Meet Otis Mensah, the Sheffield Poet Laurette and abstract emcee whose music and insight helped me see the ways that music helps us to process shared crisis.
Plague did not descend on the back of a white horse, announcing the end times with arrows of pestilence. Coronavirus claimed the world through a phantasm. Vibrating pockets and delusions of distance from the notifications heralded a rotten stillness. Ding, “Deadly virus outbreak in Wuhan, China.” Ding, “First case of COVID-19 confirmed in the UK.” Ding, “NBA cancels 2020 season.”
As the gravity of the pandemic phased through us in our desire to maintain, it stuck to the artists — the synapses of our collective consciousness. And yet, those very same artists have suffered uniquely under the virus’ assault on their industry.
It was a lone microphone in a quaint bedroom in an English city that perfectly captured the coming claustrophobia. You’ve likely never heard of the Sheffield poet laureate who gripped that mic, his abstract approach to hip hop or his musings on the contradiction of making art a commodity, but, as the title of his pandemic song series posits, Otis Mensah exists.
Learning that Sheffield boasts 61 percent green space only makes it more poignant when you hear Mensah rap forlornly about risking a virus just to see a tree. The catalyst of his frustrated pen was a particular COVID cancellation. In the same song, he raps, “No Record Store Day, stuck in the cave like an allegory / Winter came and stayed now stay indoors ‘cause it’s mandatory”.
The cancelation referred to on “No Record Store Day” may be an agonist specific to Mensah but the essence of his expression is universal. It’s like the eerieness of a singular masked pedestrian shuffling through an otherwise vacant Times Square. It’s the unexplainable feeling you can only point to and exclaim, “THAT! That is what it felt like to live through the pandemic!”
“In times of crisis, like when COVID was hitting,” the 27-year-old poet and emcee tells me over an October video interview, “everybody was looking towards artists for putting the state of our society into words, into pictures, into art, because we need to understand the undefinable.”
Over video chat, Mensah talks with his hands and with his eyes and with the wisdom of someone who discusses art as much as they create it. He’s hesitant to place boundaries on things, at one point the fastest-growing category of his vinyl collection was “no genre.” His soft English accent and vigor for the abstract are of musical quality, his access to metaphor befits a poet.
“I’m a fan of the physical, tangible essence of the passions that we engage in. Vinyl is an artifact,” Mensah tells me over a podcast interview during the grip of the pandemic in 2021. “When I would get booked for a show somewhere, I would try and buy either the vinyl of the artist I was supporting or go to the record store before and take something home. When Record Store Day was canceled, me thinking about the metaphorical, not only was Record Store Day canceled but also the demise of my emotional archiving. My emotional memory collecting.”
Mensah collected that physical archive of memories in the time before the pandemic. After finishing music college at AMC Guildford, he traveled, performing pop-up shows around the UK and Europe, opening for poets like Open Mike Eagle and Benjamin Zephaniah. Through headphones, his spoken word flows and jazzy instrumentals suggest a stage presence that favors small rooms, hushed conversations and a single spotlight to illuminate the emcee. His deeply introspective rhymes betray a sense of isolation that pre-dates our mandatory six-foot separation.
“I woke up in this internet cafe my parents left me / ‘cause I refuse to leave, I stare inside the screen so deathly / I've been on a kill streak and now my peers respect me”, he raps on “Internet Cafe”, a song about a childhood addiction to the internet and online games that’s fueled by a desire to escape the real world. Like “No Record Store Day,” Mensah’s very personal experience became a tool for processing a world that was descending into lockdowns and turning increasingly online for every manner of interaction from work to play.
“I started to think about unhealthy escapism as a symptom, as opposed to unhealthy escapism being the problem,” Mensah told my friend Ryan Gaur in a 2020 interview for CentralSauce. “As a generation, as a culture, we constantly want to lose ourselves to something else. I'm not blaming the individual, these are all defense mechanisms that we created out of a broken society. I don't believe that we're just to blame for that, you know, I believe that there are people to answer for that.”
The indie artist’s sharp points are often not far removed from observations about the various dysfunctions of the status quo. Many of those pre-existing dysfunctions recently became more visible, exacerbated by the challenges brought on by COVID. Pursuing an arts career has always been just a bit beautifully irrational in a world that refuses to value the labor of living that precedes creating.
“We're taught in capitalism not to do something that is merely servitude to emotional well being,” Mensah said in our October conversation. “The function [of art] is supposed to emotionally archive myself, my community. When somebody actually connects to a piece of art, there is no monetary representation of the value that it gives. There is only an emotional, spiritual, aesthetic purpose for that.”
In the first year of the pandemic, the same year that indie artists around the world lost access to the live music events that drive almost the entirety of their annual income, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek responded to criticisms that streaming companies were underpaying creators, “You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough.”
Stuck in a bedroom, cut off from his source of income, Otis has since earned roughly $66.65 in Spotify royalties for the 10 songs in the Otis Mensah Exists series — the labor of turning the gears of our collective consciousness in a time of collective crisis.
“I wanna believe if I work hard, I can get it. That’s so simple, but that’s why it’s insidious,” Mensah said. “People live their life, dying believing that and just work themselves to the bone. As opposed to, let’s say you already deserve to live and you don’t need any validation from this system. All you have to do is whatever you want. And that’s not selfish. That can be whatever you want as it pertains to your community, your relationships, your emotional well-being, the emotional well-being of the people around you. All those things get forgotten when we think about ‘the goal.’ The goal of just earning something.”
What Mensah wants is to create and for his creation to stay true to its function, undiverged by serving his survival.
“Everyone wants to earn from art because you can maximize the time you spend doing art,” he said. “You think the person at the factory who’s working nine to five doesn’t have wonderful thoughts about new inventions? You think poetry isn’t going through the minds of people who work at your local supermarkets? Art moves through all of us, but not everyone has the privilege or the time to label that thought process, that creation, art.”
Mensah thinks in freestyle, putting thoughts together in a way that bespeaks rhythm and practice. He’s always creating. One song from his new album, things I should have said a year ago, could easily have been recorded by discarding a hot mic inside his head like a satellite beaming back the history of the universe as it crosses the event horizon of a black hole.
The first half of “Before Venice” rides a short loop. A gospel-draped hum, the bleat of brass and a single rattling cymbal build an ambient pulpit for Mensah to ruminate on the divine irony of returning to Genesis in an age of cataclysm. His string of consciousness welcomes the listener to join him at the edge of the abyss where he stands in a timeless space, pen in hand yet again.
He raps about systemic flaws, philosophical quandaries and personal demons, but as the loosely connected musings leave his lips, they stick to nothing. In a spoken word at the end of the song, that only departs from his initial delivery in its direct address, Mensah matter-of-factly explains how these anxieties must flow through us freely — a life philosophy that’s naturally extended through the ebb and flow of his pen.
He creates not in spite of a world that undervalues creating, but because he exists in a world that undervalues creating.
“Jericho Brown, one of my favorite poets, says that our relationship to poetry is like our relationship to trees,” Mensah said. “We don’t quite understand why we need trees or how important they are until they’re gone. You start to realize that our quality of life is becoming diminished by that. I think that’s our relationship to art. Sometimes we can’t quantify how important it is, but we see it in times of crisis.”