On Sept. 7, in the buildup to “Free Speech Week,” @LeaahWeaver, a UC Berkeley student, tweeted at Vic Mensa asking him “to stage counter-programming during Mylo Yianoplatapus’ speaking arrangement.” After a series of communications, the beginning of Free Speech Week came with a surprise announcement that Mensa would be performing a concert hosted by SUPERB Productions on Lower Sproul Plaza on Friday night and would hold a Q&A in addition to the concert.
Free Speech Week came and went with a slew of broken promises — for all the armed policemen, the barricades decorating Sproul and the countless Nixle alerts, all UC Berkeley got from the Berkeley Patriot’s Free Speech Week was Milo Yiannopoulos in a Supreme sweatshirt.
Nevertheless, on Friday night, Mensa made good with his promise. In 155 Dwinelle Hall, the red light started flashing on a video camera and the live stream of Vic Mensa’s Q&A began.
As soon as the discussion started, he had the audience on the edge of their seats as he wove metaphors and imagery into the discussion, reflecting his talent as a lyricist. He drew on his studies of the Black Panther movement, American history, his own cultural heritage and hip-hop to express his own vivid, multifaceted approach to every topic — from growing up in Chicago to the shifting political landscape.
Even though only half of the lecture hall was filled, when the Q&A ended, the audience burst into an applause that filled the room. The majority of people in the seats of 155 Dwinelle that night were Black students and other students of color from the Berkeley campus — a classroom setting that’s not typically seen at UC Berkeley.
One of Mensa’s central points in his talk was how the education system only values a certain type of intellect — the kids who can study textbooks and sit in classrooms and fit into the system are the ones who float to the top of institutions such as UC Berkeley. When he reflected on growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he brought the audience back to when he was a kid and his friend introduced him to one of Kanye West’s albums. This album, made by another kid who came from Chicago, would become a revolutionary body of work in the genre of rap.
As he talked about Kanye, Lupe Fiasco, Dapper Dan and other influential Black artists, he brought forth many marginalized voices that hadn’t been represented in Free Speech Week.
Mensa said his farewells to the attendees and invited everyone to see his set later that night. The crowd made its way to Lower Sproul Plaza, excitedly chatting about all that Mensa had just said, but when they got there, they were left to watch from the edges of the crowd. Because the Q&A ended right when the concert began, those who had stayed to hear him speak had no chance of getting a good place to see his performance.
Glowing red, Mensa reappeared on a different stage — a musical one — which opened with the trappier songs from his discography. He got the audience moshing to “16 Shots,” throwing himself into the crowd to surf through Lower Sproul.
The mood skyrocketed until the soft organ introduction of “Cocoa Butter Kisses” began to flow through the amps. What followed was a rendition of the song Mensa was featured on in Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Acid Rap that blew up on SoundCloud in 2013. As Mensa traversed through his set, his supreme control of the stage shined. From his body language to his vocals to his rapped verses, the presence he brought to the stage was reflected in the audience who ebbed and flowed to his rhythm.
After wrapping up his set, Mensa stepped off the stage, lit a cigarette and said hello to those who had gathered at the edges of the stage, before saying goodbye.
Mensa’s performance at UC Berkeley created an intimate space on Friday night, but it wasn’t through the concert itself — it was through the engaging discussion that preceded it. Nevertheless, his presence in the music industry as a musician and rapper is what gave him the platform to speak and affirmed that the magnification of some voices won’t silence millions of others.