George the Poet: Tackling Society’s Greatest Systemic Challenges & Rap’s untapped Economic Potential

July 28th, 2020

The Oxford Guild hosted a Q&A session with George the Poet as part of its Infinity Diversity Speakers Series. George Mpanga, better known by his stage name George the Poet, is a renowned spoken word performer, social commentator and recording artist who has received great acclaim for his work on exploring and explaining the black British experience and discussing major issues around systemic injustices.

A Cambridge graduate born to Ugandan parents in north-west London, George released a critically-acclaimed hip hop album on Island Records in 2014, before choosing poetry and spoken word as a more effective medium to communicate with his audience. His podcast series Have You Heard George’s Podcast? won ‘Podcast of the Year’ at the 2019 British Podcast Awards.

Host Abbas Kazmi began by asking George about his journey into the spoken-word form. George said he was “rooted in rap music, specifically grime,” and that the transition to poetry happened after he went to university. For him, rap was “an autonomous space for a group of disenfranchised people to tell their truth,” an artform that emphasized the “importance of your life experience,” and one that had empowered a whole generation. It was “hard to unpack [rap] in an academic context.”

Diversity – what more should be done to improve representation?

“It’s about the spaces … supporting and facilitating the talent, as opposed to co-opting the talent. Spaces need to be made more attractive to the incoming crop of students … it’s about being proactive in remedying a lot of the things that have gone wrong before the UCAS form.”

The recent pulling down of statues – why was this so important?

“It’s the tearing down of a story, the ultimate symbolism of our direction of travel … a paradigm shift … it’s all about rethinking the narrative.”

In response to the quote ‘white people want our culture but they don’t want us’, George said that “the popularity of our culture contrasts with the ignorance and lack of interest in countries where black culture is thriving.” His ‘dream’ of young people becoming more politically engaged was starting to happen now, with the popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement: “that’s when governments, institutions and markets have to respond … it’s encouraging to see the corporate world shaken … middle England awakening to the idea that there is an alternative narrative.”

Are you reaching out to new markets?

“I just rhyme. I mine conversations for diamonds and make those rhyme … I see the value of these experiences … it’s a sweet deal.”

The history of Colonialism – how can educators teach it?

“Policymakers have to see the value to it first. What is our country missing out on? The common wealth is an ironic phrase. What is it? We are the richest region in northern Europe but we are also home to some of the poorest .. this inconsistency makes it hard to achieve democracy.”

The following questions were among those submitted by the virtual audience:

What do you make of the recent controversy surrounding Wiley?

“Black Lives Matter has taught me that the translation of our struggles is a job in itself … on Question Time there was a question about US racism vs. UK racism. I had to explain that this question was ridiculous … what matters is that there are people who don’t know [that]. My job is to take the hit and to educate.

When the Labour Party was accused of anti-semitism I started to pay attention. I didn’t know about the history … by the time Wiley’s going off on one I now have the background … it was irresponsible what he was saying. He needs to take responsibility for what he’s saying. Everyone needs to take responsibility for what we don’t know.”

Who are your role models?

“Muhammad Ali, a fighter with a brain. Malcolm X – also a fighter with a brain. Tupac. Nas … I’m drawn to people who could articulate themselves and weren’t afraid to fight back.”

Is it possible for descendents of immigrants to be proud to be British?

“I’m proud to be British. But I turned down an MBE because I’m not proud of the British Empire … but there’s something to be said for reconciliation. I grew up around a lot of Indian kids … saw a model for social mobility … I was able to finesse the system. I will be proud of my Britishness on behalf of any kids who will benefit from it.”

Inspiration from black writers / literary figures?

George said he was more influenced by mainstream TV and music. He cited Jay Z, Beyonce, Jordan Peele, Michaela Coel and Noel Clarke, amongst others: “they are the key players in the field.”

Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome? (Jennifer, University of Manchester)

“Stick it out, Jennifer! You could write your own story … I got it at Cambridge, at school aged 11, as a rapper … I [had to live] with determination, self-determination.”

What’s your view of the sexism in rap and grime?

“It has a massive problem. It was why I left … rap was born of a new crop of drug dealers in 1980s New York City … rap was a retelling of these crazy stories of making crazy money … which engrained in them a problem of accountability in a hyper-capitalist environment in which business is the only way to be rewarded by the market … now we have an inability to have a proper conversation … at 19, I was pissed off in this space.

Kanye, Drake, Kendrick and others have expanded [rap’s] emotional range. But one constant is misogyny. In business terms this is unsustainable.”

… the recent issues of discrimination, can the Labour Party ever recover?

George thought there was a crisis of ideology, in which the extreme politics of the Right had gained the upper hand through appealing to the street, to people’s selfish instincts – “which is why people fear there’s a scarcity of resources. The Tory party has gained a foothold in the North because it positions itself as a defender of Britain’s interests in a way that Labour has been unable to do.

“After Corbyn I don’t know where the big ideas are coming from … they’re not offering a route out of poverty … remedies to inequality is not the same. I want clever strategies to undermine [inequality] … the next clever people – it’s probably going to be one of you – sorts it out over the next 10 years.”

How do we combat the rise of nationalism?

“Don’t combat it, you undermine it. At 29 I don’t have the patience to enter the political arena and try to argue with all the populism, xenophobia, austerity that comes with right-wing politics. What I can do is increase the value of my interactions with my audience … [create] a public intellectual space to share … undermine it by enriching the interactions I have in my life.”

How do we preserve Britain as a tolerant place?

“Black Lives Matter showed the value in coordinating … raising our voices sets the tone … we can become tyrannical and bullying; however, it is important to speak up. We need to be honest with ourselves. There’s no substitute for being useful. We are a minority. We don’t have a robust comms stystem or central authority … this undermines our position at the negotiating table … we don’t have enough clout, leverage to pressure the authorities.

We need to ensure that our productivity is evolving … make something that can be brought to the bargaining table.”

How do we create change as individuals?

George spoke about the importance of innovation, of overcoming setbacks when you discover that “people have done it before. I thought I could change what it was to be a man as a rapper at 16. But Nipsy Hussle was doing it already … Nas, Tupac as well … over time my attentions shifted to poetry. There were too many rappers for me to really stand out.”

“The second thing is audience building. It doesn’t have to be big … the right audience … what 5 people need to hear what you’re saying?”

How can you get white people to dismantle a system that benefits them?

George emphasized the importance of leverage in negotiating change. He saw himself as self-employed and hardened by experience. “On what terms are you going to get what you want? The alternative to negotiation is conflict. In Uganda the gripes and grievances of the people are taken a lot less seriously [than in Britain]. The president, Yoweri Museveni, has been in charge 34 years … bloodshed is needed to overthrow him. Someone’s got to die.”

“Past the explaining, we’ve got to negotiate. We have to be pragmatic.”

Any regrets about leaving Island Records and your rap career?

“No. It was a very abusive space in which there was lots of psychological abuse and coercion of young talent. On the outside this leads to successful outcomes, but … mental dissonance, emotional dissonance … I was able to remove myself.

My podcast is an innovative offering … I gave myself free range. Under a business model you are never going to have free range to do what you want.”

How do we take action against the government in light of recent scandals such as Windrush?

“Do you believe it is in your MP’s power to transform British society? That major parties have enough influence or sway to change course? I don’t believe that … from the arts, yes – as a poet I say that – there are affected, agitated pockets of people … have to build a broad church of consensus beyond traditional politics, that will allow you to come to the negotiating table with leverage.”

What are you most proud of?

My followers – they are a great reflection of me and what I put out there. Look at the quality of the questions here. You guys are my confirmation that I’m not wasting my time.”

What’s next?

“I’m going back to school. Details TBC.”

What are you working on in the coming year?

“To do what I did in audio in TV … innovate and introduce new voices, people who want to be me, who have stickers on their walls.”

Reading recommendations?

George said that he was “deeply in love” with the “therapeutic” Why Nations Fail (by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson), an analysis of how institutions evolved and created democracies and dictatorships.

Also:

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story by Lee Kuan Yew.

Decolonising the University (Editors: Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial, Kerem Nisancioglu)

The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy by Mariana Mazzucato‎

Are you still optimistic for the future?

“Problems can be opportunities. Be strong. Anticipate that you’re going to have the time of your life figuring out this mess.

Britain will be more mixed, unless Brexit means kicking out foreigners … inequality will come to a head – it will be hard to hide that. I’m going to make it hard to hide and something’s going to give.”

Advice to your younger self?

“Listen. Listen. Life is a dialogue, not a monologue … only everyone has all the experience. Let’s continue to protect the spaces dedicated to listening … our best ideas and innovation in the spaces where they can be most impactful.”