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Sheffield's poet laureate

We chatted to Sheffield’s first Poet Laureate 

Music means something different to everyone. For rap poet Otis Mensah, he found Hip Hop just when he needed to express what he was going through. Otis caught up with CALM to chat about the writing process, mental wellbeing and being Sheffield’s first-ever Poet Laureate

As a teenager, stuff began to take a toll on Otis. That’s when he discovered Hip Hop. “I saw myself represented by the Hip Hop I was listening to. It was vulnerable and honest in a way that I really needed. It wasn’t trying to portray a certain level of masculinity and was open about mental health and about depression and anxiety. It spoke on issues with society and identity that I was sort of hurtled through – the existential angst factors that you go through as a teenager. I found solace in that.” 

Otis found that listening to music helped him feel better when things weren’t going so well, and he’s not alone. Studies have shown that listening to music you enjoy can have a positive effect on mental wellbeing. Otis took that one step further, and learned he could use writing music, or ‘art rap’ as a kind of ‘dear diary’. 

“I go through life with things building up and then reach a melting point. And then I have an urgency to express and that takes the form of writing. Writing is extremely cathartic and therapeutic. It’s always been a way of untangling the complexities and confusion that’s happened in my head.”  

A big turning point for Otis was when he performed at Glastonbury in 2017. A recording of the performance landed in the hands of Majid Majid – the Mayor of Sheffield at the time. Majid contacted Otis via Facebook inviting him for a meeting at the town hall, culminating in Otis becoming Sheffield’s first ever poet laureate.

Since lockdown, Otis has been working on something new. The Otis Mensah Exists project takes influences such as The Roots and turns them into visual ideas. Along with artist Jim Spend Love, Otis looks at themes of mortality, death and existence as a way for him to put his mark on the world. “Art is not only a means of therapy, but a means of documenting existence, and I’m imparting my mark on the world and saying ‘I was here’”.

But it’s sometimes exhausting putting so much emphasis on writing, especially when the content centres around true experiences and emotions. So Otis does put down the pen every so often, and takes time to re-centre his thoughts:

“A lot of my internal dialogue that leads me to problematic thought patterns usually starts with questions like ‘why aren’t you self-sufficient yet?’, ‘Why aren’t you earning enough money from your art?’ and this sometimes means I lose the reason I started writing in the first place. And channelling all these sometimes hurtful, traumatic internal experiences, though it’s therapeutic once you’ve got it on the page, can sometimes be, quite heavy going.”

Delving into the art of others is something that helps Otis get through difficult times. If he’s not listening to his current faves such as Ovrkast, he’ll stick on a bit of jazz.

“I collect records so I find waking up, making a coffee, putting a record on the deck, and sitting and listening to my favourite Hip Hop album is a real soulful escapism for me. Another thing is spending time being close to trees and feeling the physical impact of being in nature.”

And Otis’s parting words of advice for creatives or anyone that feels pressured to fit into the ideals of an ever-evolving world?

“When possible, re-centre yourself in the things that you love.”

Episodes from the #OtisMensahExists project are released every three weeks, which you can find HERE. You can also enjoy his Lock-In session on Friday 3rd July over on his Instagram page.

You can enjoy Otis Mensah’s playlist, curated for CALM HERE.

Looking for a way to express yourself creatively? You can find out more about and join the CALM Art Collective HERE.

 

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