When we think about rappers, we seldom think about anxious or depressed ones. Rap artists tend to have a reputation as being tough and indestructible. But some artists are changing that perception with a narrative of emotional introspection and vulnerability. In a culture that routinely denounces talk of mental health, Vic Mensa is one of the rappers breaking the stigma.
If you’re unfamiliar with Vic Mensa, he’s a Chicago-based Grammy-nominated rapper and singer signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label and has collaborated with the likes of Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, among many others.
In a recent interview with Chicago Magazine, Vic discussed his past struggles with mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, suicide attempts, and run-ins with the law, and shared his wisdom on how he overcame them all, in an article entitled “I Didn’t Care About My Life.”
Chicago-based editorial and commercial photographer Lyndon French was commissioned to capture photos of Vic for the article.
I’ve worked with many musicians in the past, and the editor of Chicago Magazine knew that because we had a shoot earlier this year.
The project came together at the very last minute. Lyndon was only contacted by Chicago Magazine the day before the shoot. He arrived on set with an open slate. The Creative Director, David Syrek, briefly discussed the tone and mood of the article, which gave Lyndon some artistic direction to work with, but the rest was left to his discretion.
In the editorial world, shoots tend to move fast, so being nimble helps a lot. Get a concept, reflect on it in real-time and milk the location/subject you have handed to you.
The shoot commenced at Vic’s Milwaukee Avenue recording studio. From the exterior, the building looked abandoned, with a rusted front door, no signage, and covered street-level windows, but inside, musical magic transpires.
Lyndon spent about two hours with Vic in four scenarios, three inside and one in the rapper’s local neighborhood on his black-and-red Honda motorbike.
We photographed at Vic’s studio in Chicago, a classic three-story classic brick building that was converted into studio spaces. They have three studios within the building.
The shoot was rife with a legion of people. The Photo Editor, Michael Zajakowski, Creative Director David Syrek, Vic’s stylist Raf Porter, and Lyndon’s assistant were all present on set.
Vic was very easy to work with, naturally moving his body within the spaces we put him in. I usually present myself casually, open, and into the conversation we have onset. With any subject, you want to relate to them somehow, some entry point, then show them you are here to make them look the absolute best. Then, you can push the boundaries with what you and the subject are comfortable with.
As with any shoot, time is your friend or enemy, and with just two hours of photographing, Lyndon knew he had to work efficiently to overcome potential challenges and produce the best images.
We had one spot that had NO light, so my assistant and I came up with a quick scenario to fill the space, which was wood walls, a light-sucking scenario. But you have to work quickly and solve things double-double. A fun challenge that’s part of the job.
Ultimately, Lyndon walked away with a breadth of dynamic imagery, including Vic writing music, environmental portraits in the studio, and shots of him on his bike.
Vic was really great to work with; he has a good sense of style and what fits him properly is always a plus. He’s pretty easygoing but knew what he wanted; again, always a plus to be confident and take direction.
This story is not just inspiring for Vic Mensa fans but also for anyone who has been affected by mental illness. To see such a significant and influential rapper openly express their feelings and fragility in such a raw way is refreshing and powerful.
I truly feel every shoot I’m on, I learn something. Be it from lighting a scene to working on a short timeframe. It’s challenging but also a part of the job I really enjoy, learning.
See more of Lyndon’s work on his website.