Interview: George the Poet – 'I'm the guy trying to talk to you about stuff that weighs on our hearts'

George the Poet

credit: Thurstan Redding

Spoken word artist and rapper on social justice, mental health and working with underprivileged youths

George the Poet is an accurate yet incomplete description of the artist that is George Mpanga. In addition to writing poetry, George is also a Cambridge-educated, Brit Award-nominated rapper, and an avid social justice campaigner. Raised in North West London, he writes social and welfare issues in the inner city, runs poetry workshops with underprivileged children, and has worked on film and theatre projects. This autumn, he is heading out on a tour of the UK, with a show that tackles issues such as mental health and HIV through words and music. We caught up with him to find out more.

What interested you in spoken word?
I wanted people to listen to my words.

Did you have a particular message you wanted to send?
I was stressed about my community. I was trying to talk to my community about what was going on: crime, self perpetuating deprivation. The older I grew, I realised that it wasn't just my community that had a problem, and it wasn't their fault.

In what way has poetry, spoken word and rap enabled you to produce social commentary?
It's given me the space to say what's on my mind and it lets people think about what you've said. If you put your thoughts into rhyme then all of a sudden, everyone's listening.

In the past, you have run poetry workshops with underprivileged children. What was their response?
They opened up. I'm from the inner city, and I was able to experience some success in education. People always think 'those communities don't like educational achievement' but it's the complete opposite. Everybody wants to feel appreciated for their ideas and their intellect. Even though these young people are in deprived areas, they just want to be engaged with in a way that is respectful.

What kind of material are you taking on tour?
Stuff about mental health, climate change and HIV. It's all told in song and storytelling. I've taken some time out of music in the past year to focus on social progress and these are the three issues that became most important to me. I've done some work with Prince Harry on HIV and that was very important to me because my family's from Uganda, and there's a big HIV problem there. Mental health is something that I think we all experience a lot. We come across challenges all the time, but we don't always recognise them. Sometimes it leads to us having unnecessary fallouts of differences in opinion and it's actually a gap in education.

How do audiences react?
Everyone likes to be talked to from a realistic perspective. Everyone feels part of the conversation. I don't claim to have any answers, I don't claim to know more than anyone. I'm the guy trying to talk to you about stuff that weighs on our hearts.

George the Poet

Words from poet George Mpanga, who is known for his socio-political verse and urban beats.