Born Again: Vic Mensa & Terron Cooper Sorrells Discuss 'Victor' Album & The Art of Collaboration
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Vic Mensa's VICTOR album artwork was painted by Terron Cooper Sorrells. The album's main theme is redemption, which is reflected in representation of Egyptian goddess Isis as doves sewing the rapper (who represents Egyptian god Osiris) back together. ARTWORK BY TERRON COOPER SORRELLS
How did you first meet?
Vic Mensa: I think we met through Mr. Nice Art, who is a curator, patron of the arts and a heavy collector based in Chicago. I actually was trying to find him for years. He's like an enigma. This dude has never shown you his face. [laughs] I learned about him through a friend of mine. I knew he was in the orbit. , while I was trying to figure out who he was. Even one time I took some Lollapalooza tickets over to his house and just dropped them off. And this dude went and gave them away to people on 47th Street and 39th Street or something crazy like that. More recently, Terron made the painting in early 2022. I became aware of Terron’s art through Mr. Nice Art’s channels. Did I first come to a show of yours?
Terron Cooper Sorrells: Yeah, you got it. I think it's really important to bring up Mr. Nice Art because he found me at my day job. He just has a really kind and giving personality. He basically saw my art and just wanted to push me forward. Throughout working with him, I created this one image, which was called “No Country For Black Men”. I put on this solo show for this one painting and it was accompanied by some prints that I did in college, and you came to that event. That's the first time we talked. You have seen the art before through Mr. Nice Art And you were digging it. You were just really welcoming and was like, “We should work together.”
VM: Yeah, I'm trying to remember which painting it was.
TCS: Was it the Klansmen?
VM: Exactly, exactly. That one and then the one of the flying Africans? What's that painting called?
TCS: It's called “I'm Coming Home.”
VM: From the moment I saw Terron’s art, I was just like, “This is a different echelon of artists”. Mr. Nice Art has a super high state level and he's pretty much always right about artists. But when I saw Terron’s work, it’s some of the most visceral, human but imaginative, vibrant work I've ever seen. It felt like I was stumbling upon either an early Kerry James Marshall or a Kehinde Wiley. Just something is going to be cataclysmically impactful to the art world.
I remember speaking to 'Ron about some of his paintings because I was already a big fan of these paintings before I actually went to that show and before I met you. And I remember talking to you about perhaps some African mythology, I think it's the Igbo Landing, which is a myth or creation story in the zeitgeist that is about a group of Igbo people who were enslaved, and all drifted and wandered into this water somewhere probably in Virginia, something like that. [EDITOR’S NOTE: It took place in St. Simons Island, Georgia] The story goes that they drowned themselves, but in that action, transported themselves back to present-day Nigeria. It’s a really famous story. Ta-Nehisi Coates actually wrote a whole book based on the idea in a way, it's called The Water Dancer.
So I'm talking to 'Ron about this sh-t because he has this painting of these flying Africans next to a slave ship. And he was like, “I don't even know about that story.” So I thought it was so ill because I was like, this sh-t is so deeply in your DNA. It's in the fiber of your being, it's in your bones, it's in your ancestral memory, that you can paint a story that’s so well known, without actually knowing the story, just from ancestral memory. I thought that was so ill.
Terron Cooper Sorrells. PHOTO COURTESY OF TERRON COOPER SORRELLS
Did you go through multiple iterations of making Vic’s VICTOR cover?
TCS: It happened really organically. Vic came to the studio and we had a chat. Since the album was pretty much already created, he told me about his inspirations and what led him to the point of the album’s creation. I could find symbols and things within the way he was speaking, that I could represent visually. I still thought I needed to get more of a sense of Vic as a person. So we did a sketch from life. So he actually sat down, and I positioned them the way in which the album cover looks now and I drew him for a few hours. And that really solidified the composition, and where I wanted things to be. I think we just did a little doodle. And Vic was on board with that.
“TERRON’S WORK IS SOME OF THE MOST VISCERAL, HUMAN BUT IMAGINATIVE, VIBRANT WORK I’VE EVER SEEN. IT FELT LIKE I WAS STUMBLING UPON EITHER AN EARLY KERRY JAMES MARSHALL OR A KEHINDE WILEY.” –VIC MENSA
PHOTO BY JAMIL T. MCGINNIS AND MAX FRIEDMAN
VM: I remember I brought Terron by the studio. And I think he was the first person that I played a lot of the music for in an organized, comprehensive fashion and just told him about many of my inspirations. I just remember, he took mad notes. It gave me an idea. I was like, Man, “I need to f–king listen to this sh-t and take some notes and see what key phrases can be used for artwork, videos, etc. I had this idea that was based on Egyptian mythology and was taught to me by one of my elders who's incarcerated.
He gave me the Egyptian Book of the Dead and he told me to research it and study it. So I learned about the story of Osiris, who was the Egyptian God of the Dead. He was lured into his coffin for his sarcophagus when he was 28. He was ripped apart by those conspiring against him and then sewn back together by Isis, and became the God of the afterlife. I thought it was really metaphoric for many things in my journey, and I was 28 at the time of learning about it. So I took that concept and was thinking about Nas’ album cover for I Am where he's a mummy.
So I add to that concept. I was just asking Terron what he thought about it. And I was thinking of it really on the nose and very literally. There’s these Kehinde Wiley paintings of Black men in coats of armor. And I'm like, “Yeah, make me a mummy.”. You could tell your process of how you made this the way you did, but I thought it was so brilliant, because what I was thinking about was really literal. And you found many ways to represent that symbolism. But in a more nuanced and human way, you know?
TCS: I think a lot of that came from me wanting just to tell this narrative and keep people engaged with the album art. I think that it all started with the incarceration and me wanting it to be almost like it was in a cell, and an enlightenment was about to happen. So you have the gold drapery there, which sort of gives you that sense that a God is coming within the window. You get that air coming through, and I thought it was important to have that frame, which you can see the painting of Ghana there.
Vic Mensa PHOTO BY JAMIL T. MCGINNIS AND MAX FRIEDMAN
I actually wanted to ask you about that.
TCS" It's a painting of Ghana in this super decorative gold frame. You have the two eyes there, which I see as the eyes of God, one of which is on Vic and the other is on the land that we came from. Vic brought [the prayer rug] in, and we were able to get a shot of it. The Quran and the Destruction of Black Civilization [books] were really important. Because it shows if you don't have the Quran, what can lead to that. It gives you that sense of working through these issues.
Terron Cooper Sorrells, “I’m Coming Home!” (2021) ARTWORK BY TERRON COOPER SORRELLS
That's beautiful. I'm seeing the book covers. Was that a collaboration with both of you guys?
TCS: Yeah, Vic, do you want to talk about it because you brought them in?
VM: I brought those into the studio. When Terron was coming through do the sketch, I just brought a few props. Those are just things that I was keeping near me while I was working on the album. Even the chain was something I wanted to have in there. I didn't know about that symbolism of the window and the curtain. Yeah, I love that. I love the golden curtain. What I think my favorite detail, though, is the representation of Isis as doves sewing me back together. Osiris was torn apart and much of this album is it's really themed around redemption and is about me putting myself back together in many ways. So when he represented that as these doves I just thought that was so ill. Somehow he was able to take an idea that could be grotesque and make it beautiful. Dismembered limbs don't sound beautiful but somehow the way he did it, it's not off-putting at all. It just has this feeling of peace to it. So it's juxtaposing something that is painful with something that is peaceful.
Is there anything you both learned about each other through this process?
VM: One thing I'm always inspired by is Terron’s work ethic. He's in the studio right now. I won't say that any artists’ style is easier than another's, because everybody's process is unique. But obviously, Terron’s work is incredibly detailed. And the fact that he had turned around an entire show full of incredibly detailed work in a really short period of time, I think it's just an inspiration. I guess I aspire to do it at that speed that he's doing it.
TCS: I don't know if Vic knows this, but I've been a fan since the Kids These Days era. I was actually going to go to a concert in DC. But we were kicked out — it’s a long story. And so it was just nice to get to go to the studio, and — hope you don't mind me saying —but it wasn't like this massive production. It was just just you chilling and just listening to the music for the first time. I just was blown away by the details and the meticulous nature of it. I thought this would be a perfect fit, because we're sort of working in a similar vein, but in just different mediums.
VM: Yeah, that's dope, man.I love working in that room. So the studio where Terron came by, it's a studio where I've been working for a long time and always worked in the main rooms. But then, during this process, while I was doing the album, I started doing a lot of my writing in this small, beat-up room in the corner. I just started to catch a vibe in there. I think a big part of why I started to really vibe in that room is because it's the only room in the studio that really has a real window. So during the daytime, the sun is just shining. And I'd be thinking about sources of energy and performing at a high level and that the sun is our primary source of energy as human beings. Musicians, we create like vampires in the middle of the night. But there's something about that energy from the sun. I think that maybe creates lighter music.
Terron Cooper Sorrells, “Pietá” (2023). ARTWORK BY TERRON COOPER SORRELLS
Terron, I was actually speaking with Theaster Gates on Friday. We were discussing the importance of preserving Black spaces in art. What I appreciate about your work is that you're preserving Black stories within the contemporary art space, which I think has been lacking for a long time. So I would just love to know your thoughts on making sure that our stories get heard, not just in the archival sense, but bringing it into modern conversations in art.
TCS: I think that is very important. When you go to an art museum, and you're going through the American art wings it would be nice to be represented there. And I get why you say not for archival purposes, because what's the point of being in an institution and they're not showing your art, or they're not displaying it in there? They sort of have control over your culture and your narratives. And so I'd say, it's really important to continue to tell our stories, both in a contemporary context, as well as painting the stories that the slaves couldn't paint. I tried to do both and keep those within Black collectors, Black families and Black supporters as well. Until we get those institutions that can help, our focus will be there.
This question is for both of you. I love to know the importance of collaboration and bridging the gap between music and art.
VM: I think is so important because oftentimes, artists of different mediums will just have a completely different approach to creativity than me. And it's really valuable for me to soak that in and study that and learn from that. Because I think a lot of time, the idea of rap that I hold, and I think a lot of people hold is pretty narrow. You can find yourself falling into the same patterns of doing all the regular sh-t that n—-s do in rap. As an artist of multiple mediums, I even have to try to bring the words and the stories in a way I speak about things, when I write an essay, a prose or just a poem. I'm trying to bring that into rap music.
I try to bring the freedom of association that Terron might feel, in a painting into music. Not just as an album cover, but something like looking at a window with sunlight and a curtain. That's an idea that could take form and music and a verse in a beautiful way. Something I love about what painters do is they also don't explain it for you. I've been living with this album cover for how long and I didn't know that that's what his intention was. Rap is very verbose. So oftentimes, we feel the need to explain everything. But just that idea of taking a loosely fitting interpretation, and representing God through something and not even telling nobody just stepping back and letting people fill it how they do that something that's, I think, is hella valuable.
TCS: A lot of artists and painters listen to music while they're working. So it just so happens to meld together. I see music as artists, just as I do paintings. I do think that music is a bit more collaborative in nature. You have a lot of people you have to work with. Whereas painting, I'm usually just by myself in the studio. And so it's nice for once to be a part of a project. I think that if I had just try to create something like this by myself, it wouldn't have been as powerful. You needed both sides. I needed to hear the music to be able to feel those emotions to create it.
The artist. PHOTO COURTESY OF TERRON COOPER SORRELLS