George the Poet: ‘Entertainment can be the basis of an education system’

George the Poet explores knife crime and how rap deals with death, while addressing perils of Britain’s urban music scene. Sharing his desire to see spoken word in the national curriculum, while getting candid about sex and relationships.

George the Poet, real name George Mpanga has a brand that allows him to challenge the status quo. He is currently working on what will be his first film. A movie adaptation of his podcast series Have You Heard George’s Podcast?, is set to be released this summer. His musical collaborations include the likes of Jorja Smith, Maverick Sabre, Emeli Sandé and he has offered support to Grammy-nominated US rapper Nas on tour. Despite it all, the 28-year-old spoken word artist from north-west London has embraced his council estate upbringing on prime-time BBC programme’s like Inside Out London and Question Time. At heart, he is still the young Ugandan boy that grew up on St Raphael’s Estate.

My conversation with George began with a simple question “What is a day in the life of George the Poet like?”. For an inquisitive mind such as his, this question is a multi-layered one with more than one clear-cut answer. Each day as different as it may be, still holds the same questions for the spoken word artist. The one which seems to play on George’s mind the most is “How can we use entertainment to improve the condition of our people?” This question formed the very basis of our one-hour conversation. 

George sat in a Nike tracksuit, to him is symbolic of letting go of certain stigmas. He admits to going through a period of believing tracksuits were “too hood” and not wearing them anymore showed immediate signs of growth. For him, these perceptions came from the outside world. He came to realise that by changing himself, he was conforming to someone’s idea of what should be deemed “legitimate”.

His days consist of studio sessions, school workshops, performances and broadcasting his show on National Prison Radio to prisons across the UK. Being self-employed gives George the control he needs to shape his own narrative. He controls his image, his brand, and no longer feels he needs to be a caricature of something he is not. “I was on Question Time twice last year. I had a gold tooth and two slits in my eyebrow. I’m not doing it for a reaction. It’s been a process of me just being comfortable with everything that I am, anywhere that I go.”

Perhaps this boldness is what has earned him celebrity status as one of the leading spoken word artists in the country. The national reputation of his socially charged verses deemed him a fitting candidate to read a 154-word poem, introducing the global television coverage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. To the young boys in his community, George embodies what they could one day become.

The level of autonomy he has now, was once a goal he hoped to achieve as a teenage boy during his time at Queen Elizabeth’s School (QE Boys) in Barnet. “I felt a bit out of place. Being a young man from a council estate, I was looked at as cool and a little bit edgy. The associations that people make with who you are, how you talk and where you’re from started to play on my mind and sense of self.”

 His parents not only instilled in him values of good work ethic, but also the importance of being a good person. As George continued to share his journey with me, I began to ask myself questions. Do we do enough to offer celebrities or people in our everyday lives the same courtesy before we make judgements about them? Is it possible to completely free our minds of negative stereotypes and societal expectations? Do we use certain stereotypes to safeguard or protect us and if so, what do we feel we need protection from?

Growing up on St Raphael’s Estate, an inner-city community is where George’s journey to becoming a lyricist really began. In those one-and-a-half-hour journeys to and from school he was able to find comfort in lyrics. Many of us, be it young or old have different encounters with music that make us realise just how much power it wields. For George, that was his moment.

It was also during this time that he made an unlikely friend in poetry. Studying English Literature at GCSE taught him to value “the effort people put into words”. You could say, his exposure to 20th century English poets such as William Blake was another defining moment for him. It was the time when he started to look at rap differently and thus his transition to becoming ‘George the Poet’ began. His respect for this form of literature increased, as he opened his mind to the ideas of poets who once didn’t pique his interest. His outlook changed to perceiving poetry as a more formalised version of rap that is accessible and studied across the world.

Calling himself a poet means George must face both praise, scrutiny and being completely misunderstood. As he gained prominence, popularity and his music made it on the airwaves, then came the interviews and claims that he was a modern-day Shakespeare so to speak. He found himself being passed the baton to continue and rejuvenate this long line of great British poets. Such a responsibility he admits to rejecting. “I know a lot about young black men in Queens, Harlem, the Bronx, Compton, Long Beach California, Atlanta, Lagos, Kampala and Johannesburg. I know a lot more about what black people are doing.”

Even after finishing school, moving on to study Politics, Psychology and Sociology at Cambridge presented another challenge for George to learn how other people received and interacted with him. A challenge he has since overcome. As he successfully writes lyrics that are appreciated by people of very different walks of life and designs these lyrics to also “make sense in the syllabus”. He receives messages on Twitter from teachers who incorporate his work into their lesson plan. Yet, still he feels there’s more to be done. Maybe the incorporation of spoken word into the national curriculum is something we might see one day.

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George seems to have this saviour complex, branding himself as a “street’s disciple” in the same way his inspiration rap legend Nas has done in the past. Much of his admiration for Nas comes from resonating with his music so much that it felt like breathing. “His music was sophisticated. It was advanced. It’s poetry. It flows like water. It’s well-structured.” He paused. “I woke up early on my born day; I’m 20, it’s a blessin’. The essence of adolescence leaves my body, now I’m fresh and my physical frame is celebrated ‘cause I made it,” he raps cheerfully recounting the rapper’s song Life’s a B*tch (1994).

As a young devout Christian, George used to “debate religion on the block” with his older Muslim friends who had just returned from prison. “It was a beautiful thing. These big 20-year-olds, with their muscles and their beards just giving some time to this little 13-year-old who’s passionate and got his opinions,” he says while his voice grew softer as he looks back nostalgically.

Alongside the fonder memories of his childhood were the not so pleasant ones. “I got into a big altercation on the bus when I was 15, with a couple guys who were a bit older than me. But, the very first time I got into an altercation I was 12,” George reveals being exposed to gang culture from a young age. “I’ve been to many ghetto funerals, where someone I’ve known has died. Everyone would come in printed t-shirts. From a young age, the social scientist in me would ask myself why it’s like this,” he continues.

So, what is it about the lure of drug dealing that makes it appeal to young people? “Drug dealing, and gang culture gives young people what school is supposed to give them. I’ve witnessed it first-hand. The opportunity to gain status, to use our brain, our initiative, to really build yourself and your capabilities in a situation where there is little opportunity,” George explains to me. That’s an analogy one might not hear too often. But, makes it easier to understand the appeal such a lifestyle has on young people.

What he then said struck a chord in me. It made me feel grateful for the privileges I had when I was younger and the harsh realities of life that my parents shielded me from. Yet, on a deeper level George the Poet and I connected as I took life lessons from his past. “For a long time, I believed if I got stabbed it would be in my own area, by guys I probably knew. It’s the same guys you went to school with, that you’re neighbours with or that you grew up around that end up being your enemies because that’s all we know.” From a young age, George wrestled with questions I find myself thinking about more intensely now following the sudden death of Nipsey Hussle.

Rap’s relationship with death is a complicated one. It comes face to face with it in stances where gun violence, depression or drug abuse are involved. Mac Miller. Cadet. Nipsey Hussle. These were some of the few names that came up in our conversation. Somehow losing our favourite musicians feels very close to home. They’ve shared their life with us in song and the only thing we can keep alive now is their legacy and the music that remains with it. “Rap’s got a weird thing in it where it deals with death a lot. Whether it’s guys saying R.I.P to the fallen or guys saying what they want to do to their enemies.”

Silence. He pauses as he recounts his past to gather his thoughts.

George is thorough. He structures his sentences in his mind before he speaks. He knows his words hold weight. So, he chooses them wisely. His experiences provide a basis from which to draw upon. He realises the responsibility that came with having five other siblings prevented him from going in the wrong direction. Being in a position of influence with experiences like his offers insight into the roots of knife crime, which George feels the criminal justice system still “fails” to understand. 

His quarrels with the criminal justice system (CJS) are based on lived experiences, observations and independent research. UK news organisations such as the Independent have revealed reports indicating that institutional racism in the case of black teenagers “is not a thing of the past”. Labour MP David Lammy published The Lammy Review (2017) which he examined issues such as BAME disproportionality and rehabilitation. He asked for more transparency in issues such as the rise in Muslim prisoners over the last decade from 8,900 to 13,200. So, academics, journalists and campaigners can hold the CJS to account. Kadifa Williams (2000) wrote a thesis seeking to understand the ‘race’ effect in criminal justice decision-making across England and Wales. These are just some of the many theoretical studies which attempt to rationalise and report on the unequal treatment of BAME individuals in the criminal justice system. This issue, as prevalent as it may be is one George feels isn’t going away any time soon.

“We face a criminal justice system that doesn’t seem to be able to handle the cultural factors that lead to crime, high rates of offending and re-offending with particular demographics. Recent statistics have indicated that half of all young offenders in jail are BME. Across the country. We don’t have the means of articulating this. We don’t have an idea what do to about it. I think that is unacceptable.”

Music offers solace and has acted as a deterrent for George and many of Britain’s most prominent spoken-word and rap artists. For him, music is a “self-governed space” that allows musicians to live a “fulfilled life”. This youthful energy and desire to create has followed George through to adulthood. “Even now, when I’m dormant and don’t have anything to do there are creative processes going on inside me. And that’s 24/7,” George shares with me. Writing lyrics is a big part of his life. So much so that even if he’s not making music for public consumption, he remains absorbed in it and uses the processes involved in music production daily as fuel for his creative mind. He’s watched “ex-bad boys” turn their life around and transform their communities with the income they have made from music.

When it comes to role models he starts by referring to members of his family including visual artist Phoebe Boswell and his uncle David Mpanga, one of the leading lawyers in Uganda. He then pays homage to those who started the first wave of grime in the UK. He cites “All the Ghett’s, Wiley’s, Skepta’s, Wretch’s” as being the reason for why ‘George the Poet’ can flourish as a wordsmith today. 

Yet, on one side of his overall feeling towards music “the glass is half empty”.  He can’t seem to contain this bittersweet feeling he has towards it. His relationship with it is strained and complex to say the least. “I left my label. I walked out of the music industry in like 2015. I’ve got so much on my mind and there’s so much that needs to be done. I’m connected to so many people that don’t necessarily see what I see so they could do with me helping them. I felt like it wasn’t the best use of my time to only make music.”

Despite being such a fast-paced industry with stans that demand regular releases, George knows everything he creates isn’t for public consumption. “I’m sitting on a lot of music and no, I don’t think everything should be released to the world. With me, a lot of the music that I’ve made in the past three years was for me, I didn’t realise it though, because I was trying to make it for the audience.”

His frustration lies in the preoccupation with money, women, style and “individual aura” within mainstream rap music today. “We’ve built no structure for addressing anything beyond that. We don’t have a uniform approach to our economic plan for music.”

What are the ways to alleviate the misogynistic undertones in rap music and steer it towards a brighter future? Realistically, no-one has the answers to this. One can only offer suggestions, as George does. Maybe a system for tying in the value back to the community is the answer? Maybe we need to leverage the wealth in the UK’s urban music scene to defend communities against changes that adversely affect them? These are some of the many suggestions he passionately put forward.      

“We’re not great with counselling and care services, as a community we don’t have our own infrastructure for dealing with inter-generational trauma that we’re carrying. Music helps. For the most part rap is the wild west, you can just hit the studio and be who you wanna be.”

George welcomes conversations with other rappers to bring to light issues around relevancy, discuss how they can collectively elevate their thinking and generate ideas that can put an end “to crime in the hood”.

He looks to Akala as a new reference point for the level of thinking he’s trying to reach as a lyricist. He feels a sense of loneliness being surrounded by rappers who don’t define “clout” according to what they can contribute. “And Akala, I got a new obsession with Akala. I just want to learn as much as I can from him. He maintains a standard of thinking that doesn’t deviate. He doesn’t make me feel insecure about the things I don’t have as a listener.”

Rap is an oxymoron. It’s an entertaining, intelligent and sophisticated form of documentation that has the keys to what life is like now. But it also lacks decorum. He loves it. And he hates it too. What is clear for George is that if someone wanted to know what was going on in society now “all they’d have to do is listen to the music”.

What tends to the wounds of George’s broken relationship with music is his podcast. Have You Heard George’s Podcast? has evolved his relationship with music. It allows him to get into film music more and consider how he can use this medium to tell hood stories. With that, I was reminded of a comment the late John Singleton made in an interview with film director Simon Frederick. “I wanted my films to be like a Marvin Gaye record, where you listen to it over and over. You can still feel the heart, the soul, the depth and the emotion right there.”

Have You Heard George’s Podcast? touches upon what he hopes to see being discussed more in rap: the pitfalls of the criminal justice system, education, the public’s relationship with the police, immigrants and their relationship with their homelands, family dynamics and more. As critical of the genre as he may be, it’s clear to me that he is coming from a place of love. It’s almost a paternal relationship in the sense that he wants to see it thrive in the same way a parent would for their child.

We took a two-minute break as George went to attend to his nephews who were staying with him at the time. As I heard the echoes of his nephews laughing in the background, I used the time to reflect on what I had learnt so far and how much ground we had covered in 44 minutes of speaking. A journalist in many ways acts like a therapist. In interviews, the interviewee trusts us with their deepest and darkest thoughts. I felt grateful that George had bared his soul they way he did in this conversation. I can imagine delving into different aspects of his past even benefited him in some way.

After two-minutes went by, he returned. “Sorry about that, let’s pick up where we left off,” he says. For my final question, I wanted to explore the topic of romantic relationships. Something he speaks about a lot in his first EP The Chicken and The Egg (2014), yet still it remains an aspect of his life that he keeps quite hidden.

From broken families, to broken homes George feels the perception of relationships was ruined for a lot of people in his area. As “linking” (hanging out, but not dating) became more popular, as did certain notions on how young men should treat women. “Linking messed us up. We went through this whole phase where we thought it was not cool to serenade a woman, to court, to be gentlemanly.”

A “sweet boy” he once was, heavily into romance and making a woman feel like she is the “only woman in the world”. Until this mentality caught on in his teens and he became the guy that wanted everyone to know he was a lady’s man. “I knew deep down that was toxic. I knew, but I couldn’t articulate it at that time, because I didn’t have that language. I spent a lot of my twenties unlearning that,” he says regrettably.

“This is the first time I’ve really addressed this in an interview. I’m telling you, because this is a real conversation. But every time I’ve wanted to write something about relationships, I felt like it’s loaded with all that miseducation.”

After George’s first EP The Chicken and The Egg released, listeners were hungry for more. “That’s you, that’s your lane. You could do this for life, just tell them stories,” his fans said to him. George believed his path was bigger and as with everything he has shared in this conversation previously; he just didn’t think that repetition would be constructive.

“We grew up at a time where there was a big difference between R&B singers and rappers. Now it has merged, with R&B singers trying to be as greasy as the rappers used to be. Everyone’s trying to gravitate towards this safe space where no-one has too many feelings. A space where no-one is overexposing themselves, so no-one’s vulnerable,” this is George’s way of explaining how music factored into these notions at the time.

George shares seeing musical artists constantly repeat what he calls “The Chicken and The Egg cycle” in the music they make and their everyday lives. “The reason I’ve been very private about my relationships and I only make limited content like that is because I don’t wanna tell a story that contributes to the cycle.” He wants the next generation to be able to say something different.

“Entertainment can be the basis of an education system. A formal education system. And we use it to explain and generate opportunity. That’s my big vision. If I don’t make it to tomorrow, I’ll be happy knowing that I left that with you and that seed will eventually become a tree.”