Listening To Vic Mensa

Listening To Vic Mensa

A social commentary through music.

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In the fall of my junior year, I acquired an aversion to elephants and the color red. The red elephants on my television screen were revolting: come January 2017, an openly sexist, racist bigot—the antithesis of the American spirit—would hold our country's highest office. My calculus homework was long-forgotten on the kitchen table as I sat next to my mother in silence. I envisioned repealed civil liberties for minorities, eradicated universal healthcare, and an ominous wall that separated us from the rest of the world. I felt helpless—but, I was not alone. 2,140 miles away in an Atlanta hotel room, the face of social hip-hop, Vic Mensa, fielded phone calls from his dejected sisters and dealt with his own incurable disgust.

Mensa grew up in Chicago's South Side. His parents (both educators) taught Mensa the importance of politics, literature, and mathematics, while the rest of the South Side exposed Mensa to humanity's unsettling realities: gun violence, drugs, and police brutality. Following the murder of his childhood friend, Mensa decided to create music that inspires political and social change. Mensa writes and performs powerful songs packed with an effective combination of both rhetoric and personal experience. To him, the 2016 Election results were not disheartening; instead, Trump's win only strengthened his vision. "I realized that [Trump] had to happen because we've been pacified by having Barack [Obama] in office. That pacification would have only continued by having Hillary elected," Mensa stated in an interview with CNN the day after the election, "My fight doesn't end here no matter the outcome".

Mensa's debut album, There's a Lot Going On, was released a few months prior to the presidential election. On the seven-part album, track six, "Shades of Blue", is the most politically-charged song included in the collection. The first time that I heard the song during the summer of 2016, I focused solely on the appealing beat and pretty harmonies. I understood the obvious reference to the Flint water crisis; however, I overlooked the lyrics' full significance. Listening to the song post-election was a drastically different experience. As Mensa predicted, Trump's hateful rhetoric and racist remarks pushed social justice issues towards the forefront of my mind. This elevated awareness made me conscious of "Shades of Blue"'s allusions to social justice, and Mensa's intricate lyrical tools reinforced my sense of purpose: taking a firm stance against injustice to spur political change.

As I later discovered in "Shades of Blue", Flint is a segue to other social justice themes. Race, socioeconomic status, government inefficiency, and white-centric media coverage are all problems that are exacerbated by the Flint crisis. Mensa utilizes potent images, the "color of morning pee coming out of the sink" and "lead in the water gun," to highlight the severity and transparency of the crisis. Mensa further articulates his point on race and class disparity by comparing the Flint crisis to a sinking boat: if the boat contained white people, the government would intervene and help; yet, since the boat contains minorities (both racial and socioeconomic), the government will allow it to sink. Mensa's lyrics also explain the government's inability to aid poverty-stricken areas. Our representatives allow inner-city areas to flounder under mounting violence while allowing media sources to emphasize the stagnant stalemate between the U.S. and Russia. Rather than confronting the rising crime rates in places like Mensa's native South Side Chicago, the government chooses to work on "true" American problems like Russia and to leave the "black problem" to fester and deteriorate. For me, these verses highlighted the government's incompetence and failed attempts to provide tangible assistance for specific minority groups which amplified my frustration with the inequality in America.

Trump has forced America to recognize some of its ugliest truths. His supporters no longer have to hide their racist opinions; the enemies are clearly targeted, and the lines have been erased—anything is fair game. For years our nation has suppressed underlying marginalization, and now that these sentiments are public, our generation can identify, confront, and combat racism. I have followed politics from a young age, but Mensa's music inspires myself and my peers to actively participate in politics. With the Trump administration bearing down on valued American institutions, the public must unify and stand as an ally for groups who have been ignored and suppressed throughout history. Our strength and influence is derived from passion, large numbers, and ceaseless agitation. "Change gon' come," Vic Mensa promises in "Shades of Blue", but "it's all on you."

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Filipino-American Mental Health: It Starts with a Conversation

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When it comes to talking about mental health struggles, I feel like a lot of Filipino-Americans share a similar attitude—sure, it happens, but not with my family. Whether it is because the language is still inaccessible to our communities, or we refuse to approach the topic because of fear, or a little bit of both, a lot of us have yet to really contextualize and express how this particular topic shows up in our daily lives. So you can just imagine how radical it was when a group of Filipino-American health professionals, academics, student leaders, nonprofit leaders and more participated in the first ever National Forum on Filipino American Mental Health held at the Philippine Embassy. On that day, members of our community said yes, mental health struggles absolutely happen, and they are experienced by our families too.

I participated in the forum as an EPYC Ambassador for the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA). The EPYC Program, in its sophomore year, hopes to empower the next generation of Fil-Am leaders across the country by assisting in the personal and professional development of students and young professionals. As an ambassador for the Capital Region, I was quickly introduced to the scene in the D.C. Metro Area. I made my way from one community event to another, increasing my networks and learning about the resources that I wished I knew when I was younger. But it was, ironically, the topic of mental health that made me very anxious to attend the forum. At the time, I was going through one of the hardest college semesters of my life, and I was afraid to participate in an event dealing directly with this very topic. I woke up that morning with every intention of fading into the background to listen rather than to speak.

But that is not what happened. The hosts made it clear that they wanted to hear what the young people had to say. Jon Melegrito, a local community pioneer known fondly as "Tito Jon" said that that day was about sharing our stories, because we rarely have the opportunity to do so. The room had prominent scholars like Dr. Kevin Nadal (who sat next to me!) and Dr. E.J. Ramos David, but their eyes were focused on us. And so we spoke. We talked about dealing with stigma both inside and outside the community. We talked about the structural barriers (like costs) that make it hard for anybody to get support, regardless of their ethnicity. On the topic of collaboration, I mentioned that it was important for us to address that Filipino-Americans are not a monolith, and that we must always strive to center the most marginalized among us.


Pictured (left to right): Andrew Bartolome, Janis Manalang, Jon Melegrito, Kevin Nadal, and Austin ChavezPhoto by Lia Macadangdang


There was one topic, however, that we kept circling back to: the disconnect between parent and child, between first gen and second gen, between the homeland and the diaspora. I often find these conversations to be very interesting, because as someone who identifies as 1.5 gen (someone who immigrated to this country as a child), I serve as a good example that those conversations are not black-and-white. If there is anything I learned from being pushed into the diaspora it is that this life is very hard. No amount of Filipino resilience can prepare you from dealing with so much loss when you are away from your people. Diaspora asks us to rebuild and re-envision a new life without having much of a blueprint to borrow from. So who should we be? What kind of life should we have? These are some of the broader conversations our communities will need to have for some time.


Quezon City, Philippines. 2003.


And what we are seeing now is that more and more of our people are willing to have them. Recently, Instagram hired Filipino-American student Jazmine Alcon (@pettyofcolor) as an Instagram Ambassador. Alcon uses her platform to create online spaces for youth, specifically Filipinx youth, to talk about mental health issues. Malaka Gharib of NPR has published a heartwarming multimedia piece on Filipino-American Mental Health with the help of Ryann Tanap of AARP. Academics like Nadal and David have been making a name for Filipino-American psychology for some time and still continue to make breakthroughs.

And we should not stop there. We also need to take a look at what Ruby Ibarra is doing, what Bambu DePistola is doing. We must engage with Elaine Castillo and Jose Antonio Vargas. We have to ground ourselves in the work of Dawn Mabalon and Carlos Bulosan who did so much work for our people when they were here. We also have to be humble enough to look at what other communities have done that help paved the way for us. Fil-Ams, especially non-Black Fil-Ams, need to be just as dedicated in reading their bell hooks and Audre Lorde and James Baldwin and Kimberle Crenshaw and Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston, and so much more. Inclusivity, intersectionality, and solidarity should be the heart of our many conversations. Kapwa (connectedness) must not come with any conditions.

As I unpack my own struggles with mental health, I often look back on the day of the forum. I often have to stop myself from feeling like a hypocrite because I was talking about a topic that I have yet to fully resolve on my own. And then I realize that perhaps the bigger problem was that I thought I had to resolve it alone. As I get closer to graduation, I am beginning to understand that I should not beat myself up any longer, because life in the diaspora already does a good job of doing that. What I should do is be more gentle and give more grace for those are the more radical things to do in the face of what we are dealt with. The business of being free is hard work, but to echo Dr. E.J. Ramos David—"it's hard work, because it's the heart's work."

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Our Leaders Need A 'Time-Out'

We all learned a few essential rules as children.

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As I look watch the news, I can't help but wonder if the lessons we learned as children might not serve our leaders well. They seem to have forgotten these basic lessons. I am reminded of the book by Robert Fulghum "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten."

Watch out, hold hands, and stick together.

I think this could be useful in a couple of different contexts. First, the current divisiveness in the country doesn't serve us well. We are first and foremost, a part of the family of humankind. Differences in politics, religion, and so on come in far behind that one important attribute. What happened to the notion of agreeing to disagree?

Second, when leaders get off a plane in another country, they should remember who they came with and who they represent - "watch out, hold hands, and stick together."

Clean up your own mess.

Trump seems to take great pleasure in blaming everyone else for their "mess." The government shutdown was someone else's fault – any Democrat. When the stock market went up, he happily took credit, but when it went down, he quickly shifted gears and placed the blame on the Federal Reserve Chairman. Daily and hourly tweets out of the White House place blame on someone else for his "mess." Sadly, he still likes to blame Obama and Hillary for his mess.

Don't lie.

Politicians have always had a bad reputation when it comes to honesty. Still, the number of lies that we hear from Trump (and members of his staff) is unprecedented even for a politician.

We all learned these lessons when we were little more than five years old. Now more than any time in history I think our leaders need a " time out" to re-learn these lessons.

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