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Track Record by George the Poet review – Black artistry and home truths

Track Record by George the Poet review – Black artistry and home truths

George Mpanga, better known as George the Poet, is a British-Ugandan spoken word artist, poet and rapper. In 2019 he was offered, and turned down, an MBE, a gesture indicative of his progressive politics. He is best known for his award-winning podcast, Have You Heard George’s Podcast?, which has won him legions of fans. Wittily and rhythmically, the show combines social commentary, activism and music. It contains many of the principal ingredients of Track Record: Me, Music and the War on Blackness, Mpanga’s part-memoir, part-treatise on the history of anti-Blackness.

He begins the book in personal mode: he’s at a party when a mansplaining white chap called Will bulldozes into a nuanced conversation between three Black people about representations of Black experience. Thankfully, Track Record is not merely a corrective of Will’s wrongheadedness. Its main concern is addressing Black readers. At its clearest, Mpanga’s writing, full of conviction and integrity, focuses on the importance of “Afro-descended peoples” globally working together. Like Akala’s Natives, it’s a rallying cry for Black communities to re-educate themselves about their histories; to empower themselves and change their worlds.

Simultaneously, Mpanga traces his musical career, from “writing rhymes between lectures [at Cambridge] to signing a record deal within two years”. It’s a cautionary tale of what can happen when Black creativity interfaces with white institutions. When the white-dominated, white-funded record industry wooed him, it promised all kinds of gleaming baubles. Ultimately, though, it failed to allow him the agency he needed to be a true “narrator of street culture”, and to benefit communities such as the one he came from, on the St Raphael’s estate in Neasden, north-west London.

Mpanga’s critique of the commercialisation of Black artistry is largely located within the UK rap scene he knows intimately, while also addressing the genre’s US antecedents. To illustrate exactly what he understands the “war on Blackness” to be, we’re given a fearless account of the methods western powers have used from the 1400s to the present day to limit the lives of “darker skinned populations”. Examining slavery, colonialism and neoliberalism, while analysing the impact of the East India Company, the CIA and the IMF, Mpanga suggests that the west has long been threatened by the promise of Black creativity and the potential of Black collective action. These organisations have systematically worked to curtail or destroy Black emancipatory movements, artistic and political.

Much of his take on the “crookedness” of global politics feels undeniable. But medium is often as important as message. Some of the liveliest thinking on grime here concentrates on close analysis of the genre’s ingenious lexical patterns – a recognition that form as well as content matters. It’s argumentation rather than argument that is the issue. Mpanga bemoans the self-aggrandising approach of artists such as Jay-Z, yet at times falls into a similarly inflated style that is quite off-putting. Exploring the relationship between US intelligence services and Tupac Shakur, and mansplaining almost as much as Will, he brushes aside any question the reader may have, writing: “If this sounds far-fetched to you, chances are you probably don’t know the true story.”

Such moments are countered by humility: Mpanga’s quiet belief that you “can’t make sense of society through your experiences alone”. But these swings between “let me tell you” and self-reflection, between global concern and hyperlocal inquiry often feel inelegantly managed. And this lurching sensation, as well as an occasional hectoring tone, come to dominate the reading experience. As I worked through this heartfelt polemic, I sometimes struggled, and didn’t always want to keep track.

Michael Donkor’s most recent novel, Grow Where They Fall, is out now (Fig Tree)

Source: theguardian.com