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The Sheffield culture guide written by in-the-know locals

Otis Mensah

One of the many many legacies of Magid Magid’s game-changing year as lord mayor of Sheffield is that our city now has its very own poet laureate: Otis Mensah. Otis was the obvious choice for the post as, in Magid’s words, he “represents all that is great about Sheffield – he’s dynamic, skilful and radical”. And nobody can argue that he’s more than qualified for the role of bringing poetry to the people and championing the arts in new and exciting ways in Sheffield – with his distinctive streams of consciousness, his position on art as activism, and his clear vision of poetry and rap as a means of communicating emotion. Our music writer Tom once wrote that Otis has "a knack of making performing look as natural as breathing in and out", and that knack has seen him support the likes of Killah Priest of Wu-Tang Clan, and bag a slot at Glastonbury.

Just as national poet laureates are called upon for occasions of significance, Otis was invited by Tramlines to curate the Speakers Corner stage for its 2019 edition, and he'll be hosting lineups of incredible minds working in poetry, spoken word and lyricism at Sheffield Makes Music in September and Off the Shelf in October.

We spoke to Otis part-way through his two-year stint as the city’s first poet laureate, to find out what gets him writing, who he’s excited to bring to the Tramlines stage, and the people and places he thinks the city should be championing.

How would you describe your work?
Alternative hip-hop is my safe answer. It goes beyond that label but first and foremost I see myself as an MC or poet participating in the broad culture of hip-hop, and I say alternative as a sort of disclaimer for people to create a different space in their minds when they think about the genres and styles of hip-hop that exist. I see myself as part of the same branch of music as some of my favourite artists who are to the left and slightly alternative – like Aesop Rock, Open Mike Eagle, even to some extent Mos Def and The Pharcyde.

How do you choose the themes you work with?
For the most part my work is a means of therapy. My writing acts as a sort of “dear diary” – when I’ve got this build up of emotions or thoughts that are either troubling or interesting me, I’m able to spill them out on the page. Some of the recurring themes within that are mental health, the idea of the self, and the uncomfortable parts of introspection. On a philosophical level I enjoy playing with the nuances in life, its contradictions and paradoxes. The themes that come up in my most recent poetry book are of trauma that’s unspoken, that hasn’t been given a voice, and trying to tell the story of a side of myself that is usually socially normalised.

How has your time as Sheffield’s first poet laureate been so far?
It’s been especially intellectually stimulating because I've been able to see my art manifest in different realms and institutions that I wouldn’t have seen it in without this opportunity. I’ve taken it upon myself to push my already existing goal of advocacy for the power of vulnerability – looking at where that’s failing in real life, where we’re not seeing the importance of art as expression, and forming and building emotional intelligence for us to have a better human experience. I’ve thought about different ways that I can get that message across, whether it’s doing workshops in schools or talking about it on the radio or in panel discussions – the mediums that I’ve been able to talk about my vision have become really vast. Often I have a feeling of impostor syndrome because I’m not from a lot of the fields that I’m participating in, but I just take it challenge by challenge.

What are you currently working on?
I continue to promote my poetry book and hope to tour with it to Berlin, Budapest and London in the coming months. I’m going on to release my continuation of the book, a short EP called Rap Poetics. From there I’m just going to make sure I’ve got enough music to release in the new year. Outside of the music and the shows I hope to start a podcast and I’ve got a festival idea that I’d like to develop.

You’ve curated the lineup for the Speakers Corner stage at Tramlines – who are you excited to see at the festival?
I must say I’m not excited about the main stage, but I’m very blessed and excited that Tramlines have given me the platform to champion some of my favourite artists. You’ve got incredible poets like Birdspeed, and L.A. Salami who’s an incredible musician and poet. You’ve got local artists like Avital Raz, Raluca de Soleil, Salma Lynch – these are people I’ve bumped into in the spoken word scene in Sheffield, which is so thriving. Danaë Wellingon, an incredible writer who also participated in another organisation which needs shouting about – Hive South Yorkshire. These artists are really concerned with social change and expression as emotional communication, so I urge people come to it.

Who, what or where should be better known in Sheffield?
As far as place, the Showroom cinema. It’s my favourite place. They put on some incredible films and talks, and it’s a really cool space for creativity. Doc/Fest was there recently and I saw the city transform, which was a beautiful thing. As for people, Annalisa Toccara and everything she’s doing with Our Mel – the events that she’s putting on are so important for anti-racism in the city, standing up against systems of oppression and making sure that black artists in the city get a light shone on them. Migration Matters is another incredible festival that in a lot of ways is quite revolutionary. I opened up for Benjamin Zephaniah and it cultivated what I would consider an atmosphere for change, really infiltrating people’s minds and letting them know about the myths that are spread about migration and borders, trying to debunk them and move forward. I very much see art as activism and I think these are organisations that we should continue to champion.

What would you change about the city?
If you’d have asked my teenage self I would have had so many answers! I often feel that though there’s so many beautiful things going on and so many pockets of art and talent in the city, there’s often quite a lot of competition. That can sometimes be healthy but we need to unite more to create a solidified scene so that more people can know about it.

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