There is a very refreshing sense of sincerity when George The Poet speaks. His words are delivered with conviction, spoken from a place of conscious consideration and experience. He’s a poet and artist, but first and foremost he’s a thinker, and he’s not afraid to communicate his thoughts. Out on tour to promote his widely acclaimed book ‘Search Party’, a collection of poems that deal with mental health, climate change and HIV, he uses his voice - and the spotlight - to educate, enlighten and inspire.
Having emerged as part of the rap and grime scene in north-west London before studying politics, psychology and sociology at King’s College in Cambridge, George adapted his rhymes to poetry as a more impactful way of connecting to his audience. “There’s something very naked about poems,” he tells us. “As I always say as a poet, you have to say something; you can’t win them over with swagger or good production. Your words have to hit.”
And they hit hard. From dealing with premature parenthood and cheating partners on his debut EP ‘The Chicken And The Egg’ to exposing the contradictions of a fractured society on the Bodhi-assisted single ‘My City’, George is one of the few modern UK artists to truly speak their mind.
Ahead of a much-anticipated date at Glasgow’s 02ABC this Wednesday (19th), we hooked-up with George over the phone to talk about the impact spoken-word poetry can have, the exploitive nature of the music industry, and why regardless of politics and social imbalance, you always have a choice to change:
SynthGlasgow: Could you start by telling us a little about what attracted you to spoken word poetry and how that became your main channel of expression?
George: I used to be a rapper, so first of all not everyone in the rap community was interested in my style of writing. Secondly, as a rapper performing at talent contests or whatever, most audiences weren’t primed to listen to rap music; so even though I packed a lot of social content into my raps, they weren’t catching it. Then, when I got to university, I was surrounded by people that weren’t from the same background or community as me, so by necessity I was forced to slow down my raps and they eventually evolved into poetry.
SG: You published your first collection of written work, ‘Search Party’ last year, which attracted a lot of positive attention; could you give us an insight into the reasoning behind the title?
George: The 'Search Party' was a collection of poems that I’d written over the years while I was in Cambridge. During that time I was going through a period of transformation; I left the community that I grew up in with quite a lot of anger and I organised the ‘Search Party’ poems into three chapters. The first one is me dealing with that anger, the second is me growing as a sociologist and starting to look at the conditions of my community a little more objectively, and the third one is me looking forward and being like, what do we envisage for our future?
I called it ‘Search Party’ because through my quest for answers, I found more of myself, and I’m inviting everyone else on that same journey. In this tour I deal with three main issues: mental health, climate change and HIV, and it’s wrapped up in story telling and real experiences from my life. The reason I do that is because I don’t want to be just talking; I can’t accept that.
We can actually, in that moment of inspiration and reflection, put our minds to moving forwards. Along with the tour comes an app which will be launched later this year, and will have recordings of all my poems from the tour, but also information on stats and figures behind what I’m talking about and a directory to any organisations or individuals who are doing something to tackle the issues.
SG: You recently performed a new poem called ‘Rap’s Not Music’ in which you reflect on a conversation you had with inmates at a prison. Do you feel people take in spoken word poetry on a more personal, impactful level?
George: They literally do. And that's not to say that music can’t, but there’s something very naked about poems; you’ can’t escape. As I always say as a poet, you have to say something; you can’t win them over with swagger or good production. Your words have to hit.
I used to do a lot of underground music shows when I was on the come up about five years ago, and I was the only poet on the line-up alongside rappers, singers and more conventional acts. I didn’t have any music at that time, I was just talking, but unequivocally any show that I went to, within the first 30 seconds there was pin-drop silence. People were talking at the bar, there were a lot of rappers in the audience and they’d come with their entourage, but I’m saying things that have been bothering all of us in the back of our minds and you recognise that truth when you hear it and it’s really a magical thing.
SG: Your words are incredibly powerful in their purest form, but they take on another dimension when fused with music. Was it always the plan to adapt your poetry to music and did you have a preconception of what sound you wanted?
George: I feel like incorporating music into my poetry has really taken it further, because music is like speech in that it’s a form of communication; so now I really like a musical bedding as it can enhance the experience.
I’m a music lover, my first love was RnB and that influenced my first EP, ‘The Chicken And The Egg’, which is very much a deep, soulful listening experience; but at the same time, the subject matter that I’m dealing with is very heavy, so the music compliments it in that sense.
SG: You seem to reference the exploitive and misleading nature of the music industry and how some artists turn their back on their roots in ‘Rap’s Not Music’; why do you think some hip hop and rap artists tend to avoid talking about real issues?
George: There’s this thing called the ‘Rational Choice Theory’ where human beings will weigh up the pros and cons of any given scenario and go with the choice which is most favourable. It’s a little bit reductive, but the bottom line is that there is an element of that in mainstream rap on the part of the artist. So if it appears easier to make music which is not socially challenging, it is easier to make ‘party music’ because you can make money and gain prominence. So, especially while you’re young, it’s just easier to do that.
Not everyone comes from a sociologist background, so even if there are things that bother you, you might not have the language to articulate it or the strategy to tackle it; so on the artist's part, there’s probably just a preference for the easier way of doing things. Now, on the part of the labels and the music industry as a whole…this is where it starts to piss me off.
The world seems to take from a certain narrative that has evolved from rap, like the ‘gangsta’ narrative or the ‘ghetto’ narrative. Again, a label is big machine with a lot of money, but they’re not a sociological body - they don’t feel any kind of responsibility for the community that is producing this stuff.
If the ‘gangsta’ music sells because it appeals to people’s base desires, cool, that’s logical, but there’s no provision on the back-end to make sure that this situation advances. It’s not even seen as a political crisis; like, young black men being able to talk about people killing each other, the reality of the drug trade…this is all stuff I grew up with.
I know it happens, and as I wrote in ‘Search Party’, there are wider factors that contribute to it that aren’t just on the part of the artist themselves; so the label will capitalise on that reality with all the money they have and all the resources that they can apply to pushing it without any kind of compensational support for the community that creates it. That pisses me off.
SG: I know you’ve got a keen interest in politics, and 2016 has certainly been an extraordinary year. Do you feel politics in Britain is changing for better or worse at the moment? As it seems like younger generations are becoming more and more aware of the people making their decisions…
George: In the short term it’s not looking good because it seems like the country is becoming more polarized because of the rhetoric that’s coming out of this government, the consequences of Brexit and what it reveals about the country. At the moment it doesn’t look very promising.
But, exactly as you said, I feel like a lot of people are waking up. It’s the same in America; it’s interesting because this is 8 or 9 years after the financial crash, and I always read that in times of financial hardship people become more right-wing, and factions form and countries become polarized. That’s what I feel is happening en masse. So in the US you have Donald Trump breathing new energy into what you might call the backlash of the white working class.
I feel like that’s going to kick-start some people into action; that’s going to make any oppositional forces to this right-wing presence organise themselves. As I see with the ‘Black Lives Matters’ thing…black people in America get killed everyday by the police. When it’s publicised it becomes a hashtag, and then we feel like we’re forced to just move on because there’s nothing we can actually do. I don’t believe there’s nothing you can do; what you can do about anything that bothers you is dedicate the rest of your life to it. That’s a choice you will always have; you will always have the option of saying ‘this will forever be unacceptable, and I’ll forever research ways of affecting it’.
But I think people get distracted because they have to go back to work, people have mortgages, kids and lives to organise, so they are allowed to just accept stuff; but when the chips are really down and you’re backed against the wall, you won’t be able to sleep, you might lose your job…you might lose the comfort that you’ve built your life around, and therefore you will have no other option than to organise yourself towards a solution.
George The Poet brings The Search Party tour to Glasgow’s 02ABC on Wednesday 19th October. Support comes from The Compozers, Plus B Franklin and Sonnet Youth. Advance tickets are available from Ticketweb priced at £16.87 (inc fees). George The Poet’s book ‘Search Party’ is available now from via Amazon.