Interview : Otis Mensah – We talk Glastonbury / Poet laureate / Today’s political climate + much more

1) Hi Otis, thanks for your time today mate, so when did you first realise music was in your blood?

Thanks so much for having me. I think in searching for an expressionistic outlet as a teenager who felt isolated and unsure of identity, faced with the existential angst that comes with trying to be independent of thought for the first time, I was searching for a means of therapy. For me, music became a sanctuary where I could share my thoughts in a way that felt purposeful. My dad being a Hip-Hop DJ and my mum being a poet, I feel that lyricism within the culture of Hip-Hop was a subconscious inclination. Hip-Hop taught me about my identity and under the logic that my favourite artists shared their most honest and vulnerable personal-truths, I also began to write and create under.

2) At RGM we want to cover more alternate genres but when we put the feelers out we don’t get much interaction online. What are we doing wrong?

I feel it’s always harder to promote something that is to the left or an alternative to what people are used to hearing, simply because as listeners it’s easier to remain in the comfort zone of what you like and are used to. For example, my world artistically very much revolves around Hip-Hop music and it takes an effort to go outside the world that I’m engulfed by but when I do discover new realms of music, it’s worth it and I’ve discovered some of my favourite albums that way, such as HALEY HEYNDERICKX – I Need To Start A Garden.

I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong. By covering the art you’re passionate about, even if it doesn’t fit the mould, half the battle is won. I think then it becomes about trying to communicate that passion, talking about the facets of the music that excite and impress you as a seasoned taste maker. I think when done well that passion is contagious and translates through and it becomes hard to deny as a reader and at least makes you question your own genre biases and comforts. I think you’re fighting the good fight, keep covering the alternative art that you’re passionate about and the people who need to hear it will eventually gravitate towards it.

3) What’s the best experience you have ever had on stage?

The most rewarding feeling when performing is witnessing an audience that connects to you. It creates this community between you and them and feels like you’re on the journey together. I think this comes about from me as an artist, sharing something that is vulnerable and personal, then the audience being open and willing to experience their own vulnerabilities in that space and time; to feel free to go wherever the music and poetry takes you.

4) What’s the worst experience you have had on stage?

The worst experience on stage is when my voice goes and I’m left with a raspy howl haha. I struggle with silent reflux or singers reflux which, in a nutshell means that the foods I eat can often hurtle acids into my throat affecting my voice without other bodily symptoms. Therefore, if I eat poorly before shows or anything too heavy I’m often fighting to keep my voice. I also hate feeling like you can’t communicate with the sound engineer that always makes a show a bad experience.

5) What’s the worst piece of advice you have been given on your journey?

I’d say the worst piece of advice I’ve been given and have ignored is to write to and rap over instrumental music that sounds more current.

6) Playing Glastonbury must have been a pleasant experience, talk us through the weekend and what you took away from it?

I arrived the day before, camped and woke up for my performance in the afternoon. After performing I was elated for the rest of the weekend and tried to see as much music as I could. It was my first performance at a big festival. It was a blessing to be able to share my art and perspective on a stage of that calibre, with such a rich musical history and to play on a Festival line up alongside some of my favourite artists like Loyle Carner, Anderson .Paak and Thundercat.

7) You were recently named Sheffield’s poet laureate by the Lord Mayor Magic Magid, how did that come about?

Magid contacted me about the role and I was pleasantly surprised. I found it interesting that an aspiring experimental Hip-Hop artist could be considered for such a formal position. I feel that Hip-Hop, although as prevalent and present in our culture and society as it is, rarely receives spoken recognition for the impact it has. Magid Magid appointing me as Poet Laureate, displays an appreciation for Hip-Hop culture and the art form of rap as poetry.

The role of Poet Laureate is all about breaking down barriers, changing the mould and perception of what it means to be a poet, continuing to share art that harnesses the power in vulnerability and encouraging expression of emotion through art in others.

8) What advice would you give a young person looking to get into music/spoken word?

The advice I’d give would be to look inward and explore your own vulnerabilities through writing, to try and open yourself up and express honestly. I think it can be liberating to know that in a world that asks you to wear so many social masks you can be free to express in your craft.  Let go of any pretence or preconceived ideas of what it means to be an artist or writer, especially within rap music, and to let the pen do the work.

9) How do you find the current political climate?

I tend not to follow party politics religiously but today’s political climate saddens me. I feel our government continues to steer us away from honest expression, ripping arts from our education and, in doing so, feeding into an emotionless disconnect in society which is already at an all-time high due to the internet and social media age we exist in. Mental health continues to be disregarded and stigmatised by being underfunded and when the system fails us as it does, we need to step up as community and provide that help for one another where we can. We need to display to the younger generation why expression as a form of communication is so important for our emotional and mental wellbeing.

10) What’s coming up next for you mate?

In November, I will be releasing a new EP called ‘Colours of it all’, which is a social commentary, exploring the colourful nature of logical contradictions we face every day, the paradoxes of our daily lives and its beauty. I hope to then share this live with the people of Sheffield and the rest of the world; it’s a journey with the intention of inspiring and opening conversation.  

As Poet Laureate, I hope to continue on in sharing music, using introspective expression and the power of vulnerability to combat the social walls we build up that stop us from connecting to one another. I feel communication is the key and art has the power to move in ways that other forms of communication cannot.

In the New Year, I will be releasing my debut album and first poetry book titled ‘SAFE METAMORPHOSIS’.