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Introducing: Otis Mensah

Image: Miroslav Kiss

Delivering socially-conscious narratives with impeccable flow, Otis Mensah is the young hip-hop poet who embraces an experimental take on both hip-hop and poetic-expression. Appointed as Sheffield’s first poet-laureate, Mensah is a champion for the arts with a unique talent for reflecting on the political and emotional trials and tribulations of life.

You’ve been appointed as Sheffield’s first poet laureate. When poetry often has elitist and white-washed connotations, what does this recognition mean to you?

For me, the role is all about dismantling those elitist whitewashed connotations and advocating against the age-old oppressive tradition and its ingroup bias exclusivity; I feel poetry should be and is for everyone. I see poetry & art as a vehicle for emotional communication and community, to unite people and uplift people even in shared tribulations.

Do you remember when you first started writing?

I think it started off as something where I could be free to express, regardless of societal norms. I think at the beginning it was very much about being a provocative or writing from braggadocio, pretending and playing a role as a lot of rappers often do haha. However, at some point I realised that my favourite artists, the poets who resonate with me on the deepest level were those who were vulnerable. I found that in poetic-vulnerability there lies community, when you can unite people through a mutual burden, that burden doesn’t feel so heavy to bare and it starts to feel like we’re not so alone but in solidarity. To me this is the highest and most meaningful form of expression.

When did you begin using hip-hop as a form of expression and storytelling?

I think my journey to looking at things beyond the surface and more critically was sparked by artists like The Roots with albums like ‘Things Fall Apart’ & ‘How I got over’. When I was around 17-18 I was listening to a lot of Hip-Hop that hurtled me into self-discovery and personal study. I began to take on a sort of introspective yet outward gaze.

You grew up in Sheffield. What are your thoughts on the creative scene there?

I’m always in awe of the incredible talent that exists in Sheffield; it’s beautiful to know that there’s artists pushing boundaries, even on a global scale, from your home. I’ve been listening to a lot KOG & The Zongo Brigade, their album ‘Wahala Wahala’ is such an uplifting, high-octane piece of art. I love everything that Steve Edwards does with his band Universal Tree, incredible music for the soul. Artist collectives like Blancmange Lounge - Jackie Moonbather’s masterpieces.

There’s a flourishing poetry scene, Warda Yassin is an amazing poet and her debut pamphlet ‘Tea & Cardamon” is a treasure trove of beautiful imagery & poetry about family & community. Raluca de Soleil, another incredible poet from the city, releasing her book for the second time soon. Jack Young one of my favourite spoken word artists. Much needed Nights like Verse Matters are amazing entities for change in the city. Also, there’s organisations like Hive which is an amazing hub for young poets & writers in the city, again doing great work.

Do you have any projects in the works?

I have a new EP, Rap Poetics, out this October. It explores rap as an intellectual art form and potent form of poetry in the face of its constant devaluation as something ‘disposable’ or ‘unintelligent’. Also focusing on the power of vulnerability and artistic expression as emotional communication. I hope to start a festival here in Sheffield dedicated to artists contributing to the Hip-Hop Poetry movement in the new year, as well as a new podcast.

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