Monday 15 June 2015

Interview with George the Poet: speaking out loud

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Esteemed spoken word artist George the Poet is just 24 years old. He has already published his first book of poems and is about to release his debut album. He spoke to UAF’s Unity magazine

>> Go here for the new, Summer 2015 issue

By Lee Billingham, Love Music Hate Racism

The first time I saw George the Poet was when he performed YOLO (You Only Live Once) on Later with Jools Holland last year. Accompanied by just a piano, his vocal performance and his lyrics stole the show.

Since that memorable performance, George Mpanga or, as he is better known, George the Poet, has risen to greater and greater artistic heights.

George is someone many young people see as a positive role model. He was born to Ugandan parents on the St Raphael’s Estate in Harlesden, northwest London, and began performing rap and grime when he was 15 years old.

But he wanted a slightly different role. “I feel in the world of grime there wasn’t much room for me to say the things I wanted to say. There are a lot of egos and at the time a lot of negative energy,” he has said.

“To an extent that’s changed with people like Wretch who have made a name by being generally positive.”

He attended Queen Elizabeth’s School, Barnet, and studied politics, psychology and sociology at King’s College, Cambridge. It was there that he adapted his rap output into poetry.

George says: “I think rappers are primarily expected to make money for the industry and provide party soundtracks, but obviously there are exceptions and grey areas. The poet’s ‘role’ is usually to provide thoughtful social commentary.”

His socially conscious poetic verse has already attracted the attention of musicians, actors and politicians alike.

In addition to breaking startling new ground on the poetry and spoken word circuit George is a Brits Critics’ Choice Award nominee and an adviser for the BBC diversity trust.

He is also making big waves on the music scene. He has worked with Labrinth, Emeli Sande and Paolo Nutini and has also collaborated with Idris Elba on his Mi Mandela album. If that wasn’t enough he has also supported rap legends Nas and Common on tour.
George is an artist who is not afraid to speak from the heart and is passionate about issues that concern him.

George has a brother, Kenny, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of seven.

George believes, “People need to change how they think about autism. Sometimes people think they might be being clever when they laugh at people with the condition, but knowing what I know, I can’t sit there and pretend it’s funny or it’s not ignorant.”
He explained what life was like growing up for him and his brother Kenny in a recent BBC Radio 1 documentary.

“For many people with autism, it’s almost impossible to interpret or understand these kind of things,” says George. “The rest of my brothers and I had to realise that the way we tease each other might not be fair for Kenny.”

Kenny, who’s now 15, says he struggled at school. “I think when they heard the word autism they thought disabled instantly,” he says. “I used to hear, ‘Oh yeah, you stupid autistic guy. When I was younger I wasn’t very confident. Hearing all those comments just used to make me burst into tears and just not want to talk to anyone.”

George also supported last year’s UN Anti-Racism Day demo. The day of protest and culture was set against the backdrop of the rise in Britain and Europe of a number of neo-Nazi, extreme right wing and racist parties.

Organisers of the demonstration in London used the day to call on voters to celebrate the diversity of Britain and oppose parties that pose a threat to Britain’s successful multiculturalism.

The thousands who marched heard speeches from leading political figurers, while Jerry Dammers of the Specials, grime artist Ghetts and George the Poet all performed at Trafalgar Square.

Afterwards George explained why he was backing the demonstration: “It’s not like the struggle against racism is over. Of course we are progressing as a society and generally society is getting more decent, less obviously violent and less obviously racist. But at the end of the day there is much more that needs changing.

“We need more events like this that highlight inequalities and the problems we still face.”

Where next for George? “If I can be seen prominently,” he says, “if I can embody a viable alternative, the idea that it might be OK to stay in school, to aspire to university, then people will hear what I’m saying.”

This interview first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of UAF’s Unity magazine, produced with the National Union of Teachers. You can download the Spring issue as a pdf here.

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