Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

George the Poet: ‘Poetry is the artistic wing of politics’

George the Poet: ‘Poetry is the artistic wing of politics’

Who is George the Poet? A few years ago, the answer to that question would have been straightforward – he’s a beloved Cambridge-educated Ugandan-British spoken word artist, whose lyrical social commentary about British life had reached such a wide audience that he was invited to read a love poem at the 2018 royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. He’s a writer and musician, born George Mpanga in 1991, whose poetry has been commissioned by the likes of Sky Sports F1, and who was offered an MBE. Today, defining Mpanga by those achievements feels problematic, largely because of how critical the 33-year-old poet is of his own rise to fame. “I got all sorts of privileges, awards, little nods, passes and pats on the back from the establishment,” he says now. “Going to Cambridge – these things are signifiers. The more I learned, the more I realised that none of it was a coincidence. Yes, I took myself to university. I made myself become a poet. But you can’t separate [my success] from its political utility to conservative interests.”

Mpanga is now also a successful podcaster and PhD candidate (he’s currently researching how Black music can be used across the Black world for a better future, at University College London), and he has recently become a father. But one label he once embraced but is now keen to reject is that of “good immigrant” – a person who works hard, stays out of trouble, and is rewarded for it. “[I] rose to fame with non-threatening poems that criticised my own community for the problems it faced. I presented a narrative that aligned with ruling-class interests. I made the system look good. All those people claiming that racism and poverty were holding them back just needed to be more like me.”

That’s a line taken from Mpanga’s upcoming book, Track Record. It is a heartfelt and honest attempt to reckon with his own success and his changing politics, while also exploring what he calls “the war on Blackness”, which he defines as “a range of disconnected but related assaults on people of African descent by the global power structure”. Though the book has elements of memoir, “I shy away from, ‘This is my life story’,” Mpanga says. “I think it’s a trap. It’s a way of potentially game-changing spokespeople just turning inwards.” He prefers to use his platform to talk about history, politics, economics, the legacy of the slave trade and the effects of colonialism.

George the Poet.View image in fullscreen

Mpanga was born in the UK to Ugandan parents, growing up on the St Raphael’s Estate in Neasden, north-west London. He attended a prestigious grammar school, Queen Elizabeth’s in Barnet, and later studied politics, psychology and sociology at King’s College, Cambridge. This is where he first discovered his love of poetry. “I wanted to be in a space of ideas. But I want it to be a beautiful space,” he says. “Poetry is the artistic wing of politics. Which is why I encourage all poets to stop writing about their breakups.”

Mpanga started out as a teenager rapping with his friends, and watching Channel U, the music TV channel that focused on hip-hop and grime. The style of poetry he developed takes cues from hip-hop, from his delivery, to his rhyme patterns, to the word play. In 2014, Mpanga signed a record deal with Island Records, and released his debut EP, The Chicken and the Egg, to critical acclaim. However, he never followed up with a studio album. “When I signed, it was just five weeks from graduation. So there’s obviously a sense of achievement. But by the time I left, I had satisfied my curiosity. I felt like I had tried to do something super innovative, and given it my best, but that it wasn’t the right environment to test out some of the stuff I’m interested in.”

Mpanga quit his record label and published a volume of poetry, Search Party, in 2015. The title poem talks about a north-south divide, the housing crisis, and directs readers to his “manifesto”, calling for change through “choice, empowerment and participation”. In Go Home, he criticises government anti-immigration policies, particularly a 2013 billboard van campaign: “This is kiddish, it’s foolish, it’s not British, it’s brutish.” At the Penguin Random House UK conference that year, he performed Search Party – “I paint a portrait of ends at these corporate events / And you know me, I’m never scared of causing offence” – to loud applause.

The collection was a huge hit with a nationwide tour, appearances on BBC Radio 1, Newsnight, and in the national press. Then came the royal wedding appearance, and the following year, his podcast, Have You Heard George’s Podcast?, won in five catagories at the British Podcast Awards. That same year, he turned down an MBE due to the treatment of Uganda under British rule, talking of the “pure evil” perpetrated by the British empire. He still makes music and writes poetry; he’s made appearances on other artists’ projects, including rapper Nines’ Crop Circle 3 and Skrapz’s Be Right Back, and next month is taking part in The Poets’ Revival at the Royal Albert Hall alongside Kae Tempest, Suli Breaks and Momtaza Mehri.

We meet at Mpanga’s publisher’s office in Blackfriars, London, where he politely greets me, before ordering a mint tea. Anyone who has listened to his podcast knows just how distinctively smooth his voice is. Still, his choice of words can be sharp. On the day we speak, American rapper Kendrick Lamar has dissed rappers Drake and J Cole in a new verse. Mpanga isn’t impressed. “Kendrick Lamar is a non-revolutionary cosplaying as a revolutionary. [He is someone] who’s been silent about very important things at very important times,” he says. “And now that he has a little catty moment, we’re acting like hip-hop’s back? I don’t want to be part of that.”

For Mpanga, Lamar and others’ definition of hip-hop as a sport is a fallacy. “It feels like propaganda,” he says, arguing that modern hip-hop has become divorced from its political foundations and turned into a competition. “It feels like all this messaging has been programmed into us from early on. We were taught to celebrate Jay-Z versus Nas. We were taught to celebrate west versus east.” It’s a far cry, he says, from hip-hop’s roots. “It was knowledge at some point. It was feminism. It was African consciousness. So why is it so important as competition and none of those other things?”

He is suspicious of superstar musicians who adopt a revolutionary pose but don’t seem to follow through on the ground. “We all had record deals at some point. We all had fame and ratings and commercial opportunities. But if you get to that point, and you notice that the upward trajectory of your career in no way reflects the condition of your community, you have decisions to make.”

Track Record is as much about Mpanga contending with white supremacy and capitalist ideologies as it is about him coming of age. Now that he is a father, he has been forced to reflect on his early years, the decisions he’s proud of, and the ones he regrets. Mpanga owns up to his mistakes. In the past, he says, he failed to focus on the bigger picture but “I empathise with the young man that I was,” he says. “I don’t think I was disingenuous. I was never perfect.”

In 2021, as he was due to deliver the annual Longford Lecture about prison reform at Church House, Westminster he spoke to the Guardian about his longstanding work in prisons. He had been involved with the organisation Key4Life, visiting Feltham Young Offenders Institute and appearing on national prison radio. He told the interviewer: “It’s easier to change the lives of offenders in prison than it is outside.” The quote went viral. “A lot of people were starting to say that I advocated for more prisons being built,” he says.

George the Poet performing at Village Underground, London, in 2015.View image in fullscreen

Things only got worse when he tried to defend himself, and tweeted something (now deleted) about “woke culture”, adopting a phrase often used by the right wing to undermine progressive politics. Mpanga couldn’t believe how quickly the public had turned him into the villain of the day. “I’m a cool guy!” he says earnestly. “You don’t understand. I’m a good guy!” Now, he says he regrets how he said it, but not what he said. “I was making a point I don’t fully retract, about there being a cabal of people online that are there for the thrill of the latest drama, and they do it under the guise of political convictions.” However, he is pleased it happened – it was an opportunity to grow. “I’m glad people pulled me up.”

skip past newsletter promotion

Mpanga’s politics have become more radical over the years. This partly stems from his research into counterculture movements of the 60s and 70s in the US and UK, and how those in power responded. “[They] realised that if we limit people’s view of justice, and stop getting people to talk about international justice, gender-based justice, these broad forms of revolution, and get them to think about personal responsibility, we can manage [them] a lot easier.”

It’s also a response to the way in which the welfare and material conditions of everyday lives have declined dramatically in the UK in the past decade. “It’s grotesque,” he says. “Yet we are expected to tolerate all of these billionaires doubling their wealth since the pandemic. While we’re told that there is no money to deal with homelessness. There’s no money to deal with healthcare.”

Poverty as a moral failing, and wealth as personal triumph, is a rhetoric that has long underpinned austerity politics. It’s also a belief that, Mpanga has noticed, has been touted by many popular figures. “As these rappers will tell you – you’re poor because you’re lazy. You just don’t deserve nice things,” he says. “Joe Rogan is on the same thing. To individualise poverty.”

The only way forward, says Mpanga, is to stop pretending that there’s something we could all do a bit differently to improve our lives. When he first thought about writing a nonfiction book, in 2020, he considered writing self-help.“I’ve enjoyed books where they told me these are seven ways of doing X, Y, Z. I also wanted people to look at me as someone that they can come to for advice,” he says. Ultimately, he realised that would only emphasise the individual, when in fact “there’s a cultural context that you need to be aware of. You need to know that you are being influenced to frame social improvement as an individual project. You’ve got to be able to interrogate that.”

There’s only one kind of personal advice Mpanga is willing to dish out, and that’s about love. He married in 2021 and talks about his wife, Sandra Makumbi, who is also his long-term head of operations, with tenderness. “I find it beautiful to be in service to an amazing woman. And a perfect baby boy,” he says, joyfully. “The love I have for my wife, there’s nothing I can compare it to. I didn’t think I was capable of that at one point in my life.”

So what guidance does he have for other young men? “I do want to say to guys: nothing beats being a man of character. They won’t say it in the music and you might not hear it on social media, but to be who you say you are and to humble yourself and be willing to listen – these are the secrets to attraction. To love and intimacy.”

Indeed, it is the “revolutionary potential to love” that seems to offer Mpanga hope. While Track Record is in many ways a dark tale of violence and oppression, it is also an ode to everything Mpanga loves most: music, his community, his Blackness. “When you learn what the world is really about, it’s going to be a struggle, man. Especially if you learn too quickly. If you learn in a traumatic way. But love is the answer. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but that’s my pitch,” he laughs.

Source: theguardian.com