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Rap poet Otis Mensah talks about his multi-dimensional project #OtisMensahExists

Delivering socially-conscious narratives with impeccable flow, this young hip-hop poet embraces experimentation and poetic-expression in his new #OtisMensahExists series.

There still remains, in dusty corners of some red brick universities, old white men readily poised to discredit the powerful potential of hip-hop, rap and animation. It’s an age-old need to label something as ‘low-art’, shoehorning it into the realm of ‘trivial’. And yet, hip-hop and animation find kinship within each other. As someone who is well-aware of the snobbery of traditional academia, Otis Mensah has been a proverbial corrective lens on this subject for years.

Talk of this paradigm is inevitable whilst sitting down with the Sheffield Poet Laureate to dissect his new, multi-dimensional project. #OtisMensahExists involves poetry, philosophy, hip-hop, jazz, animation and so much more. It taps directly into society without frills or braggadocio: sometimes witty, often painful, but always authentic.

#OtisMensahExists is a seamless collaboration with fellow Sheffield resident and illustrator, Jim Spendlove. It was a natural process, highly valued by ‘Mum’s House Philosopher’ Mensah: “[Jim] got my ideas straight away and elevated them, transcended them even.” Spendlove’s animations - paired with the episodic release schedule and title hashtag- were to “Critique and pay homage to binge culture.” Cleverly crafted from beginning to end, the 5-part project sees each track released every 3 weeks. Through the very foundations of the project, from denying a ‘binge effect’ but still partaking in ‘quick fix’ internet culture, Otis questions how we consume art in today’s climate and what this means for our society. 

Anxieties about modernity, particularly progress or lack thereof, are rife throughout the project. No place is this better seen and heard than ‘Internet Café’, a piece inspired by the 2013 documentary Web Junkie, that places internet gaming addiction at its centre.

On questioning Otis why he chose this subject, he immediately gets stuck in: “I started to think about how we pathologise ‘internet addiction’. There’s a want to simplify what our generation is going through.”

Using nuance to explore why and how we got here, ‘Internet Café’ refuses to be reduced to the binary of ‘good for you and bad for you’, residing instead somewhere in the middle. Otis alludes to how things are “Broken in our lives and in our society. The internet acts as a shield for that”. Paired with jangly piano, an uncanny familiarity of our toxic relationship with modernity creeps in. Otis explains: “I don’t want to speak for an entire generation, but I’m picking up on my own experiences.”

Despite being introspective, the series pangs of relatability and collective experience. ‘No Record Store Day’ is a great example of this. Written separately to the rest, towards the beginning of the global pandemic, it’s an episode so attached to a place and time, one that we’ve all experienced in some way or another.

During Otis’ poetry book launch in June, he spoke on the idea of a hip-hop artist fulfilling the role of a community philosopher. ‘No Record Store Day’ is the community philosopher at his finest, pinpointing our frustrations, our trauma and our fear. The track is urgent, agitated and bursting at the seams. 

The entire project manifests a stifling restlessness, perhaps stemming from Otis’ need to document his existence. For the artist, the creation of #OtisMensahExists coincided with “A heightened state of anxiety”, particularly around mortality and existence. ‘40 years’ is a track that fuses this claustrophobia into its very essence.

Talking about this, Otis reflects on “Artistic purgatory”, particularly, “In this current state with white supremacy running rife through society with all this trauma, with the social media age, with lockdown, being an artist and feeling trapped.” Trying to resist these confines, we hear Otis at his most experimental, playing with rhythm, rhyme, pitch and tempo. Towards the end, his speech folds in and out of the instrumentation, mimicking the improvisational flow of jazz in a way similar to that of Freestyle Fellowship.

On questioning Otis on his influences, it’s no surprise that jazz is up there: “I think on a philosophical level, I see the art of rap as jazz.” Otis’ particular blend of jazz-poetry constantly keeps listeners attentive and enveloped. 

During our conversation, we frequently touch on art rap, particularly Open Mike Eagle, Aesop Rock and R.A.P. Ferriera (formerly Milo). Otis holds their artistic integrity in such high esteem, and their authenticity bleeds into his own art: “That’s how I love to write; I always want to write directly as an ear to what my thought patterns are telling me right at that moment.” Such poetic vulnerability is the driving force of #OtisMensahExists.

Otis’ meditations on morality, anxiety, fear and claustrophobia propel the project from the get-go. The first track to be released, ‘Breath of Life (feat. Hemlock Ernst)’, sets the scene for what is to come. Regarding the decision behind this, Otis says “There’s definitely something to be said for putting the most gruesome, rawest, poetic exploration first to test the waters and to also let people know this is going to be a project that is intimate and personal.”

Indeed, ‘Breath of Life’ has the dark abyss of fear at its core. Tackling even the fear of life itself, the paranoid anxieties within the words dance with the soulful instrumentation to create this eerie juxtaposition. This is fuelled further by the pen of Hemlock Ernst, whose avoidant abstraction deliciously clashes with Otis’ immediacy. ‘Breath of Life’ is the poet bearing his heart. 

Otis admits that poetic vulnerability “Helps on a therapeutic level.” however painful it may be.

The poet says: “No matter what you are going through, you have an outlet where you are not fearful or hiding the most gruesome, embarrassing things – this can be somewhat liberating, it can be empowering.” Relating to this, ‘The Thinks’ is a moment of catharsis. Lovingly described as ‘An ode to an over-thinker’, we see Otis confronting his own mental health from a position of objectivity.

For Otis, this track allowed him to see that there can also be beauty in suffering: “Giving a sense of purpose to personal suffering adorns the suffering if you will. I got something beautiful from this. Using art and expression to unravel your own mind.” 

There’s a toxic element that can sometimes grow from poetic vulnerability, that which shields the most embarrassing and intimate thoughts. In order to refrain from this tendency, Otis says “I have to remind myself, pull myself directly back to why I started writing in the first place. My favourite artists did it for me; I felt less alone and it saved my life.” Throughout #OtisMensahExists, working in between the poet’s vulnerability is our own. What Otis Mensah achieves is a collective sigh of relief. We are not alone. The community philosopher pulls us back from the brink: we are seen, we are heard, and we do exist. 

Season 2 of #OtisMensahExists is on the horizon. Collaborating again with Jim Spendlove, it promises to provide “Even more direct responses to the state that we are currently in.” Otis is also working on his first self-produced EP as well as his debut album which will hopefully materialise in 2021. 

Words by Claire Hamilton

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