“That’s what most people are, they’re behind me.” Gil Scott Heron once said in a 2009 Newsnight interview; “I can’t turn around and see how many people been following in my footsteps, or just, following me with a stick in their hand.” Almost universally celebrated as the godfather of Rap, Scott-Heron was undoubtedly one of the most influential poets of a few generations. Fast forward to 2016, and his influence is one that is still keenly felt. As the voices of Dave, Shadez The Misfit, Floacist, Gaika, Akala, Little Simz, Kojey Radical and George The Poet gain wider recognition and continue to awaken those listeners who have already been tuned in; it was Scott-Heron who first laid the foundation for contemporary Rap and spoken word artists.
Today, I sit next to George The Poet. It’s Friday afternoon in a quiet West London pub. I ask him about the extent to which he feels Scott-Heron laid the foundations for artists like himself, “I think Gil Scott Heron’s, erm, kind of, everyman articulation of everything from politics to social shifts has really paved the way for people like me,” George begins as we kick things off, as Take That’s ‘Shine’ rings in the background. “It’s like we’re talking to our community. He spoke about everything from Watergate to black’s political disenfranchisement [being] belittled and misrepresented in the media. And like I said, my thing is like, I base my flow on my conversational style – same as him. He sounds like he’s chatting to his friends when he performs and that makes the world of difference; it means a lot to people like us.”
Harlesden’s 25 year old spoken word artist and poet has a perspective that often belies his age. George is widely known for two things: his deeply relatable and often penetrating insight into social issues; and the fact he studied at King’s College, Cambridge. In 2014, ‘My City’ was released; a collaboration with House music producers Bodhi, and a rework of an earlier 2012 poem, that came to form part of the beginning steps in a journey of wider recognition for all three artists involved. ‘My City’ was quickly followed by George’s Chicken And The Egg EP. In an era when people often talk about the disappearance of ‘play-through’ albums, his story of a volatile relationship told over seven tracks is some proof that the ‘play-through’ is a practice not yet extinct.
His new single ‘Wake Up’, released today; is, as we have come to expect from George, filled with both a vibrancy and his trademark honesty. An upfront Garage melody that some may find a departure from his recent past, working with Dance music producers, as he has done previously, isn’t a stretch for George. “So I was a Grime artist before everything and Grime was birthed from Garage and it’s very tempo heavy, as you would know. So that’s the discipline that I came from erm, kind of, in terms of my first writing – my first writing experience, and that teaches you how to, how to make use of like, sitting in the pocket, being on rhythm. I just lost – my imagination is a bit too wild so I lost interest in that after about 19 but I’m returning to it, the up tempo stuff, bit by bit now because its parts of me. But before I return[ed] to tempo I still had the background in that kind of music so working with Jakwob and Bodhi wasn’t a stretch for me at all – and people wouldn’t know that ‘cause they weren’t with me when I came up on Grime.”
Settings get relaxed real quick – this isn’t like getting ready to explain our culture to NME – it’s always easy to sit down for a conversation with someone who’s grown up in a lot of the same ways as you. There’s common ground: Black. British. Mid twenties. Figuring shit out as a creative in music, as well as cutting out a path for yourself in the world. It’s yet more interesting when you’re sitting down to talk about music – because it’s a subject matter that has different rules than regular conversation. Music is regularly used as a vehicle for honest expression, and at first look, there’s a lot about George, I say to him, that I feel ties so neatly with the whole ‘Good Immigrant’ ideology.
His Ugandan parents, came to Britain and saw their son attend King’s College, Cambridge. It’s the kind of story that would have more socially conservative people declaring that racism would no longer exist if more black and brown people just simply had the self determination to get themselves to Cambridge instead of drugs and jail and gold chains and rap music. So I ask him whether or not making a song like ‘Cat D’ can make him appear aloof. “I specifically said at the end of the tune ‘please don’t put me on a pedestal, I’m still figuring shit out’ which is exactly why I write stuff like that. So ‘Cat D’ for example is a – it’s written from a perspective of frustration pure – and most of my early stuff – pure frustration with situations and individuals that I feel like, erm, self perpetuate a lot of their struggle, and erm, different ways of talking about that, and instead of always being like – always sounding sombre or heavy, you can sound a little like – you can have a little fun with it and you can involve yourself in the conversations as well. D’you get me? You can poke fun at yourself. Which is what I started to do in songs like ‘Cat D’.” George tends to talk quickly, when engaged in the topic like his brain is further ahead with his mouth half a second behind the conversation.
So I break away from the ‘good immigrant’ line and it’s like rah, man, this is how I feel right now today.
“So, perfect example, so a friend of mine, had a cousin who come out of prison for six years – first musical thing that his cousin said to him was like, “you heard of George the Poet? Yoo, he’s talking real” and that’s crazy cause I only ever get that from the ‘hood’. When I say stuff that isn’t politically correct and it isn’t – it is a bit like, frustrated, it’s clearly like, “yo, let’s do something else, let’s stop that because it’s not working.” And it’s only – outside of the hood, you get a little more of an academic discussion where people are – look at what I’ve said a little more,” Analytically? I ask, “erm, critically” he supplies in the end before becoming unhappy with his choice, “not even critically, but they’re like, from a perspective of not really having a direct relation to the issue. So what they’ll lean towards saying is “is that the right thing to say? Is that fair to say?” and it’s like I don’t know – but it’s true though. Come here and ask ‘cause the people will tell you.” He checks his phone before continuing, “But not to be defensive or whatever. Everyone’s got their own experience and their own perception of how to handle these conversations, this is just – ‘Cat D’ is just one of my little breaks – like a stream of consciousness. So I break away from the ‘good immigrant’ line and it’s like rah, man, this is how I feel right now today.”
Before ‘Wake Up’, George released ‘Rap’s Not Music’, typically challenging, it’s a track that speaks of the commodification of Rap music:
people think my issue is with spittin’ it isn’t /
it’s that spittin never stopped you from sittin’ in prison /
and that’s an oddity /
rap’s a commodity /
probably the best thing adapted from poverty /
so if so many man are seeing a payout /
why aren’t their communities guaranteed a way out?
“I think Akala articulated it really well in a Vlad TV interview” George begins, I asked him about the notion of a Black middle class in the UK, whether we have a tangible structure that could be referred to as this, whether it’s important that we have one at all, George describes the disconnect as he sees it, “We got to be clear on the definition of middle class so – in terms of an aggregate group of people that, you know own, or you know, just kind of have a stake in this country here through their property or through their assets or whatever; yeah, we don’t have that – we don’t have that one place where you can go and erm, and, and, talk to a community or a network of elders who are able to inform and mentor.”
I’ve noticed diversity is slowly becoming like, a politically correct way of merging any issue of racial diversity, gender inequality and that of disability and erm, sexual preference.
Is it needed? I ask again, “100%. It doesn’t have to be a physical one. What it is, is I would love to know that there is a network of elders of African and Afro-Caribbean [descent] that are able to represent us as a bloc; or at least, nurture us, help us, explain things to us as a bloc. And it’s not – it’s kind of hard to navigate a lot of this, a lot of these conversations. Like, for example, I work a lot in diversity and I’ve noticed diversity is slowly becoming like, a politically correct way of merging any issue of racial diversity, gender inequality and that of disability and erm, sexual preference. And it’s like, but, there’s specific issues for people, to black people, people of African descent in this society that doesn’t get articulated if you just blanket them in this phrase called diversity. A similar thing happened with the whole urban thing a few years ago, was and still is like, our experiences quietly kind of washed away and kind of dissipated into other conversations and I feel like if we did have that community there would be some sort of central energy. Some sort of central hub fighting our cause. But it’s hard. It’s hard for any black person that’s on their thing. Climbing up the social ladder to stay openly vocal about this.”
Conversation drifts; I question whether we don’t already have these central bodies in the shape of organisations like MOBO or The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust or even the Powerlist and British Blacklist. Surely, some of the best known entities for the promotion of black excellence and achievement? He doesn’t disagree, he says he is and has been in contact and communication with both MOBO’s Kanya King as well as Doreen Lawrence of The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, they, as organisations and individuals continue to work tirelessly to address these long standing inequalities black and brown communities face in a majority white society, “It’s difficult for bodies like that to manoeuvre, in a country that, first of all, doesn’t really have like the most comprehensive understanding of racial history and racial tensions, even, Britain’s legacy, colonial legacy… and it’s difficult for any body like that to manoeuvre in that space, erm, without running into the same lack of information about our struggles. Which is why in my recent poem ‘Rap’s Not Music’, I say we need intellectual weaponry. We need a framework outside of just our businesses. It would be nice if we had a community of Lords, MP’s, people across different sectors that were able to advance or at least articulate pan African concerns.”
We talk a bit about how that might be achieved, what steps are needed to form this network, and, frustratingly it seems we only end up asking the other more questions. Beginning to disentangle all the threads of this discussion would take far longer than the amount of time I have to get this story. We agree investment in young people is needed, alongside cross-generational and cross-regional involvement of black and brown people right across the UK. We talk about the recently opened Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, a physical manifestation of the kind of investment in young people that serves to really reinforce a knowledge of self, and the place of black people throughout the history of this country before we drift back to the music.
So much has happened this year in both music and culture so I ask him how he feels about documenting that culture and those changes and he’s immediately more animated, he says it only makes him more excited about what will be written in the future about a present we’re living today: “Now that I’ve seen Semtex’s book, and all this documentation of Grime, especially, the appreciation of Wiley. I feel like within our Shoreditch generation people rate Wiley. People Get Wiley. I would not be doing any of this if it wasn’t for Wiley. And the appreciation of Wiley is a good example of how, like, our documented journey is a very – our journey takes on a new life when it’s documented and recognised, up until then it’s just lived experience. Which if you think about, people like to act like ‘ah it’s subjective – we don’t know if it is how you say it was’ but if everyone turns around and says, ‘this is a book, this is an event, this is something that happened and is now cemented in documentation, it becomes a different thing.”
Our journey takes on a new life when it’s documented and recognised, up until then it’s just lived experience.
Our conversation winds up with Kate Nash singing about ‘Foundations’ in the background; George’s manager, interjects for the first time in the half an hour we’ve been sat talking in order to remind him to mention what’s coming next, “oh yeah, my upcoming Search Party app. Which is a step in the direction of everything we’ve talked about; it’s my attempt to build a network or community out of my listeners. Problem solvers. People who actually are, really, really bothered about what I’m talking about and think that they have something to contribute by way of social action. Look out for my single ‘Wake Up’ out 28th October.”
This Autumn will also see George The poet hit the road with ‘The Search Party Tour’. The headline nationwide UK tour kicks off in Bristol on 13th October and from there will travel to Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham before wrapping up in London. Wake Up is available now to download from iTunes and to stream across all platforms.