You’re reading Kiss The Joy, an interview series with big name British celebs about where they find their sense of Black self and happiness.
“Britain is one of those countries that’s connected to so many parts of the world, we’re exposed to so many other things,” says George Mpanga, better known as George The Poet, as we chat via Zoom.
“I think that gives us a unique position as Black people to connect with a lot of different Black cultures, and a lot of cultures full stop.”
Born and raised in north west London to Ugandan parents, George uses this tapestry of heritage and experience to inform his work. He started out as a rapper, calling himself a “grime kid” at heart, but today, the 30-year-old is one of the country’s most prominent spoken-word artists.
His style is impossible to neatly define. His award-winning podcast, Have You Heard George’s Podcast?, combines city soundscapes with newsreel clips, interviews and lessons on Black history. The eclectic mix is underpinned by a beautiful score and George’s fluid, expressive poetry.
It’s not a podcast to zone out to – it makes you pay attention. As George says during one episode: “If my podcast sounds normal, I’m not giving you enough reason to listen. And I really need you to listen.”
This need to make people listen was born when he was studying psychology and sociology at the University of Cambridge.
“The environment was so different to what I grew up in. It was a very white environment. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as the only Black guy on campus that raps,” he says. “When I was on stage I wanted people to actually hear what I was saying, so that’s the only reason I became a poet.”
He describes his London upbringing as being very diverse. Having been raised around a lot of Jamaicans, he was heavily influenced by Dancehall culture.
“Dancehall culture showed me there are different ways to approach music. You’d see all these different artists bringing a different flavour to the same beat,” he says. “But growing up as a rapper – I was a grime kid – that gave me the discipline of learning how to write, how to manage an audience, how to tell a story, and that was the foundation of what I do now.”
Cambridge made him withdraw into his shell, he says, but he would do it all over again. “I knew my social life wasn’t going to be what it was growing up, but I’m happy to see that it’s different for young Black people in Cambridge now. Me going there was me saying to the community that I want to see more of us here.”
George designed his podcast to give young people a better idea of how the world works and he hopes it will help some listeners figure out what they want to do with their lives. “The podcast is supposed to be educational and creative,” he says. “I want it to give a different space to think about the life we live and how we can improve it.”
Though it was originally self-produced, the BBC snapped up subsequent series. And despite the broadcaster’s strict impartiality rules that have been used by some critics to call individual presenters to account – as with the row that swirled around BBC Breakfast’s Naga Munchetty – George’s podcast manages to tackle themes such as racism, police brutality, and Black art – and it’s led to friends in high places.
In 2018, he was invited to read a poem at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. In 2019, he was offered (and declined) an MBE.
It’s clear to see that George has already created a legacy for himself, even though he’s only 30. However, he’s aware his work may be viewed through a different lens in the future, and that his own views will continue to evolve.
“We all have to deal with the fact that times move on. The music you grew up on won’t be the music your kids will listen to,” he says. “Your perspective is going to change and we’re all going to get old – hopefully. So what becomes really important as it’s how we affect the people that come after us, that’s your legacy.”
Our theme throughout Black History Month at HuffPost UK is Black joy, because the narrative around Black history is too often linked to trauma and pain. Our experiences as Black people are much more than our suffering – something George agrees with.
When asked about Black joy, he says it means mental freedom from history. “I think our history has done a lot of things we don’t understand. We can’t understand why our communities in rich countries tend to be poorer, why our countries are the poorest in the world, and why there’s a lot of mistrust and insecurity in Black relationships. But I think we need to free ourselves from our history and know that we’re blessed, we’re good.”
One way he practices joy is by listening to Black music. “Most of my friends are Black and I like to have meaningful experiences with them and my family and that’s where my happiness comes from.”
He’s also had more personal joy recently, having married his long-term partner, Sandra, in August. The pair met as children and Sandra is head of operations at his company. They celebrated their marriage overlooking the Thames at Hedsor House and Park in Buckinghamshire, after getting engaged during lockdown.
“[The pandemic] pushed my back up against the wall in a number of ways, creatively and professionally, but I do feel like we’re at a silver lining now,” says George. “I came out of the pandemic a whole married man, so I can’t complain.”
He’s enjoying life as a newlywed while promoting his latest venture, a Youtube documentary called ‘The Outsiders?’, in which he stars alongside names such as Mo Gilligan, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Clara Amfo, and Reni Eddo-Lodge.
The six-part series looks at Black talent across the UK and the US, discussing the experiences of Black people in their respective industries.
In one episode, George speaks about the importance of Black people from the diaspora collaborating and bouncing off each other. “So many Black people have been forced into migration because of traumatic situations and it’s important we take control of it now,” he says. “Artists like Wizkid and Chronix or Davido and Popcaan making music together is like the healing process. We admire and appreciate each other’s seasoning and flavour.”
George says being part of something like The Outsiders? highlights the importance of mixing our stories and Black people taking control of our narratives.
“I always say telling our own story is the secret to survival. If you don’t say what you want to say, someone is going to say it for you and they might not say it in the right way,” he says.
“People are eventually going to look back on this stuff and study this like we studied the Romans and the Egyptians. These are the resources that people of the future are going to study in order to understand who we were.”