After a last-minute scheduling conflict prevented South Side-born singer and Columbia College-grad Jeremih from performing at UChicago’s Summer Breeze concert, the Major Activities Board [MAB]—the organization responsible for organizing the annual event—began searching for another local star to serve as an eleventh hour replacement. They were in luck when they found a rising Hyde Park hip-hop star to take the place of the “Birthday Sex” serenader: Vic Mensa.
Mensa, who first made his name as the frontman of the eclectic Chicago band Kids These Days, which formed in 2009 and disbanded late last year, has recently emerged as a star in his own right. Along with childhood friend Chance the Rapper, Mensa is one of the major figures of the city’s hip-hop scene. Following the release of his acclaimed Innanetape project, Mensa opened for J. Cole on a nationwide tour of the U.S. and for Danny Brown on a continental tour of Europe. Now, MAB gave him an opportunity to perform once more in his home neighborhood Hyde Park.
Third-year UofC student and senior MAB member Tony Lashley was one of several ardent advocates for the neighborhood star—he had been interested in meeting with Mensa ever since he first saw him perform at Manifest Urban Arts Festival in 2012. Lashley also contacted Mensa’s manager, Dan Weiner, about doing an interview in the South Side Weekly earlier this year, a few weeks before the release of his breakthrough project, Innanetape. After the MAB organizers had narrowed down their choice of replacement acts to “a list of about 15 people,” they settled on Vic Mensa as their first choice, primarily because he was another upcoming act from Chicago.”
Last March, Lashley and fellow senior member and 4th year undergraduate, Jack Friedman, pushed for the university organization to seek out more Chicago-area acts.
“We wanted to do the Chicago thing as a theme for this year,” Friedman says. “When Tony and I and a couple of the other senior people from MAB talked about it last year in the spring, we decided to make that part of the theme for the year, in addition to making the acts a little bit more up-and-coming.” This theme manifested itself first in the fall, when MAB invited Chatham-born Chance the Rapper to perform on campus at Mandel Hall. The show also included a now bittersweet surprise appearance, when the late DJ Rashad—the footwork pioneer and Chicago legend who passed away late last April—served as the show’s closing act. Having Chance and Rashad perform together for the first MAB show of the year was a notable triumph for the student group, which was quickly followed up in the spring with a performance by Austin-born comedian Hannibal Buress, who, like Mensa, attended the Whitney Young Magnet School on the West Side of the city.
According to the MAB organizers, Mensa and his managerial team “definitely wanted to do the show” and seemed excited to be back at home. Mensa’s show, which was held this past weekend in UofC’s Hutchinson Court, gave the twenty-one-year-old rapper a chance to perform new songs in front of some of his closest friends and family members. Many of the members of Mensa’s Chicago-based SaveMoney collective, including Tokyo Shawn and Joey Purp—who were profiled along with Mensa in the fifth episode of Noisey’s controversial Chiraq documentary series—watched from the side of the stage, occasionally filming the audience with a mounted GoPro camera.
Also in attendance at the Summer Breeze show were Mensa’s parents. His father, Edward Mensah, a Ghanaian immigrant and Associate Professor of Health Policy and Administration at UIC, and his mother, a CPS physical therapist who participated in the Chicago Teachers Union’s 2012 protests,, watched as their son debuted a new song about threesomes, and, later, jumped on top of a Hutchinson Court fountain before hundreds of cheering fans, some of whom had to be held back by UCPD security. As Mensa later commented on Twitter and Instagram, accompanied by a captioned picture of the rapper’s fountain-top appearance, “Chicago was almost a riot today.”
Though the MAB show proved to be another success for the university organization, it was also a source of slight frustration for some Chicago hip-hop fans outside the university. Some of Mensa’s local fans posted on various social media platforms that they were disappointed that the performance was limited to students and staff. The reason for this limitation, as Lashley and Friedman point out, is due, in part, to the limitations of the available real estate. “There is really a dearth of other spaces that this event can be held in,” Friedman says. Hutchinson Court, the space where the concert is traditionally held—weather permitting—is a relatively small outdoor area with a ticketed capacity limit of 2250 individuals. The area is fenced off from the quadrangle, which, as Friedman says, “is [usually] taken up by the Summer Breeze carnival—which is a longstanding event.”
The other options, the organizers say, are “really not good. There are the athletic fields, but the athletics department has no interest in having a major concert that rips up their fields.” The only other nearby space which could host an outdoor show would be the Midway but, as Friedman points out, “it’s owned by the city, and you can’t close public property for events like this and there would not be backing from the University.”
The organizers have also discussed the possibility of Promontory, the new Hyde Park venue, which is being developed by the owners of the Empty Bottle, becoming an option for hosting future shows and after-parties. That project, however, has been stalled, and construction of the venue has yet to begin. For now, the concert must remain in the limited space of Hutchinson Court, with accordingly limited attendance.. Though the members of MAB hope that the show may be able to expand it’s audience in the future, they are skeptical due to the precedent set by Northwestern’s Dillo Day, a student-run festival which was once open to public but shut its doors to outsiders this past year.
Whether or not the festival can or should be open to the public may remain a contested issue, but the one thing this weekend was clear: the opportunity for a Hyde Park star to return home was a fulfilling experience, not only for Mensa’s attending fans but also for the performer himself, who expressed great gratitude to be back in his “favorite city in the world.”