George the Poet is the hottest name in spoken word. And his journey from tough London estate to university has convinced him that entertainers have a duty to educate young people
George Mpanga looks faintly exhausted after our meeting. He wants to be speaking at rallies, not discussing his manifesto over coffee in the Albert Hall. The concerns of the 22-year-old poet include the catastrophic effect of some rap music on young black men, the danger of blind cultural adherence to America and the belief that racial equality can only be met through an appreciation of difference. "Rappers have so much power to do good and they squander it," he says. "I want to tell them, I wish you knew you were like my big brother. I wish you knew I could have been in the best mood, but I wanted to have a fight directly after listening to your song."
George the Poet is a spoken word artist, a third-year student at King's College, Cambridge, and a rapper who has spent the last few years trying to "give up" rap. He was born and raised on the Stonebridge Park estate in Harlesden, north-west London (once unhelpfully described by a leading QC as "lawless"). His parents arrived from Uganda in the late 80s: after his elder brother had trouble at a local school, his mother studied the league tables and "made me apply for the one at the top" (Queen Elizabeth's School in Barnet, a boys' grammar recently credited with the highest A-level results in the country). The school's disciplinary code, Mpanga suggests, offered him an alternative to the estate's internal laws, raising questions about independent thinking that still form the foundations of his work. He started performing rap and grime at 15 but when he got to Cambridge (where he's studying politics, psychology and sociology) he decided to "pass it off as poetry. I knew it would get lost in translation otherwise."
The plan seems to be working.During the Olympics, his poem My City, a reminder of the "real" London, was a favourite with the Huffington Post ("Estates with the least funding – look at the state of east London, that's a paradox/ Economy booming for the have-a-lots"). In the autumn, he was commissioned by BSkyB to write the season closer for Formula One, and his press people are fond of saying he now has more YouTube hits than the poet laureate. On the day we meet, he is appearing at the Royal Albert Hall's Elgar Room, excited to reach a venue "not limited to the urban scene".
Reading this on mobile? See the My City video here.
Anyone who's stumbled into the literature tent late night at a festival will have their ideas about performance poetry, exaggerated diction, chewy puns and pulverising social commentary included. Mpanga's work is accessible and skilful, fuelled by an interest in rhetoric. He talks like a politician, using slow, naturalistic speech patterns. For a section of the show, he dresses as Malcolm X tonight; last year, at the Race For Opportunity awards in London, he set himself up as though he was giving a lecture and noticed that the formality made things much more intimate. "It changes the relationship between me and you," he says. "If you think I'm 'performing' at you, you're much more likely to switch off and start looking at your phone."
Despite having more than once been called upon to perform to the suits, Mpanga generally addresses his own generation or younger. Yolo explores the shrugging expression ("You only live once") through various scenarios until the poem becomes a study of personal responsibility. Team UK questions that blind cultural adherence to America, flipping back and forth between west coast US and north-west London rap.
Rap puts too much weight on entertainment, he argues, where poetry provokes thought. At eight he loved Eminem ("he was showing me his twisted heart") and Nas ("he taught me new ideas about community"), then moved on to Wiley, Ghetts, Skepta, Griminal and Dot Rotten. Other mainstream rappers left him cold. "Someone like 50 Cent, it took me years to appreciate," he says. "It was all about drugs and money and it didn't stimulate me, but then when I thought about his upbringing I realised that no matter how rich or successful he gets that upbringing will always inform what he says. By the time we were 14, my friends were starting to behave like the rappers they were listening to, carrying drugs for older kids and getting paid for it, and it wasn't through lack of choice. Your mind flicks back to rap and it's all familiar, in a good way. I couldn't ignore that – I knew it was partially down to rap".
As a teenager, he felt different from the other boys. He had, as he puts it, "fully digested the Bible's narrative" and used it to try and mediate in disputes ("I was even more annoying then than I am now"). He no longer considers himself religious; the Bible's clear sense of right and wrong had been useful to him at one time, but growing up he became interested in the grey areas.
"When you're trying to understand how people deal with difficulty, there's no method," he says. "Some people start selling drugs, some people start taking drugs. The world just sees the underclass. A dealer creates economies and he looks after his friends and his family. Outside that bubble, there's nothing but poison, but you cannot come in from the outside and try and change things. You cannot be the guy who tries to tell kids he just 'got tired' of prison and went straight. It doesn't work like that. No one will believe you."
He believes that entertainment can "catch" children before education can, encouraging them to think for themselves. Last year, he won the Stake, a business challenge organised by Barclays and Channel 4, which granted him funding to run poetry workshops for 15-year-olds all over London. He is working through the task, learning useful lessons about his own ego, wishing he could "clone himself", he says, to get it all done.
When his Sky Sports poem was first broadcast, one fan commented that Mpanga, who hasn't even done his finals yet, was "selling out". Others might see it as a kind of political expediency. Mpanga doesn't care what people think. "If I can be seen prominently," he says, "if I can embody a viable alternative, the idea that it might be OK to stay in school, to aspire to university, then people will hear what I'm saying."
For more, go to georgethepoet.com