This article originally appeared in Issue 8 of Hunger Magazine.
All imagery courtesy of Rankin.
The morning we meet, George Mpanga’s single “1,2 1,2” is put into rotation on the Radio 1 playlist, and when we eventually gather on the set of his shoot with Rankin, the ensuing social media feedback — most of it positive — has begun to trickle in. Though he scrolls past the odd snide tweet, George is not worried. He has just received a text from a social worker he knows, and, as indicated by the wide grin now spread across the poet’s face, the content is warm. He beams, reading the last line from the message: “It seems like you’re a very positive influence on some of our young people.”
Huddled up on Rankin’s sofa, he illuminates on his firm faith in the power of people, even if they don’t always believe in themselves. George’s words have taken him from Harlesden, north-west London — where he grew up with his two brothers — into some of Britain’s most historic institutions and across Europe. Most recently he was nominated for the 2015 Brits Critics’ Choice Award, alongside James Bay and Years & Years. Tangible inspiration lies in his journey, and he’s quick to remind that it’s the fight, not the final destination, that is most important.
Speaking with poise, he tells me of his agitation with Britain: increasingly tagged as a “fatherless society” (a cycle vividly deconstructed in his debut EP, “The Chicken and the Egg”) and with the flock of concerns that face an ever-fracturing electorate, it’s apparent that we’ve got issues. What’s more evident is that the 23-year-old plans to do far more than just talk. Amid the din of a hectic photography set he tells me that he isn’t out here just chitchatting about problems, there is work to be done.
“I don’t want to read the essay anymore,” he says. “I’m much more interested in solutions.”
An alluring aura surrounds George, leaving you unsure of when he will reply, even more so about what he will say — a trait that makes him all the more absorbing when he eventually does open his mouth. Like his poetry, he exhibits an intensity that at times borders on frustration, even anguish, and it’s a clear demonstration to all that making noise is not enough. This is his reality.
Hunger: Your poetry often brings a fresh perspective to situations and scenarios. Where do the evaluations come from?
George The Poet: This world we’re given is the only world we know. We think it’s normal, but a lot of things don’t make sense, and if you dig deep enough, you’re going to realise that there are solutions to these problems, when you step back from your situation, take your emotion out of it, take your subjectivity out of it and look around you. Let me give you an example: black boys don’t do very well in school; black boys are overrepresented in prison. There’s one of two things happening here: there’s something wrong with black people, or there is something wrong with the way that black people behave.
Is that genetic or is that social?
So is that what you would like to shed light on?
What I want to shed light on is the power of people, that’s what it all boils down to. People don’t realise how powerful they are. When you realise your potential, you can affect society. When you do that, you start to put pressure on governments, becausegovernments make decisions, and usually their decisions are based on money. If people realise their power, they won’t be bullied around by money; they’ll be smarter, they’ll operate as a stronger unit. I’ve been really lucky, man. I’ve been lucky to study sociology. I’ve been lucky to be in the hood and then go to Cambridge and see both sides of the world. The things I’ve seen are just fucked, and it’s like, no one believes me. When I talk about it, people question me, and they challenge me as if they’ve seen what I’ve seen. I’ve got answers. I’ve got strategies. I’m not just out here talking about problems. I’m doing stuff.
Actions as opposed to just words. What are some of the things you have been doing?
It’s an elaborate plan. I’ve got a broad strategy, which involves changing the representation and building the right relationships so that I can be a bridge for the right communities, and then I can demonstrate how you can actually enact your power.
You’ve spoken a lot about the mission that you’re on and the change that you would like to see. What will the final deliverance look like?
It’s not final, it’s about the fight. People want a simple answer, but the truth is that there isn’t one. We need a change of approach. We need a strategy that works for us. This is what will happen if I’m not successful in what I do: all of us who are doing well are just going to keep rising, and as we rise, we’re going to scatter — we’re not going to form a solid unit — and we’re going to leave behind the people at the bottom. With that you get the fragmentation of our community, the fragmentation of the working class. Then [we] get broken up and we get integrated into the existing order. I’m not convinced that someone is doing this to us. I just think it’s going to happen because we’re not conscious of it. We’re not a community; we’re just a society. And it takes someone or some sort of unit to stand up. But this is what I hate, everyone loves to talk about the problem. Everybody loves to say, “I wish there was something that could be done about this,” as if you’re not a human who has power.
You’ve appeared on many platforms from Formula One to the BBC and Sky News. How beneficial has that been in communicating your message to different demographics?
It’s priceless because that speaks for itself. Take F1 as an example, Sky had explained to me that they predominantly have a white middle-class male and middle-aged audience.
So to see a young black male is almost a complete antithesis. That and the fact that I look comfortable, that I’m communicating in a way they understand, that helps. It helps us move forward. You have to be the change that you want to see and this is whyI had to fit in to the public eye. If I could have done this as a lawyer, I would have done it as a lawyer. If I could have done this as an MP, I would have. But then I realised that if I can show them, if I’m well-known, I’ve got them locked into my story and my story will tell them the things that I’m trying to explain. If I show you that I’m from the hood and then I went to Cambridge, where I was lonely, there’s an argument there. I’m telling you that just making it isn’t the only answer, everyone has to make it together. Now that I’m in the public eye, instead of just trying to argue it, I can demonstrate it.
You mention being lonely at Cambridge; that’s an interesting point because many institutions, not just universities, have come under scrutiny for inequality and the opportunities they afford to different demographics. How do you view the matter, whether that is social, racial or gender-based?
In order to address inequality you first need to identify where inequality sets in at the structural level; secondly you need to come up with structural solutions. There are other George The Poets out there. When I was 15, I was going to buy a gun.Everybody around me had guns. I remember my friend carrying a gun in a JD bag, and when the police started walking behind us, he dashed it in a bush. He was only two years older than me. That could just as easily have been me. I could have been in prison and once you enter that criminal justice system, which I never had to do, it is a different story. Right now, in a prison there’s a George The Poet whose story isn’t getting told. So when you ask what can be done about inequality, it’s about solutions. But it’s about finding solutions for the benefit of everyone, not just black people, not just poor people, but everyone.
The youth has developed an almost apathetic attitude to enacting social change. Why do you think that is?
It’s all about empowerment. You need to make the working classes and the middle classes conscious of their power. We’re too reactive. We just think, “Some shit is happening, but as long as my family is okay, it’s going to be good.” No, your family being alright is the basic — you take care of that shit, you’ve done the basic. Now the work is to make sure that your family stays alright, and then that your descendants stay alright, which they won’t if you just bury your head in the sand and take yourself out of the game. People just say, “Ah, there’s shit that I can’t control.” That’s not true and you know why? Nothing that you see around you was designed by anybody that was any less or any more human than you. Every concept in the world came from a human. What does that person have on you? Maybe time, fortune, serendipity… They were lucky enough to be in certain situations, but that could have been you is what I’m trying to say. People need to stop questioning themselves and get out there and do something.