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Vic Mensa At Lollapalooza: The Hard Work Behind A Headlining Set

By Lisa White | August 3, 2016 8:09am
 Vic Mensa rehearses for his 2016 Lollapalooza performance
Vic Mensa rehearses for his 2016 Lollapalooza performance
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DNAinfo/Kate Scott

GRANT PARK — How much work goes into headlining a stage at Lollapalooza?

For Chicago rapper Vic Mensa, weeks of preparation led up to a busy final few days to perfect his carefully choreographed performance before his headlining set Saturday at the festival.

At a rehearsal space in Hyde Park, Mensa and a crew of actors drilled through rehearsals of the Chicago-exclusive performance, led by stage and tour managers.

"It's a universal idea, but it's a Chicago statement," Mensa told DNAinfo about the performance he prepared especially for Lollapalooza.

"It kind of came as a two-fold thing, with cutouts on tour and at other festivals and then actors at Lollapalooza," Mensa said. "It was all a part of one concept."

Part of the performance, and the song it was set to, was inspired by the police-involved shooting death of Laquan McDonald as well as a new track showing support of the LGBTQ community.

"Will [Hasty, Mensa's tour manager and lighting director] came up with the concept and we collaborated on it from there, on design and the look and the specific choreography and motion," Mensa said.

The team brought in Ian Eastwood, who has worked with Mensa before and has teamed up with the likes of Justin Bieber and Chance The Rapper, to help work out the movement for each performer.

“You don’t want dancers, you want a message,” Eastwood said during rehearsal the week of Lollapalooza. “What’s cool about this, it’s based off imagery that Vic already uses, so it really is breathing what I think is the right amount of life you need to breathe into it.”

He added: “I think there is more power in less words when people are trying to make an important statement. And I think it’s a similar thing with movement. The less you do, the more it means.”

The movement was minimal at rehearsal, but the message was anything but. Eastwood understood the idea that less is more.

“This is going to be a very big statement, and it’s definitely needed right now,” Eastwood said. “If you’re not in Chicago and you don’t see it live, you’re going to hear about it. This is something people will talk about because it’s saying something very powerful like Vic’s music already did.”

When asked what he hoped people take away from the performance, Mensa simply answered: "Equality." He told DNAinfo that he wanted to be clear that his efforts and his song are "not so political than they are revolutionary."

"Chicago is changing the world right now," Mensa said. "We're able to apply our situation to a much larger social framework and people connect to it."Actors and Vic Mensa rehearse his song "16 Shots" before his Lollapalooza performance. [DNAinfo/Kate Scott]

Mensa's team, from Eastwood to the staff and every actor in the Lollapalooza show, understood this idea that the message and moment is bigger than just the music.

"Let's not forget that people have been using music and performance to make statements and take stand for as long as they've existed," Mensa said. "These things that I'm talking about, and the general sentiment of understanding, acceptance and equality above all, has been a part of music forever."

Actors grab Vic Mensa during rehearsal for his Lollapalooza performance. [DNAinfo/Kate Scott]

After a second day of rehearsal with the full cast, Mensa left to get ready, actors grabbed their costumes, loaded custom-made riot shields onto a school bus and hopped on for the trek to Grant Park.

At the festival actors and crew tried not to draw attention to the 20-plus people in all black with riot shields as they crossed Michigan Avenue. Bomb sniffing dogs checked everything and security guards escorted everyone behind the stage as they dodge cameras along the way. The actors grouped up, had a quick pep talk and were lined up on the side of the stage.  

The lights were dimmed and a nervous energy ran down the line as the first notes of “16 Shots” floated across the crowd. Two actors grabbed Mensa onstage as he delivered his first verse, the beat dropped and everyone rushed onstage. The crowd, not expecting a wave of riot police, unleashed a deafening roar.

Vic Mensa performs "16 Shots" at Lollapalooza. [DNAinfo/Kate Scott]

The actors in their riot gear were featured throughout the rest of Mensa’s set.

During the track “Free Love,” Chicago drag performer Lucy Stoole strutted onstage to lead a mock-wedding ceremony. Two actors lifted their riot helmets and passionately kissed, another message communicated clearly.

It was a bold set for any artist, and even more brazen for an artist who is still, in many ways, paying dues as their career continues to rise.

"This is undoubtedly the best performance I've ever done at Lollapalooza, I think it was one of the best performances I've ever done in general," Mensa said. "It was really powerful and it was a lot more than music and art."

After his performance, Mensa paused to snap a selfie with an excited festival volunteer, who squealed as she ran off to show her friends. He has come a long way from sneaking into Lollapalooza as a fan, a story he recalled onstage minutes before, to where he is today.

Eastwood summed it up well when he spoke about Mensa’s vision for his Lollapalooza performance and his overall work: “I think something that is visceral, nothing speaks louder than that.”

If the response Saturday was any indication, Mensa’s message was heard loud and clear.

Actors and Vic Mensa rehearse his before his Lollapalooza performance. [All photos DNAinfo/Kate Scott]

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