Emcee, performer and poet laureate Otis Mensah is existing for his art, and in a world that commodifies self-expression, that’s an act of resistance.
It is always best to start an interview with a bit of an easy question: something that helps both of us settle into the conversation with the discussion of something minor. When I sat down to chat with Otis Mensah, I decided that I would first ask about his routine. Even outside of the spotlight, the life of a performer is a balancing act. Reconciling the desire within you to create while catering to the need to pay for a room and a fridge full of food is a feature of the artist’s existence.
In the last couple years, Otis has released increasingly daring and abstract work including 2019’s Rap Poetics EP and 2018’s brilliantly named Mum’s House Philosopher EP. In this time frame, Otis had also been crowned Sheffield’s poet laureate, so I was interested to find out what a day in the life might look like. While I expected a structured layout of a typical 24 hours, Otis dug straight into something which ended up at the very core of our conversation.
In the past I’ve caved under the logic of the productive creative, this idea that you’ve gotta get up at the crack of dawn and write three pages, a new chapter, a new song… it’s an admirable regime to work under, but I see the capitalism in it. It became an act of resistance to say ‘I’m not gonna pressure myself to create, but I’m gonna invest in the things that feed my creativity’” – Otis Mensah for CentralSauce (2020)
Existing For Art Is: Immersing Yourself Fully
Existing for art extends beyond the pure creation of it, entailing a complete immersion in the abstract, in sounds, in colour, in animation. However, the need for art to be sold hinders the value of its creation – this capitalistic mindset being an internal antagonist, frustrating our potential to create. Otis talks about the tough transitions between creating and marketing his art. Pitching himself to magazines and festivals in order to gain the coverage necessary to be self-sufficient from music alone takes an emotional toll, draining energy that could have been used to create. However, at Otis’ core is a fascination and a pure love for art. By existing amongst it, he finds his way back to the mic, as he explains in the video below.
Though the necessity of promotion can be seen as a hindrance, it acted as a driving factor in the creation of OtisMensahExists, a series of singles and animated gifs ranging in tone, topic and tempo, all centred around the life of Otis Mensah. The series sees Otis in touch with his trauma and fears, dredging up the dread of existing no longer. Such an event puts his art, an extension of his existence, in jeopardy as the hunger from audiences to consume something new may consign the spirit of Otis Mensah to history.
This modern age of both artistry and existence is encapsulated in Otis’ coining of the term ‘millenial claustrophobia.’ This describes a fear that originates from growing up comfortable and having so much at your disposal. This heightened privilege comes with a constant desire for more, for continual changes of scene and atmosphere. Aspects of modern culture such as binge-watching and other forms of heavy escapism are borne out of millenial claustrophobia. We want to lose ourselves, which acts as a form of short term therapy but has long term implications for our mental health as internal issues are addressed less and less.
The term resonated with me, as I am often caught between a need for entertainment and an awareness of neglect in terms of my mental health. I escape my worries and my fears by placing myself on the conveyor belt of the entertainment industry as streaming services demand that I lose myself.
OtisMensahExists seeks to look past what we are told and explore that fear, to give it time, and to make sense of it. Thus, the first song of the series was born. “Breath of Life,” assisted by Hemlock Ernst, is a haunting portrayal of what happens when you take notice of the darkness in the corner of your mind. Otis opens the track rapping “Scared of the walls / Merciless as Murphy’s Law” citing the idea that all that can go wrong, will.
Letting emotion in and giving it the time and space to breathe is a technique not unique to the creation of “Breath of Life,” serving as the premise of the five song series. In itself, that is an act of defiance against a capitalist mindset that demands that we put our emotions to one side in order to give our time and energy to production. Otis wanted to shine a light on those difficult memories for the sake of his mental health and for the sake of a true documentation of his existence.
Otis Mensah – Processing trauma through art – Interview Clips
Existing For Art Is: Finding Beauty In Pain
Otis purposely chases after his debilitations on OtisMensahExists, grasping them and changing their complexion to extract positivity from traumatic experiences. As both a fan and a creator, I have found that art has facilitated a connection with the most buried parts of myself. Otis makes use of the same phenomena to reframe pain.
While “Breath of Life” gets a grip on fear, “Internet Cafe” battles an addiction to escapism by criticizing those who look down on it. Rather than settle to bemoan the time spent on the internet, Otis opts to ask the question of why he is so quick to lose himself. Realising that escapism is a symptom of an oppressive society, Otis can remove guilt from the scenario. He cannot help how society is built, but he can try and progress to a stage where the traps of a society founded on suffering pass him by.
Similar techniques are applied to the stifling experience of being quarantined on “No Record Store Day,” where boastful guitars set Otis up to battle anxiety and emerge victorious over personal and political pests. “The Thinks” is an ownership of rampant overthinking, with Otis aiming to “pull meaning from confusion” while “40 Years” is a celebration of the solo quest, acknowledging that though the journey is long, it is the most cherishable aspect about reaching your destination.
I have always wondered what it is about art that makes it so therapeutic, and through talking to Otis, I found an answer. When you can create a physical manifestation of your trauma, you see it from a third person perspective. You can hold it, manipulate it, realise that it is small unlike how it felt when it was stuck in your mind. Otis went about creating something to document his existence, to channel his essence in art, and through it he grew to understand himself more.
Looking back at my stuff, it is hugely therapeutic to feel that I have this tangible thing that I can pick apart. I never go into a song, a poem or a piece of art with the idea that I want to portray a specific narrative. I’m never as intentional as that, I’m always letting the pen do the work. Once I have that tangible piece of work in front of me, I can start to understand how I feel. I’m not really aware of what I’m feeling until I have the art in front of me” – Otis Mensah for CentralSauce (2020)
Existing For Art Is: Fighting Against Structure
Immersing yourself in creation is at odds with the structure of a world that reduces the purpose of art to the generation of capital. The true purpose of music is therefore lost in the crowd of artists fighting for survival. To facilitate immersion requires a specific control over your environment to ensure that everything around you, as Otis put it, is feeding your creativity.
The city of Sheffield is an important piece to the puzzle that is cultivating Otis’ creative atmosphere. Having moved down South to study a music course, Otis considered the locations most conducive to kick starting his career. The notion of potentially living in big cities like London had lured him, with the evidence of successful rap artists and the promise of opportunity. Though Otis’ eventual homecoming back up north was a move made with financial motivations, his return to Sheffield alerted him to the benefits of removing himself from the pressure of a big city.
Otis found a pocket where poetry and rhythm could exist in Sheffield, having felt stifled by the lack of hip-hop heritage in his hometown as a teen. This came with a decreased pressure to monetise his art, as the cost of living in London far outweighs that of being a Mum’s House Philosopher, giving Otis time and space to experiment with his expression.
Monetisation has a very strange relationship with art. The music industry looks to reduce the worth of a piece of art to a set of numbers in order to make the safest bets possible. The same applies to fans, as whether it’s followers, views or first week sales, numbers beyond the control of the artist are what determine how they are perceived. Selling yourself as an image, and your art as a product, has become so normalised that many listeners are unwilling to give independent artists a chance, as Otis and I discuss below.
Having art at the core of your existence is antagonised by the need to profit off it. The free will of an artist is hindered by its presence. Artists can be washed away in the current of this need, but there are those like Otis who ensure their art corrects that imbalance. His music knows no boundaries, plunging beyond the surface of any topic mentioned, conjuring eclectic imagery and new emotions. Otis’ art is an ode to ideas and the power of words beyond their dictionary definitions. Otis corrects the influence of capitalism by digging deeper into the abstract.
Existing For Art Is: Writing A Love Letter To The Abstract
Having worked musically with Hemlock Ernst, and having collaborated with Open Mike Eagle on a brilliant live-stream conversation, it’s clear that Otis and I have an appreciation for similar artists – those who pioneered the genre of Art Rap. Joining the aforementioned artists are R.A.P. Ferreira, Quelle Chris and many others who often have their work described as ‘experimental,’ ‘alternative,’ or simply ‘underground,’ but none of these words really find the core of what makes this music great. For me, what makes Otis Mensah and the genre of Art Rap distinct is an affinity for the abstract.
Art Rap made a home for the Hip-Hop artists who commit themselves to existing for art and, in doing so, find themselves deeper and deeper into the intangible aspects of existence. Otis is no different. OtisMensahExists had the aim of taking already emotional, philosophical music and exploring the grey areas of life even further. This is an artist who embodies the philosophy of breaking free of manmade structures, running into the arms of abstractions as realism is caught in the jaws of capitalism.
Otis understands the power of art and its ability to express a concept, exemplified in his lyricism and his visuals, making use of mesmerising animated gifs to accompany the myriad of ideas expressed, While his vocal stylings tend to be more erratic and dense, those gifs give the listener an inherent understanding of what Otis wants to express. Perfectly rendered, the videos allow Otis to, as he puts it, “derive worlds from the smallest of ideas.”
As a listener, Otis forces you to engage with his emotions and, in turn, yours. I have been watching Art Rap develop from afar, out in the UK seeing these American artists expand on what is possible within the genre of Hip-Hop, but when I see a guy from the north of England embrace creation as Otis Mensah does, I cannot help but feel inspired. I feel encouraged that an artist so close to home is brave enough to surrender a grasp on realism through pure love for the abstract, brave enough to not spoon-feed his listeners and thus alert them to the beauty of the avant-garde.
Existing for art is difficult. It goes against everything the world teaches us. It is a trial and error process. It requires commitment and balance and a passion for all ideas. It requires an appreciation of your worth beyond your ability to produce capital and, above all, it requires immersion in all the abstract things we theorise and feel but never have the time for. In reality, Otis Mensah is still learning how to live that way, but within his music forever lives a representation of a man who simply exists for art.