From a Music Festival in Ghana to a Chicago Cannabis Company, Vic Mensa Is Collecting Causes And Making Change

The Chicago-born rapper is focused on making the world a better place.

Vic Mensa

A crackle of excitement pierces through the crowd. “Can you hear me now?” a voice bellows from the stage. Vic Mensa has taken the mic.

Two years ago, the Chicago-born rapper set out on a mission to organize a music festival featuring Black artists after a trip to Ghana in 2020 left him inspired. “I was really struck by the fact that there's a need for Black artists to be performing for their fans on the continent, and the fan bases exist,” he says over a Zoom call from Ghana. He shared how Black musicians often use American and European tour ticket sales as markers of success as commercial artists — when in reality, many of their most dedicated fans live in Africa. A lightbulb went off for the rapper.

The gathering would serve “as a celebration of Pan-Africanism,” with the hope of connecting Black people and Black artists back to Africa from the diaspora. Tickets for the event — which would later be called the Black Star Line Festival — would be free for thousands (maybe even tens of thousands) of people flying in from all over the world. It was Mensa’s first foray into festival planning, and he was determined to bring people together through Black art.

I got more ideas than I know what to do with.

“The opportunities for us as artists to really communicate with [fans], to perform for them, are limited, and their opportunities to see us perform are very limited,” he says. “Above all this is Black music and these are all Black people — the opportunity for us to commune needs to exist. I hope the legacy of this festival stands as a living testament to the power of Black American and continental African collaboration and, beyond that, collaboration of African people of the globe.” 

The festival’s location, Accra, holds special meaning for Mensa. His father hails from Ghana, and after visiting the city, Mensa saw firsthand the fervor of his fans in his family’s homeland, which initially prompted the idea. The Black Star Square in Accra also holds immense historic meaning as a physical monument and lasting testament to Ghanaians’ political freedom that they fought for and won from the British in 1957 — thanks to the leadership of its first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. At the time, Dr. Nkrumah was inspired by the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, who not only advocated for a free Africa but a global connection between Black people everywhere, beyond the continent. 

Even the name of the festival holds roots in Garvey’s vision. Founded in 1919, Garvey’s iconic Black Star Line was a steamship company that linked America, the Caribbean, and Africa to global shipping and tourism opportunities. The Black Star Line was a symbol of pride, not only for Africans, but for all Black people globally. 

I had this vision to unify the diaspora and the continent in the form of music and culture.

A self-proclaimed dreamer (“I got more ideas than I know what to do with,” he says.) Mensa isn’t naive to the work, skill, and major lift required to execute a safe and high-level music festival, so he enlisted a team of people to assist him, including Chance the Rapper to helm the festival alongside him. Other musicians who signed on to perform included some of the most notable American names in music including Erykah Badu, Jeremih, T-Pain, as well as Ghanaian artists such as Sarkodie, Asakaa Boys, and M.anifest.

“It's a huge undertaking, and I'm doing my best to approach everything gracefully and put on a good show as a performer and also as an organizer and make a statement,” he tells InStyle prior to the festival. “I think the most rewarding aspect is going to be pulling it off. It's really a dream come true in that I had this vision to unify the diaspora and the continent in the form of music and culture.”

In addition to the musical performances, Mensa organized panels, parties, and interactive events to create hype around the festival. He remained uber-focused on pulling off what felt like an almost-impossible feat (“I have an album that I'm releasing, I got videos I'm shooting, content I'm creating, music to make all at the same time as organizing this festival,” he shares), but on January 6, 2023, Mensa’s long-time dream came to fruition when approximately 52,000 people came to witness and take part in The Black Star Line Festival.

While his first (and according to him, not his last) festival was a roaring success, this wasn’t Mensa’s first initiative to bring the Black community together. In 2018, Mensa started his own nonprofit SaveMoney SaveLife in Chicago to create sustainable change in the community, and Mensa has been vocal over the years about the proliferation of gun violence and the importance of mental health through op-eds, music lyrics, and public appearances. 

This is Everybody’s In, a celebration of people making the world a better place for everyone in 2023. You’re ‘in’ if you’re making an impact. Read on to see who’s with you.

But he really credits so much of his personal evolution and advocacy work to literature, where he learned about the struggle and strife of those who came before him including Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, bell hooks, and James Baldwin. This passion for reading and education inspired him to start Books Before Bars, a program that sends books into jails and prisons around the United States, “with the intention of bringing mental freedom, spiritual freedom to people who are physically incarcerated.” The purchase of these books is funded by Mensa’s 93 Boyz, the first Black-owned cannabis distributor in Chicago which also has a mission to give back to the community through different initiatives.

When it comes to the last book that dramatically shifted Mensa’s perspective, he cites Deepak Chopra's Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire, which was recommended to him by a friend who read it while serving a 25-year sentence at 14 years old. Mensa helped him come home 12 years early, and the experience left an indelible mark on him forever.

“That really changed my life,” he says. “It made me recognize and spend more time appreciating divine coincidences and keeping note of them and really honoring them as proof of God's intervention into my affairs.” 

From his punk rock covers to electronic music features, his musical versatility shows a deft ability to traverse different audiences and bring them together — a sharp skill that undoubtedly came in handy planning The Black Star Line Festival and creating a positive change in the world. Many cynics have been critical of an American rapper coming to West Africa to attract tourists, make a profit, then leave — but Mensa is here for the long haul. He’s even committed to bettering the town with efforts like the installation of wells in Ghana to bring potable water to several communities.

What’s next for Mensa? “World domination,” he tells me with a chuckle. With an upcoming album that he says is some of his “strongest writing” yet and his extensive list of advocacy projects that are changing the landscape of Black communities, it’s easy to believe him. Though he tells InStyle that right now he’s focusing on himself and entering the new year with intention.

“The way I'm looking at it is I think I've given a lot of years to the world and to the people, and that's just me, that's my heart,” he says. “But right now I'm prioritizing myself, my own creativity. As that is nurtured and allowed to really grow, the space for all of these other things opens up and expands and it's multiplied in potential.”

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