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Introducing Otis Mensah: Sheffield’s first ever Poet Laureate

“Freedom of expression and freedom of thought – that’s all I want to be an advocate for”

This Saturday, Sheffield rapper, poet and general prodigy Otis Mensah became the city’s first ever Poet Laureate.

We sat down with him after the ceremony to talk poetry, mental health, and, naturally, bread rolls.

Tell us a bit about how your role as Sheffield’s Poet Laureate came about.

So Magid got in contact with me regarding the role. He said he’d like to take this on and that the poet laureate had never been a thing in Sheffield – other cities had one, and he thought it’d be great to fly the flag of Sheffield and champion someone that he believed in within the city. Sheffield has such a rich poetry and arts history and he wanted to celebrate that.

That’s something that struck me – that he chose someone like you, obviously a rapper as well as a poet, allowing the role to champion the arts more broadly and collectively.

Yeah, I think that’s so important, and I feel the lines are becoming more blurred – What is art? What is poetry? We need to look at it more as championing expression. It’s about honest expression and whatever your medium for that is. Whether it’s written poetry, performance poetry, music or visual art, I just feel that it’s important to have those conversations and be in a position with your art form to express freely.

So what do you expect the role of Poet Laureate to entail?

I feel in a lot of senses that it’s about representation. For example when I was thirteen, I was an Internet child – all my heroes were on the internet, across the globe. I didn’t have anyone saying it’s possible here, that I can do this in Sheffield, where I am and there’s a future for me if I want to express myself in the arts.

In a more formal sense, I think I’d really love to do some work with young people, like lyric writing and poetry sessions, and just break the convention of ‘teacher/student’. That hierarchy doesn’t allow students – in the place where they’re prepared for society – to express themselves freely. I had some great teachers who respected me as an individual as opposed to seeing me as someone that they need to put themselves over in a position of power. I feel like we can break that if we go to schools and groups of young people and present ourselves as equals.

Magid Magid, the country’s coolest Lord Mayor, presented you with the role. How did this come about and what’s your relationship with him like?

I didn’t know him before this, but he got in contact with me over Facebook about the role around the time he was becoming mayor. He’d become aware of me through my Glastonbury performance from last year that was on the BBC.

We champion things that are the same and get so comfortable in our conventions that nothing ever comes about, and we never learn anything new from these things. I think that’s what’s so important about Magid being mayor – he’s breaking down barriers, he’s questioning ideals and conventions that have never been questioned before.

It’s making people feel uncomfortable, but the most important thing is that it’s opening conversation. It’s just great to see him in the community relating to people, talking to people on a level. There’s this idea that it’s for the people from the people – that’s what Magid being mayor represents, and I hope I can hold the role of Poet Laureate in the same vein.

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Obviously our audience is broadly students – how would you sell yourself to them?

I’d sell myself based on what I mentioned earlier – the only reason I feel justified in singing my songs or writing my poetry is because when I was going through depression and anxiety, some of my favorite artists were able to offer a perspective that took me out of the mist and the fog, the existential quarrel.

They created a community, and that community allowed me to step out of my situation. Expressing freely is so important, because we all have that power. It’s about being honest with each other. Freedom of expression and freedom of thought – that’s all I want to be an advocate for, as openly and as vulnerably as I possibly can.

Mental health is a big issue within the music industry at the moment – how have you coped with the stresses and demands of being a musician and artist?

It’s an everyday battle. I’m always in a constant state of building myself up and pulling myself down. In a lot of senses I have very high expectations for myself as far as what I want to achieve, but then at the same time I don’t want to pressure myself and I want to be happy in the moment. There’s always these polarising sides in me, constantly playing tug of war with each other.

Sometimes I have to pull myself away from it and say ‘why am I really doing this?’ and it’s because I want to express myself this is where I found my identity. That does ground me, but it’s very easy to forget and I have to remind myself a lot. I do feel like the music industry, and just being a creative in a lot of senses, is very much a roller coaster.

In a lot of ways it’s just not normal to go on a stage and perform in front of all those people and then come straight back off. The contrast between those states can never breed a stable walk, but there are ways and means to centre yourself. I’m just always trying to re-root myself.

So, time for the big question – what do you call a bread roll?

Ok, here’s how we’re gonna break it down – a bread roll is an oblong cylinder type bread, like a baguette. But a bread bun or a breadcake is what you put your vegan bacon and your Henderon’s relish in.