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Transcript: In conversation with George the Poet


Paul Gilroy: Hello everybody, I'm Paul Gilroy. I'm the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at University College London. I'm delighted this afternoon to be able to introduce my guest, George the Poet: podcaster, influencer, advocate, writer, orchestrator, dramaturg, commentator and lately Member of the National Council for the Arts Council of England. Congratulations on your many achievements, George. I'm a big fan of your podcast, Have You Heard George’s Podcast?; incredibly innovative, amazing work, which won five awards in 2019 British Podcast Awards, including Podcast of the Year - actually, I think you won so many awards because you confuse the categories so much, so they had to give you the prize for everything, but we'll come to that in a moment. And this year, I think it was, you won a Peabody Award; I don't think any non-American podcast has done that, that's really an incredible accomplishment, so congratulations on that too. While I was thinking where our conversation might begin, I was drawn- I don't know if you know Countee Cullen's poem, Yet Do I Marvel, from 1925; it's a Harlem Renaissance poem. He's a very interesting character for all kinds of reasons we can't go into now, but I'm just going to read his poem- it's very short, and then I want to ask you about being poet to start our conversation. The poem is Countee Cullen's poem, Yet Do I Marvel, from 1925:

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

So, George, you're a poet, above all; you're good at so many other things, but your projection of self, your practice, is as a poet. And I just wonder why of all the things you might have been, you could have worked in spoken word, you could have been a hip hop- you could have been an MC, you could have been so many things; but you chose to be a poet - tell me about that choice.
 
George the Poet: Well, Paul, I remember being in school and in university and consuming information that I wanted to share, and almost unconsciously I used my poetry to document my learning. Then over the course of my career - because I guess my earlier career was very much based on relatable anecdotes and salacious stories- just fun - over the course of my career there became a growing pressure to be frank about my priorities; and poetry always gave me the space to do that on my terms.
 
Paul: That's very interesting to me. My favourite MC - not listed as one of your influences, at least not publicly - was someone I had a great pleasure to interview a number of years ago, three quarters of the way back through the history of hip hop, and that's Rakim Allah. And Rakim said several times when he was rhyming that he took it more seriously than just a poem- 'I take it more seriously than just a poem'. I was very struck with that line from him because he's a great poet, in my opinion, and he's not freestyler. He writes it and then performs it- I don't think I'm sharing any secrets here by saying that. So, isn't there a struggle to win the ear to poetry? Because we have other forms that we respond to, above all music, which is another area of course you've worked in.
 
George: That's a good question, and my answer is hybridity. I lived a life of hybridity: born and raised in the heart of the black community, North West London; then transitioning into a grammar school that was predominantly Indian; then going on to study at Cambridge, predominantly white upper-middle class. And I found that cross-pollinating the influences that I picked up along the way; learning the value of academic frameworks; wrapping my head around the practice, the discipline of critical thinking; and infusing my- initially it was my rap, I was a rapper at first- but fusing my rap with some of this training worked to my benefit. I was able to differentiate myself in a way that I was comfortable with and in a way that no one else felt threatened by. I was very creative about the words and the terms that I was learning in the GCSE English Literature course at the time when I started. And guys knew me as the guy with the big words, and everyone was comfortable with that, everyone loved that, everyone found it fun. Carrying that on by the time I get to university, I have now honed my craft, interestingly in the tradition of Rakim; Rakim was noteworthy for being a champion of multi-syllable rhymes...
 
Paul: Yes!
 
George: That was always my priority; I was never satisfied with rhyming one syllable at a time. So I had honed my craft for five years by the time I got to university; and I had started taking more seriously- because I'm now at uni and there's a difference between A-Level- A-Level was distinct from GCSEs; my reasoning process is evolving. So I became adamant that that would be reflected in what I could do with rap, and crucial to that was slowing down my delivery, making it more conversational, and that became the style of poetry that has carried me ever since.
 
Paul: And like Rakim you have a very- your voice has a very particular timbre to it, which helps the style that you have found and created for yourself. So I think that's interesting. I don't know if this is fair, but I feel that your podcasts really lay the emphasis not just on the power of language as you just described it, but on the power of narrative- on storytelling, and that's why they are so extraordinary because you can't really tell- is this a play? Is this a performance? It creates a kind of category confusion. You talked about hybridity earlier on, well, it's like a hybrid form and the hybrid form feeds the curiosity of the listener. I don't think there are many people who- they get caught in your net, they don't want to get out of it, they want more of it; do you see what I mean? It's not a fight with the form, the form is seductive- it's a seductive form. And I want to hear a little bit about how you came to that because there's so much drama in it, there's so much- you call yourself a storyteller frequently in those performances, but it really is- it's like for me it's like a theatrical experience, because there's so many voices, there's so many shades of sound and colour in the words and so on. I'm just curious to know how you got that; was it sort of fully formed in your head? Or how did you arrive at that formal destination?
 
George: Right, so, I had established the effect- I had a clear idea of the effect that I wanted this project to have; which is why I came up with the title before I wrote a single word of it. The reason I landed on that effect is because I had been taking notes on the audio experiences that mattered the most to me. Now, I started that journey out of necessity because I'd had a stint in the music industry which turned me off of that space, that market space, and the rules that I was being influenced to play by. Those rules did not serve my priorities; my ultimate priority is, I guess, influencing the culture that produces working class- not just working class, that's irrelevant- black voices, black artistic cultural creators. I wanted to influence the cultural space that they come from, and the reason I wanted to influence that space is because I grew up as an MC from an estate having developed,  I developed a career out of the practice of rapping on the estate and in environments like the estate; and I felt like that was a lifeline that was undervalued by the state, underutilised or recognised by the corporate community, but was really needed. It was needed, it emerged out of necessity, again in the tradition of Rakim, '80s hip hop, this stuff didn't happen by accident - you know all about this Paul. You know all about the consciousness that started to form towards that end of the 20th century that led to a new experience of Pan-Africanism; and I felt very ambitious about that.
 
Paul: I don't know how you are really written about, I should've researched that more carefully before speaking to you today; but I do wonder about your peers because in the way you present your art and your ambition, it's very clear that you have a sharp vision of the people around you, who are your community, who your age, who share your passion for sound, for music, for the play with language- all of this is- you couldn't do what you do without having that very, very much in place. And that's why it's so interesting to hear you say 'well actually the music business had a slot prepared for me, and when I entered that slot and looked around, that wasn't the slot I wanted'. So, tell me about your peers and how you see the culture of your peers, and how amenable to your intervention that's proved. Because when I was a teenager and after, the criminalisation process was very strong, and although the running’s are somewhat different nowadays with technology and violence and mobility and control- the patterns of control are different to how they were- there is still a process of criminalisation which is absolutely at the centre of the crisis moment that we're in. So, I'm curious about how you see your peers, and who you are writing- you talked about influencing, do you feel you've managed to do that?
 
George: I don't think this is a short-term project, first of all. I've made very longitudinal observations about my peers, and like I said, hybridity is the order of the day in my life story. So, going to a grammar school immediately gave me two sets of peers, because I was still estate-based, I still lived and had grown up in that environment. My more middle-class peers, who are from families- parentage- that was, I guess, the first generation of upward social mobility, they had a particular trajectory; in the school context they were also being conditioned in the way that I was, in terms of academic framework and absorbing that into your logic. Outside of that my more estate friends were developing in a different direction. Now, when I was younger, I undervalued the development that they were going through, because all I saw was crime, bravado and misogyny. And it didn't look great, it didn't look sustainable, it looked insecure to me - insecure - and that insecurity, I developed a disdain for it very early on. On returning after graduating, returning to the environment now with a record deal- because I got signed to a record deal five weeks after I graduated- I was re-educated. And I realised that there were learnings that I had left behind, or I had never accessed, on the streets that my friends from those environments were now able to plug back into me, and were doing so proactively; because they recognised that I had the opportunity to advocate.
 
Paul: That's a very interesting idea, because I know elsewhere- I'm sure I've heard you talking about the investment that the people who surrounded you as a young person in your estate, in your larger peer group, they develop a big investment in your success and your visibility. And you do- I know that the word 'represent' is a very complex word actually in the traditions that you come from and the traditions that you shape now- but, yeah, you represent them, and they are invested in your representation of the complexity, the richness and dignity of their lives, actually; and that's a very interesting position to have reached. And it's not about being an influencer, and it's not about being someone who's pimping that culture into the mainstream, where it has suddenly- now racism is bad supposedly- is suddenly quite a value, which nobody ever thought it was going to have. So that's a very delicate and difficult line to walk, and I just feel like the things you've been doing have been showing others how to walk that line.
 
George: I appreciate that. A friend of mine from- a very street-oriented friend of mine- was saying to me the other day that in me- these are the kinds of intellectual conversations that I find in street environments which it's a shame that this is not part of the broader consciousness- he was saying to me his assessment of my walking-of-the-line, that you just described, indicates the value of my education, my formal education. I'll talk to him for re-calibration, and he's watching me on the BBC and saying, 'that is the value of taking your GCSEs seriously'.
 
Paul: How do you respond to that? Because the danger would be then, in a neo-liberal environment, you end up being the proof that the system works, right? When we all know- not to make a joke about it- we all know this is an utterly dysfunctional system at every stage, as far as education is concerned and many other areas of life also.
 
George: So, I find that my training in sociology has been a lifeline for me. I think if I had committed myself to getting an economic understanding from the institutions that taught me sociology, and I'd never developed my analysis of why our community feels and functions the way it does, I would be out at sea without a paddle. But it's the sociology that allows me the tool kit to make an analysis of the logic of capitalism within the media industries and square that against the process of education, and the failings and the shortcomings of education; and I have a habit of just checking certain social economic indices for certain information, for personal reasons- not to prep for a call with Paul Gilroy, or to go on the BBC- it's personal to me. And my friend was making it clear that that's what he perceives; so, in response to his assessment I'll always say to him that the highest contribution that I can make with my position is the sharing of this privilege - which it is.
 
Paul: Yeah, it's hard isn't it? Because one of the most positive aspects of this horrible situation that is unfolding all around us, and obviously West London- Brent, that whole area- is one of the worst affected zones of the whole country by the Covid pandemic; and all the inequalities that were there already- to do with healthcare, to do with medical provision and need, and so on- all of those inequalities which have deepened so, so extensively during the last 10 years or so, are being inscribed more vividly and more awfully than we could have imagined that they would be. And we know how racism works, and we've been thinking about all of these things- the black health workers and patients' group was writing reports 20-25 years ago about these things. So, the view of those things from Brent, from that west London area, is a really important view. Do you have any comments or observations that you've made? I hope everyone that you know is well and okay; I know that many, many people have been sick and have died there and it's really shocking to me that the government thinks that 150 odd deaths every day is a success story now. That's two Grenfell's every day; that's one and a half Hillsborough every day. But that's success because they control the story, they control the narrative.
 
George: Yeah. Well, first of all, I think all black people have a collective crisis of communication; we're not in control of our communication systems. I used to dream of a centralised communication institute for black people. My attention has started to drift towards social media as the new communications system, and that's a decentralised system; so, I'm just opening my eyes to the value of that, and I think there is a lot in that. However, one of the biggest missed opportunities from this crisis of communication is that we can't keep our foot to the pedal collectively; we cannot aggregate our attention or our energy in our watchdog efforts. And that, I think, dissipates- is the word dissipates? Let's say it dissipates the outrage that should be accumulating. And I see that in my community because, although everyone else is talking about- or a certain strata of society is talking about- Brent's disproportionate outcomes, a lot of our young people are not.
 
Paul: Yeah. So then- I shouldn't even ask you this actually, but I can't avoid asking it given what you've just said: so, if the podcast was an experiment, that's been extremely successful by the look of it, what's the next level for you?
 
George: The inputs to the podcast have been intuitive- largely my intuition; conversations that I think are of value; audio techniques that I think will bring real value innovation to the industry. So, you get the techniques and you get the conversations, and you've got a podcast. The advantage of the podcast so far has been that there was no precedent, therefore no expectation, therefore no assessment criteria. Moving forward, I'm doing that for myself; I'm designing the assessment, the expectation; and it all comes down to- it's no longer my intuition, it's my priorities. I've just described one of them to you: the comms issue; I'm interested in figuring that out. I think there's a bigger piece around value creation that I'm also interested in figuring out. And, I don't know how much I can say about this, but I am re-entering the academic space formally, to become very surgical about my approach to research, in order to inform the inputs for the next run of my outputs.
 
Paul: That sounds cryptic, but fascinating, and I really look forward to seeing what that involves; and perhaps as the life of our centre becomes more autonomous and more energetic- which we've been struggling a little bit under these conditions as everybody has- then maybe there'll be opportunities to collaborate further. One other thing I wanted to ask you about, I just scribbled it down, and we've covered most of the things I wanted to talk about; but I know that you are getting involved in arts policy and those conversations about arts organisations, funding; these are really important conversations and they're going to be even more important in the new normal after the first two or three waves of the pandemic have begun to subside. So, I was wondering about that, about becoming more political in an institutional sense. And it's an interesting moment because we've got the most right-wing government this country's had for nearly 100 years, but it's also, we're told, the most diverse government- that there are a lot of Asian heritage people; there are some African heritage people involved as government in key positions of power and influence; there are black and brown special advisors that we know of who are guiding the way this government presents itself, and they have to do that actually because to hold the electoral bloc that they want to assemble together, they can't be seen to be racist; and yet we know, you know- 'watermelon smiles, pickaninnies', all the rest of it- we know that this is the way they think, we know that they're attached to certain eugenic fantasies about how to manage the lives of those who they don't value very highly, and that that is part of what's going on in the supposed chaos of the pandemic environment. So, I'm just wondering how you look at that- how you look at that mix? Because we've got very right-wing people, some of whom are black and brown; we've got a lot of diversity- they love diversity, the government loves diversity, capitalism loves diversity; how do we put those things together? When you were speaking earlier on, I was thinking really about class and about poverty and about inequality, and a different language- maybe even a more sociological language actually- that speaks to those questions. It's quite hard to hold all of that into one frame.
 
George: Yep, and I think the penultimate point that you just made is crucial; and it's underrated, it's underexamined. We need a different language. We need a more sociological language. As soon as I fell in love with sociology, I looked around and I realised the travesty that it's not compulsory, or it's not- sociological thought is not embedded- it's not embedded across the educational experience. So I've been thinking in a freewheeling way about that since I was about 16 years old, and I'm gonna be 30 next year. And the entrepreneur in me is what led me to become 'George the Poet'; it's what led me to start the podcast- my entrepreneurial instincts will say 'you should take the rap element there and combine it with the academic element there, and create new space'; that is how I look a lot of these gaps in our political consciousness. We have to be creative about it. The systems and the institutional logic that we have inherited has taken us up to a point, and I don't want to be- I don't want to be the guy to throw the baby out with the bathwater, however, as an entrepreneur much of my success has come from allowing the systems that don't fit me to do what they need to do, getting out of the way and identifying the next new opportunity- that's what I did for my transition from the music industry into podcasting; and the podcasting space now has allowed me to use my career as a public intellectual space. It's allowed for more intelligent conversation; interviewers ask me better questions as a result. Now, what I see in terms of the fragmentation of African, and maybe even minority consciousness, in this country- working class consciousness- that that fragmentation is fuelled in a predictable way under this government, under their i- if you wanna call it an ideology, under their approach. And that to me is like the music industry - they have an established logic, they're not gonna change the way they function just because I'm outraged, or just because millions of us are outraged. However, there are other things that we as a collective - as a group, as a generation - that we do, that we have discovered, that we are doing. You and I are having a very important, in my eyes, a very important conversation over our phones; no one can interrupt this process. You are habituated in an esteemed academic context; I carry my own esteem. These things are opportunities that the government won't utilise, speak to us about, or investigate; but what we do with our unique opportunities, is completely up to us, fortunately, for the time being.
 
Paul: And I feel your generation, and the younger generation actually- not just your generation- I don't know what to call your generation, let's call it your generation; but the people who are out in the street, many of them are much younger than you are. And I do get a sense - maybe I'm being overly optimistic - that their hope, their life, their vision of the future is in a terribly distressed condition, and the sort of fusion- the fusion of concern about climate, about health, about living a life with reference to a future at all actually, in terms of employment and opportunity, and safety and dignity; this means that they are not going to stop, and they are not going to shut up, and that they have what will become a clearer sense of how this cannot continue.
 
George: I do believe so, and I think there's just untold opportunity in that. You see, what we need to take stock of and be excited about is the fact that we live in an era of individuals having the ability to broadcast. It's no longer a one-way direction of travel in terms of the narrative of the time. The BBC doesn't have a monopoly on what the British experience is on the news; CNN doesn't have a monopoly on the news. We watch the news and we respond as we say 'actually I don't like that, I don't agree with that'; and sometimes hundreds of thousands of us do that at the same time, towards the same sentiment. I think that's very exciting and we should allow ourselves the room to become playful about that, and almost childlike in our imagination of the possibilities. That's what fuels my podcast; I look at the technology and the movements that I have witnessed in my own lifetime, and I try and explain them to myself, and I get so excited that I have to explain them to everyone else. But I also grew up in the tradition of grime and rhyme, which allows me to explain them in a way that is relevant to a market, which will probably spark some creativity in the minds of young listeners, as well as the elders who informed what my thinking- so there are just opportunities that we have to wake up excited about; and I think the challenges of our time, and our ability to tap into the information and the history of those challenges, presents a unique opportunity for this generation to think in a broader way than we otherwise would have.
 
Paul: I think it's the creativity; I think it's very nice to hear you speak that way about your education in social science, but I think you're selling your poetry a little bit too short there in a way. Because it's the creativity that makes people want to listen to you. If you were 'George the Sociologist' nobody would want to listen to you, trust me on that one. So the question really is about commanding the attention of people; this is an attention economy; that attention is very precious, and again what I really like about the podcast is that it engages with the process of winning, of securing and holding that attention more effectively than almost anything that I've encountered; and I'm really, really excited to see what you're going to do in the future, George. And I'm really grateful to you for making the time to have this conversation with me this afternoon. I hope that in the future once we're back into our space, I really hope that we'll be able to get you there and make a dialogue- I have a dream, really, of getting you and Hak Baker together to do something, because you represent sort of poles of the same generation actually, and I really admire his music- like you, he's invented a new form which is not- he was a grime MC too, and he's another refugee from grime in that sense. So, there are a number of things in my mind that I really want to do in the future, and I hope that we'll be able to make the dialogue in that space once it arrives.
 
George: I'm honoured to have this connection with you, to have the respect from you obviously. Your writing, your thought, has been instrumental in the formation of my politics. So, yeah, let's keep up the effort, let's fight the good fight.