Published in Silent Radio: https://www.silentradio.co.uk/02/23/live-george-the-poet-20022015/
There’s a palpable sense of excitement in the line for Antwerp Mansion. Down an unlikely sidestreet, off Rusholme’s cumin-flavoured neon strip, I wait with the gaggle in the rain. I’m waiting for the paper-street grandeur of Antwerp Mansion, where ornate balustrades rub shoulders with mysterious graffiti and flaking paintwork. It’s a rough edged deathtrap, with a grubby charm all its own; set apart in a club landscape ruled by the unholy triumvirate of replication gentrification and homogenisation.
And in many ways it feels like the perfect venue for George the Poet. If you didn’t know George, the frissant in the queue would tell you this is one of the hottest tickets in the country. His sound and his story are in equal measure captivating, and rightly or wrongly, his origins and education have made him an artist to be heard rather than just listened to. His given name is George Mpanga, born to Ugandan immigrants on London’s St Raphael’s estate. It’s a place described by one M.P. as ‘Lawless’, but through these disadvantages, George did something uncommon among his peers and attended Cambridge University. He studied Politics, Philosophy and Sociology and developed a passion for poetry, which easily integrated into his existing passion for rap.
So he raps about social issues, but does it with a fierce intelligence and deep theoretical knowledge. His message isn’t new; it’s the same story of hopelessness and a lack of options for underclasses across the world, from the west coast projects to the north London estates. But his education at one of the finest establishments grants him the power to express it in same vernacular as the establishment itself. Structured points, in poetic parlance are hard to decry and while ‘Hood rat slang’ is easy for a suit to ignore; George’s structured, poetic manifesto is not.
It’s clear he sees himself as a political force, and someone who can have real political impact outside the conventional channels: as long as people will listen, he has power. I think in many ways this is a perfect venue for the event, looking at the vaulted ceiling on the top floor. It’s like some grassroots political rally, in a church hall, waiting for the firebrand preacher. The DJ spins a dub version of ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’, James Brown, Zulu Walk by the Mighty Mocambos. Suddenly the crowd thins, then thins again and I go with the tide, sure of something happening elsewhere. Elsewhere is a low ceilinged room painted red, stoner blues playing from the front.
Time ticks on and it’s past one when George takes to the stage. I’ve just been mobbed by some amicably rowdy friends in the smoking area; it’s Friday night, and the crowd is warming down from the working week. I’ve been here for a while, assuming George would be on early, in the calm before the storm where the crowd would listen and engage. I expected part gig part poetry slam part rally. But his hype man says otherwise, asking the crowd if ‘anyone came for a fucking disco’. I feel sure those who did will be disappointed, but I’m puzzled. It seems at odds with his deeply thought and complex art.
He opens with a piece of performance art – a dancer half signs half body pops to George’s voice – lip syncing a la Mulholland drive, in what I hope is an indication of the show to come; filled with metaphor and subtext. ‘Grinding’, a ringtone sampling track with a splash of funk enters with the crowd, whipped into a frenzy, screaming in affirmation of George’s rising star. His flow is on point; more potent than I had expected, especially on new track “Alice in Wonderland”. But the levels don’t seem quite right, at least his voice seems muffled, and with the frenzied late night crowd, some of the message is lost.
He speaks between tracks, on politics and society, about the upcoming election. He has a sign up sheet for an email list – ‘all I need is 50 man’ he says, to help him change things. He begins wearing a white shirt, suit trousers and belt, every inch the modern politician and only increases this impression when mid-set he puts on jacket and tie. He has a message to convey, he orates, consciously channelling Malcom X on the severe housing crisis in London. But like most clubs, in the wee hours, a suit talking politics doesn’t hold much sway. Rather than being silent and rapt, carried along by George’s words, the crowd talk amongst themselves. With big Friday night arm gestures, and raised voices. And that is the primary problem. When he puts on his suit and talks about his ‘search party manifesto’ the room noticeably empties, and it’s clear people don’t particularly want to think that hard at 1.45am.
His most powerful tracks are those with less repetition, less instrumentation, where his voice can preach in verse. ‘If The Shoe Fits’ is one such track, charting the dialogue of two complex lovers and their infidelities. George opens with an explanation in the tone you use co-ercing a drunk friend home: he explains whenever he changes character, introduces them, their name and explains how they are feeling. It’s perhaps necessary given the circumstance, but It breaks the flow of the song and you get lost in the wrong turns of the unfolding story, muffled as it was. On his E.P. its beauty was how it conjured the image and emotion of those characters, and spelling it out seemed to treat the audience as either a little dim, or more than a little drunk.
Tonight, his delicate wordplay and Harvard references are, for the louder tracks, lost in the bass heavy rig. The production caries these tracks, but when the band quietens down, only the crowd comes through clear; unwilling to listen to shout-outs for the likes of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Somewhere in the transition from social poet to social rapper it was decided he should also be a headline act. Whether this was because of the critical acclaim or vice versa is perhaps a chicken and egg thing, but he’s certainly seen as the next big British rap star. Of his new releases “Cat D” is clearly airplay material, but retains a good measure of his poetic foundation. ‘1,2,1,2’ however, seems to water it down to the point of banality: perhaps consciously as tonight, before launching into it, he talks about ‘infiltrating the airwaves to talk some real shit’.
I can see it, he wants to influence as many people as possible, and this is one way to do it. But he’s not Dizzee Rascal. He isn’t founded on singalong hooks, but on thought and books and he genuinely has something important to say. Tonight, and perhaps going back some months, someone, somewhere, lost sight of what really makes George the Poet Britain’s hottest property. It’s in his academic, nuanced, footnoted flow and how he taps into the social reality for millions in this country. But he won’t be heard so late in the day. He’s not suited to late night party slots, bass heavy setups and hype men. Because they obscure the message. He clearly wants to enact change, and he knows that if people listen, he has power. But tonight, as hard as he tries to get his message across, it falls on drunk ears, mixed slightly wrong. What could have been a night of inspirational oration I will remember as a slightly blurred mess. And so will everyone else.