Talented wordsmith and Cambridge finalist George the Poet sits down to talk to Rebecca Diamond about his poetry, his politics and life at Cambridge.
George Mpanga, aka George the Poet, is a man who knows exactly what he’s talking about. Born in North-West London, George’s intelligence and gift for lucid lyricism has propelled him to the very top of the urban spoken word scene. His politically conscious poems have recently brought him to the attention of the likes of Channel 4 and the Royal Albert Hall, and I meet with him to shed some light upon his influences and motivations.
So, what is it about poetry that you connect with over other spoken word forms?
“I think that spoken word allows you to remove a lot of gimmickry like that of musicality, because the focus of music is often in making people dance. There’s something really innocent about just talking, which helps you to get to the crux of what you’re feeling. In the world of say rap, from which I started out from, there can be other focuses than just speaking. My first focus was communicating ideas, but in music you have to consider other things like instrumentality.”
I ask him what it is he wants people to take away from his poetry most – is it to make us think, or act?
“I think thought produces action. You can never separate the two. I hope that upon reflecting upon what I say, people will take it upon themselves to re-evaluate the things they do.”
And what it is that you want people to re-evaluate the most?
“The overarching thing is we tend to focus on our differences rather than our similarities. It’s largely a result of there not being sufficient dialogue between communities, it’s not just a racial or class thing. In terms of profession, you’ll often find that teachers are saying something radically different from that of police for instance. I want to change the approach to inter-communal dialogue. We all share the same space and we need to start to recognise that communication is necessary.”
If you could say one of your poems to someone and start that dialogue rolling, what would you pick?
“In my community there’s a big issue of fatherlessness, and I have poems that outline this. I’d choose any one of them and try to give some perspective. A lot of the time fatherlessness comes about through a string of isolated, short term, short sighted decisions, not necessarily a lack of care about kids. I would like to warn people – it’s something that happens through a lack of awareness.”
And this is something the government is not addressing?
“Yes, A lot of government policies are premised on the assumption that people are well equipped to deal with whatever life throws at them. It’s not helpful that poorer communities are having their resources cut back. Indirectly, what inevitably happens is that everyone in that community gets more selfish. That’s what happens when you take everything away, or the little what they have. It just transpires that there’s a clash of priorities between two people who might be having a child for example. One person thinks it might be not be financially viable to fund the situation.”
He muses on the subject of disconnected policy makers – those who make ‘isolated, short term decisions’ that hinder the kind of dialogue between communities that he’d like to see taking place. I wonder how entering The Stake’ competition has helped him to pursue his poetic objective. George was one of the lucky winners of the online social enterprise competition organised by Channel 4 and Barclays Bank, and he was given £16,000 to set up spoken word workshops in secondary schools across London.
“Delivering the workshops was the easy bit… it was the paperwork, the bureaucracy that I hadn’t thought about completely. It taught me lessons about organisation and actually running a business that I thought I’d get more help with.”
And the students?
“The students were the best things about it. The interesting thing is that they were supposed to be difficult students – kids who had been kicked out of school. But they were so ready – they were just waiting to be connected with in a way that’s not patronising. I think I made the medium of spoken word palatable because I was from a world that they connected to and I could encourage them and make them feel that what they had to say was valid.”
He tells me that the workshops are still happening… in fact he’s got a few calls to make after. Juggling live performances, delivering classes and a Cambridge degree is no ordinary feat, and so I wonder if his experience here has helped to develop his work in any way.
“Yeah definitely, I’m growing here. You can’t avoid it. Before I lived in a kind of different world. When you’re younger there are safety nets around you that you don’t have to question – you can question and challenge what you’re presented if you’re encouraged to, or if you’re so inclined, but Cambridge really pushed me to ask questions that I hadn’t done so before, and go completely out at sea with ideas that I was developing in my head.”
I ask him about the spoken word scene here in Cambridge. Is there much happening?
“I’ve seen a couple… I haven’t really been involved in the Cambridge scene as I come from the urban music world and I used to have a heavy prominence on that circuit, so now more people have reached out to me from there.”
So, where do you see your work developing from here?
“I want to go cross-platform. I want to really grow in the world of commercial music. I’m even toying with the idea of theatre. When I put on a show in a room in the Royal Albert Hall, people told me that there were similarities with what Shakespeare used to do – a whole show constructed out of poetry.”
After telling me grinningly that he’s already in talks with some people.. (“I can’t say who”), he says that he’s got a new album coming out, one that will incorporate different producers and play with different sounds.
“I’m in a position now with my poetry that I can use whatever I can to enhance it.”
Closing the interview, I have no doubt in my mind that George will go on to enhance his art and share his message – and I wish him all the best of luck for it.