Hip-hop artist Otis Mensah on his time so far as Sheffield’s first poet laureate, arts in the education system, and being a “child of the Internet”.
When Otis Mensah was appointed Sheffield’s first poet laureate last year he didn’t really know what the title meant. Quiet understandable perhaps, given that, since Charles II appointed the first national poet laureate in 1668, every single one – until Carol Ann Duffy was elected in 2009 – had been three things: posh, white and male. So when the outgoing Lord Mayor, Magid Magid, chose Otis to represent the city it came somewhat as a surprise to the 23-year-old.
“I guess I didn’t really have any expectations to start with being that Sheffield hasn’t had a poet laureate before – it is still something very much to be defined,” says the Sheffield-born hip-hop artist, as we sit-down at the Showroom Café Bar near the train station. “It’s been the start of an interesting journey and a lot more varied than I imagined.”
We meet roughly six months after the announcement was made. In that time Otis has been in high-demand: he has found himself working with schools and arts organisations, speaking on panel discussions and even featuring in a Swedish documentary earlier that same day. “I’m yet to see the different shapes that the role takes, but my goal is to continue to fly the flag of what’s going on in the arts in Sheffield.”
The incongruity of the title itself is not lost on Otis. Recognising the thorny historical associations of the title with the similar national position appointed by the monarch, he admits the term is “definitely elitist”. But, Otis adds, “It has to be hilarious when you use the words ‘poet laureate’ and then people see me.” In this way the title is ironically fitting for his objective to subvert tradition and break down preconceptions of what a poet is.
One way Otis has been doing this is by working with schools. By running workshops for Year 11 students, he says: “I wanted to show them the link between the music they probably already listen to and the poetry that they’re reading – essentially I see it as one and the same it’s just the person controlling it is different.
“I think it can be quite off-putting if traditionalist poetry is your only example of poetry and you only analyse it under exam conditions; you don’t leave school with a positive conception of poetry.”
About his own educational experience, Otis says he desired space “not only for interpretation but self-actualisation through creating.” He is passionate about the need to protect the arts in schools. Funding cuts and an emphasis on core academic subjects have meant many schools have been forced to cut back on creative subjects.
He says: “You look at the education system and you see we’re slowly steering young people away from the idea that art matters at all, and the more we steer away the less emotionally intelligent people will become.
“If I hadn’t experienced alternative forms of poetry, such as Hip-Hop, through the Internet it might have blocked me from getting into it.”
As a self-proclaimed “child of the Internet”, Otis relied on it to foster his connection with poetry and to develop a platform where his voice could be heard. “I was introverted in that I had to pretend a lot as a teenager – to be something that I wasn’t. I never felt that I was expressing my true self. The Internet became a forum for where I could be myself; where I could be influenced by different forms of hip-hop.”
Today, however, when it comes to social media at least, he confesses that if he weren’t reliant on it as an artist he would remove all his social media for mental health reasons. But even as an artist, he says, “the idea that to gain something you need to grab mass attention is quite sad in a lot of ways because it makes you into a constant slave for the validation of someone else. We are puppets for validation.”
In his’ song ‘Buffer Rings’ from his EP Mum’s House, Philosopher released last year, he compares life to the process of buffering in its streaming context. Emphasising the ‘ring’ in the word ‘buffering’, Otis reflects on the similarly cyclical nature of life as exasperated through the Internet. “In life you are caught in an eternal buffer ring – counting on someone else’s approval. There is always a mirage of steps that you have to wait for before you can get where you want to be. ”
The song also reflects a life of apathy that he believes has become the norm for a generation of young people. “I think it’s easy in society to use the Internet as a sanctuary where you can curate your own bubble of existence and you don’t necessarily have to go out or see things outside of that,” he says.
Regardless, Otis recognises the importance of the Internet for distributing and discovering content, especially growing-up. “The kinds of readily available art from different backgrounds and different walks of life on the Internet made me think less of region and less of location, at a time when I felt there wasn’t a representation in the city for what I wanted to do.”
Given the accessibility to art the Internet provides then, is there any real need for a Sheffield poet laureate? Otis believes so.
For starters, he says, not everything exists on the Internet (“we’ve not made the full transition as a society to upload ourselves to the iCloud yet!”). But even then, the Internet can never achieve the same level of human connection. “The issue with the internet is that everyone is anonymous – a philosophical catfishing of artistry almost.
“That is why music shows are becoming more popular and artists are selling more tickets than ever. People are desperate for that real life interaction because the internet is just a shadow of what that can give us.”
Beyond that, as poet laureate he wants to be the representation in the city he wished he’d had growing-up. “I think the importance of the role is to give people an example of someone who looks like them and comes from a working class family, born and bred in their city who is contributing to the arts in a non-elitist way.”
His role is well intertwined with his own personal work, representing the city through his own artistic endeavours. This includes the upcoming release of his first book, Safe Metamorphosis. “It’s about the traumas of the everyday,” he says, “that we don’t give it its due gravity or due credit.”
Now for Otis the everyday is about having better relationships, something he feels he neglected for a long time in order to pursue his dreams. He credits Magid Magid as an influence for his new philosophy. “I very much look up to the Mayor as someone who sees human connection as important.
“He doesn’t carry himself with a self-importance that often seeps through people in positions of power. He has very much gone the opposite way and that is so important in connecting people and therefore making change.”
Clearly it is already working as, towards the end of our interview, a woman – a fellow poet it turns out – comes over to our table to ask if she can join our conversation. It is clear Otis Mensah is a people magnet. If merely his presence can bring people together, just imagine what his art can do.
Otis’ Book Launch for Safe Metamorphosis is on Friday 17 May at Café Totem, and will include an exclusive live performance of his new material. Tickets can be bought online.
Featured Image Credit: Juliet Cookson.