hood. So, I saw that and a good friend of mine named Anwar Hadid reached out to me. And we’ve been building recently because I’m trying to get out to Palestine with him around the end of this year.

He’s Palestinian and he’s like a person of a pretty large profile. So, they’re doing a situation like bringing people out to Palestine. But he reached out to me and he actually had the idea. He was like, “Yo,” we were talking about the bait truck and he was like “Yo, this is wild.” He was like “Yo, it’d be crazy if we gave away shoes over there.” And I was like, “Whoa, that’s a genius idea.”

So, we did the anti-bait truck and, you know, we were able to get support from people online. And Shaun King really helped us out and made an Amazon link because we made a GoFundMe, and Shaun King made an Amazon link. And people from all around the world just started sending a pair of shoes, you know, because it’s just 50 bucks, or you know, whatever, donate a pair of shoes.

And so, we ended up with like 15,000 pairs of shoes, and we did the anti-bait truck right in the same Englewood community where the bait truck had been staged. It was about a week later. And we had you know, like 15,000 people come out in the community, and we gave away like 12,000 pairs of shoes. Things got really hectic so we kind of had to move around because when you have that many people anywhere. But it was powerful, man, you know. I was standing there with one of the kids that was at the basketball court when the truck first came and I’m like man, look take these new Steph Curry’s. You know what I’m saying? Take these, bro because I believe in you. We believe in you. Believe in you, you know, you believe in you.

And that’s what I try to tell the city, man because there’s always people like Donald Trump pointing to Chicago being like, “Oh look at Chicago. They’re fucked up. They can’t do anything right.” Then you grow up and you just see gang-banging and you see violence. You see murder and drugs all around you because this is a situation that’s been orchestrated, but you ain’t getting the context. You just like “Shit. It’s dangerous in this motherfucker. I better learn to act accordingly.” You know what I’m saying? We need to be putting the resources, and the votes of confidence, and the faith back into our people because they don’t want us to believe that we are powerful that we are capable.

So, I do things like that and we’re continuing that motion just to show that love, you know. It’s like we had extra shoes so, we’re giving away a pair of shoes and a whole Christmas gift thing to every kid in DCFS care in Chicago right around Christmas, you know. We got some things going on right now where we’re doing a large drive for feminine products for like domestic violence shelters because, you know, they really need these things and I hear that in the cold season, it’s even more of a thing. You know, just being there for the city because the city gave me everything, and the city really raised me, and taught me how to be a man, how to be who I am. So, I was always taught that you take care of your own.

JS: Who would you identify, and who do you think young people should be reading as political influencers of your life?

VM: I started first and foremost with the autobiography of Malcolm X. I think that if you read that book, that your perspective on the world will be altered. I also studied Huey Newton a lot, chairman of the Black Panthers. Fred Hampton from Chicago was a great guy to just go on YouTube and just listen to the things he says. He was Chicago chairman of The Black Panthers.

JS: Who was assassinated in his bed.

VM: Assassinated at home at the age of 21. Angela Davis, you know. I think people going to go read bell hooks, you know, just really, really get a smorgasbord of different ideas. I could probably just look at my books in my phone because I read everything on my phone anyway. So, there’s “Blood in My Eye,” Nelson Mandela, obviously, Che Guevara. That’s a guy you definitely want to be reading.

JS: I’ve heard of him.

VM: Gucci Mane. Gucci Mane’s book is really good. He’s not like my political influence but — Leonard Peltier, prison writings, you know, Ta-Nehisi Coates is somebody that I mean, you can start there. Also, “The New Jim Crow” —

JS: Michelle Alexander.

VM: Michelle Alexander. That book will really open your eyes if you read that one. Yeah, you know, that’s a couple of them.

JS: All right, cool. Well, Vic Mensa, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.

VM: Oh, “Soledad Brother,” George Jackson, man. Thank you for having me, bro.

JS: Vic Mensa is a Chicago-based hip-hop artist, a Grammy-nominated rapper. His most recent album is The Autobiography.

[Musical interlude.]

And that does it for this bonus episode. If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, log on to Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro, and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

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