“When we say ‘poetry’ it doesn’t grab the ears of the youth but, what they are aware of is rap culture and grime which is all embodying a form of poetry,” said Otis Mensah, Sheffield’s first ever poet laureate.
“It would just be nice to make everyone aware that this is poetry and it’s a folk-art, it’s about the people. Poetry has always been about the people and essential for telling stories.”
Otis is full of an energy, warmth and honesty that makes you want to stop and listen to what he has to say.
Performing at Glastonbury and with the likes of Wu Tang Clang and Sugarhill Gang, Otis has been grabbing the attention of international audiences too.
Born into a family of artists, Otis, now 22, was raised in Sheffield with influences like The Roots, Childish Gambino and Tribal Quest before leaving to find his own voice at university in Guildford where he studied music.
Although his mum was a poet and his dad was a hip-hop DJ, Otis said: “I can’t say they were an obvious influence on me because it was a time when I was really young but I think it took it’s subconscious toll on me.
“The artists that I listened to – people like Del the Funky Homosapien, The Roots, Atmosphere, Childish Gambino – they were happy to talk about their problems openly so, for example, Childish Gambino was happy to talk openly about his internal quarrel with racial identity and how society sees him as a black man in America and hearing someone talk about these things openly and honestly creates a sense of community.
“It’s this power of vulnerability that I think is key so we can all relate to each other.”
Much of his work is focused around this theme of vulnerability. In his first release as poet laureate ‘Out of the Cave’, the video for which is partly filmed in Sheffield Town Hall, he explores the feeling of being stuck and in ‘a passionless state of depression’.
Otis said he wants to help young people across the city to find their artistic expression and hopes he can help others in the same way poetry and rap helped him.
He said: “What I find drives me the most is that artists I listened to took me out of a place and if I can be in that position to help a hand for somebody else, that’s really important.
“People should still seek professional help, but it’s also our duty as a community to stand in solidarity with people who are struggling. Rap and poetry have definitely helped me with struggling through depression and anxiety, and it gave me a voice and took me out of low times.
“I struggled a lot with racism as a teenager, in the words of one of my favourite artists, I felt ‘too black for white kids and too white for the black kids’. I never truly believed I fitted in anywhere and I think that continued on into my actual life – just feeling slightly excluded in everything.
“But I really found my identity in hip-hop and started to understand about black culture through music and it gave me a place where I could be myself, and I think that’s what everyone truly needs.
“I feel what hip-hop did for me was give me a safe place where I could centre myself and it doesn’t have to be hip-hop but I do believe it is in the artistic realm.
“Although I didn’t have a particularly positive experience growing up in Sheffield in the art and music sense, I simply believed I wasn’t in the right circles and I think things can often be quite closed. But leaving Sheffield to study music and then coming back, I had a fresh perspective pursuing art full-time and it really gave me a new outlook on the city. I started to discover pockets of art that I hadn’t seen before.”
Otis will be releasing his first poetry book next year called ‘Safe Metamorphosis’, which will form a book and an album.
He said it is a collection of his ‘stream of conciousness’ based on the ‘everyday happenings of life’.
“I often feel like there’s a building up of emotion,” he said.
“So, for me I go into the world and live my life and at the back of my mind I’m always aware that something is happening – ready for me to kind of bleed on the page, like spill what I’ve been going through. For me it’s very much a means of therapy.
“But my creativity is very elusive, I might not create for three months then I might create a whole album – so it’s very unpredictable and random. But it’s truly what keeps me going. When I’m listening to music, having conversations, I’m thinking of how this can feed into my creative outlet. It’s works its way into everything in my life.”
Throughout his honorary role as poet laureate working on commissions, workshops and events, Otis hopes to break down barriers and make poetry for accessible for young people in particular.
Lord Mayor Magid Maigd, who created the position said he was the ‘perfect fit’.
“Sheffield has always had a rich history of poetry and creative arts and I just thought to myself, it would be good if did something for poetry,” said Magid.
“We have a lot of notable poets in Sheffield but there’s nobody really just championing it so I thought it would be great if we had a poet laureate.
“I thought about what really embodies the modern-day Sheffield – it’s quite dynamic, different, radical at times – and someone who is young and thriving at the moment is Otis. He will be such a great champion for Sheffield, and he’s a perfect fit for it.
“I think it will be exciting and something we can call upon, like a figure-head. It’s great that we have someone who’s young and dynamic who can represent Sheffield in their art-form and inspire young, budding artists in the city.
“And someone they can relate to. When we think of poet laureates we usually think of someone of an older age and Otis is completely different and I think that’s what makes it really exciting. I think a lot of people will get behind him as well.”
Otis was appointed by Magid at the opening of Off the Shelf festival earlier this month and will hold the position for two years.