Vic Mensa at Lollapalooza 2021, by Dan DeSlover/Variance

Several years ago, Vic Mensa nearly died trying to sneak in to Lollapalooza. Now, the Chicago favorite is a perennial presence at the festival, as a performer or a surprise guest.

That was the case this year as Mensa appeared unexpectedly during grandson's set to perform their collaboration "Oh No!!!" from the Suicide Squad soundtrack. Considering the rollercoaster of uncertainty this past year and a half (including whether Lolla would even take place at all this year), it was fitting for Mensa to be back on stage for the first major festival in the country, which just happens to be in his hometown.

"It feels good. I have a long history with Lollapalooza, as you know," he says, speaking with Variance at Lollapalooza. "I've gone from trying to sneak in—well, sneaking in successfully. Many times. But also unsuccessfully. I almost died trying to sneak in to this motherfucker. And then I was performing the next year. So it’s near and dear to my heart," he says with a laugh.

While he reflects on the incident with humor, he really did come dangerously close to death after trying to enter the fest through an alternate method but instead hitting a transformer, which shocked him with thousands of volts of electricity, and flung his body off the train structure he had scaled. He spent multiple days in the hospital recovering.

"But I was on stage the next year," he says. "And ever since then, I’ve been coming back and visiting and performing. It’s cool to see friends and artists—it’s cool to see all my friends coming to the city too. And in my humble opinion, we’ve got the most beautiful summertime on the earth. Right here, this is prime real estate."

Vic Mensa at Lollapalooza 2021, by Dan DeSlover/Variance

Whereas the Vic Mensa who took the stage in the early years of his career was arguably angsty and defiant, the Vic Mensa of today is relaxed and confident, increasingly aware of who he is as an artist, but notably in tune with himself as a person.

Anyone who has followed his career the last few years knows Mensa frequently uses his art to make a statement, and he has regularly taken a stand on issues important to him or standing with the voiceless, many times when he is one of the few artists (or only one) speaking out.

That was the case in 2016, when he physically went to the Standing Rock Native American Reservation in North Dakota to join the protests against the $3.7 billion Dakota Access oil pipeline.

"These are real lives," he declared as he broadcasted his experience live on Facebook, bringing attention to an issue of great importance which might have been relatively easy for many music artists to ignore. Instead of a post with a hashtag, he went there and stood with the Sioux people of Standing Rock.

It was hardly the first time Mensa used his platform to put a spotlight on something important. That same year, in 2016, he took on the police shooting on Chicago teen Laquan McDonald with the video for his song "16 Shots," and he teamed up with Le1f, Lil B and Halsey for the LGBTQ anthem "Free Love."

"I try to be intentional about my actions and my energy," says Mensa. "And I feel that when I am in support in a real way—in a visceral way, in a human way, in a personal way—of other people’s struggles, that solidarity, it benefits all of us. Because we are all against so many of the same forces and powers and manifestations."

He continues: "So whether it’s being in Standing Rock or being in Palestine, the oppression of Native American people and the oppression of the Palestinian people, it’s all connected to the oppression to the oppression of the Black people. You know what I mean? I’ve also learned through experiences that some of these tall towers of hate that seem impossible to topple can come down."

Mensa points to a more recent example, helping petition for the release of Moosa, which served as the inspiration for one of the songs on his powerful I TAPE, the 7-track project he released in March.

"My guy was sentenced to 25 years when he was 14. His name is Moosa," he explains. "I wrote a song about him on my I TAPE. And I was building with him and he was like, ‘I can’t stop thinking about coming home. I can’t stop thinking about coming home.’ And in the back of my mind, I was like, ‘You got 12 years left on your sentence.’ And I was able to help get his clemency in front of the Governor’s office. And he came home. So I’m like, man, nothing is impossible."

And while his activism has only increased in recent years, Mensa is careful to avoid pigeonholing himself into one role or a specific label.

"I don’t even look at it as a hierarchy or anything," he says. "Like what’s most important to me is often music, and that’s because it’s just necessary for me. But I’m not, like, beholden to any label of my humanity."

Now, one year after the release of Mensa's V TAPE, the first in a series of three, and the subsequent I TAPE, he admits his focus lately is on the final part of the VIC trilogy.

"I’m working on a lot of stuff," he confesses. "A lot. I’m working on the third installment of the my three-part series—V TAPE, I TAPE, and I’m working on the C TAPE. It's coming. Also working on the SAVEMONEY group project. Me and Chance [the Rapper] been working on a lot of music. Me and all my guys been working on a lot of music. But me and Chance have been busy."

He adds: "I'm also doing some different film things. Doing a film in South Africa, and I’ve got some exciting acting stuff. I’m also writing a book! And always doing stuff with my non-profit, Save Money Safe Life. We do a lot of shit in the city and we've been busy. Also some cannabis stuff—as this shit is legalized, the name of the game is social equity. So, I’m working on that as well."