“Is Black Lives Matter having its #MeToo moment?” asked BBC Newsnight host Emily Maitlis last week when rapper, author and podcast host George The Poet appeared on the show to discuss the spread of anti-racist activism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd under the knee of a US police officer. Soon after she followed with the question, “You’re not putting America and the UK on the same footing? Our police aren’t armed, they don’t have guns, the legacy of slavery is not the same.”
The artist, real name George Mpanga, calmly replied with stats and insight as to how inequality and systemic racism are a world problem and matter here on our streets as much as they do across the pond. On social media, there was much focus on the line of questioning – and what it perhaps tells us about attitudes in the mainstream media – as there was on George’s response.
“I reflected on the questions quite a lot and tried to gauge whether Emily was trying to feed me opportunities or whether she was simply expressing what a lot of people in Britain think,” George tells NME. “Whether she genuinely felt what she was saying or not, it’s been useful because it gave me an opportunity to anchor the conversation.”
As for the one about the #MeToo parallels, George says: “It was a very strange question, but what I have got used to is translating these questions in my mind to ask, ‘What do you think this person really means by this?’ In that situation, I think she was asking about the broader cultural awareness in the way that the #MeToo movement saw the pressure for that change had been coming for a long time, but it was a moment in which it was really given its space in the media.”
He continues: “It’s just very frustrating obviously, because the situation is so grotesque and has been so widely broadcast for so long. I’m talking about the majority of the 20th Century. For this recent outburst and outpouring of pain to be seen as ‘finally the moment’ is a complete fallacy. It’s a complete misrepresentation of how many moments have been won up to this point and just how futile those moments have been.
“This moment, with mass protests and acknowledgement by authorities that mistakes were made and statistics being thrown left, right and centre – this scenario has been played out before and the stubbornness and the resilience of racism within the British psyche and the psyche of a lot of rich white countries is such that a reporter on national TV can ask if finally people care.”
With protests for the cause continuing across the globe as many corners of society reflect on their role in creating a more just and representative world, NME spoke to George The Poet about education, solidarity, activism and how to meaningfully create a level playing field for all.
Do you think older generations see the problem in regional terms, rather than as a world problem?
“It’s easier for people of our generation to wrap our heads around that because we grew up online. Barriers and distance are not the same for us as they might have been for our parents.”
And does this play into the different ways in which different generations attempt to tackle systemic racism?
“We fight battles using the language we have at the time. Those that have that fighting energy get further integrated into the economy, and the economy doesn’t prioritise these battles. The economy prioritises stability, economic ties like paying into a pension plan, getting a mortgage and getting a place for your children to grow up. The further rooted you become in the humdrum of British life, the further removed you are from the fire that you maybe had in your protesting days.
“I can understand why even the psychological and physiological adjustment of becoming a parent and raising someone from childhood to adulthood might remove you from the immediacy of some of what I’m talking about. But I’m still here. For black people, even after we move out of that phase, we still have to consider the dangers that remain for our children – which a lot of white people won’t have to.”
People are showing their solidarity on social media. Is there a danger that might be performative?
“I think that in any movement there’s always going to be a degree of performativeness. I have reconciled myself with that. I thought to myself that even if it becomes popular for just a season, there are going to be residual effects of that which could be beneficial to the long-term transformation. In performing, someone has to at least pay lip service to the cause. If you really aren’t engaging with the things that you’re saying or posting online, then that’s your own personal issue and will flare up in your relationships and your decisions that you’re confronted with later on in life. But on some level, you’ve familiarised yourself with the rhetoric and that’s progress in itself.”
You’ve spoken a lot about improving education on Britain and other Western countries’ colonial pasts and roles in slavery. Will this create a cultural shift?
“Yes, and I see that happening quicker because there are no longer big gatekeepers of information. Historically, the Church was the great distributor of information to the masses, then it became academic institutions who were also able to play a monopoly on the truth. Now a lot of us just learn through this increasingly connected culture that we’re born into. We speak all the time; we post all the time. That obviously has its downsides, like the way that elections have panned out and been manipulated by people taking advantage of the online space, but the upside is individuals feeling empowered to impose or project their truth into the noise – as opposed to just absorbing what’s being taught to them and accepting their invisibility in the wider narrative.”
Do you think the curriculum will change to allow for that?
“I think it will. That’s not where my main ambitions are, though. I don’t expect it as a grace that’s been owed to be or my community. I think we have another strategy that we need to focus on. It’s not even awareness – it’s economic empowerment. That’s it. That’s the only thing we haven’t got yet, and it’s the only muscle that we can develop that will allow us to adapt to whatever climate we’re met with. As much knowledge and awareness that we can spread will still depend on the charity and grace of benevolent onlookers to help us reverse racism. Whereas I am inclined to believe that the reversal of racism is a futile exercise that could only really be achieved organically through the economic empowerment of black people.”
What do you think can be introduced to establish that?
“I think we can establish a plan for the education of black young people. That would involve distilling all of the knowledge about racism into some sort of curriculum that can be implemented across the educational careers of our kids in a way that can be used to help build their articulation on where they’re at and why they’re learning the things that they are. We can commit to that. That’s the first step. They need a career path that will allow them to make a unique contribution to the struggle against racism, but still explore their potential in all the directions that should be afforded to them. However, what we currently have is young people leaving education into a workforce and an economy that doesn’t recognise their history. That therefore requires them to divorce their time and livelihood from the broader black struggle. That is what will continue to undermine our liberation efforts.”
You spoke on Newsnight about Julian Cole [a young black man who had his neck broken and was left brain-damaged by police after an incident at a Bedfordshire nightclub in 2013; none of the officers have yet been charged]. How do you feel about the media attention that incidents like this get in the UK?
“Without sounding like an arsehole, I studied Sociology, which gave me an advantage and got me used to looking at the numbers and demographics across society. If you look at how this country has about 55 million white people and maybe two million black people, then you understand the business model of the news – it doesn’t make sense for them to give the Julian Cole scandal the light that it deserves. The logic of these companies is to give the people what they want. What they want is where they’re at. If they’re not at a place where they’ve been educated or sensitised to race relations in this country, then you can’t be surprised that media outlets don’t feel pressure to prioritise instances of injustice against the black community at the hands of the state.”
“You cannot enjoy the rhythm and ignore the blues”
— BBC Radio 1 (@BBCR1) June 2, 2020
Clara Amfo said something powerful about visibility last week: “We black people get the feeling that people want our culture but they do not want us”.
“Yes – let’s look at music. The popularity of black music gives us a clue about so many things. First of all, black music is what happens when black people are left to their own devices. It’s interesting that in 2019, black music, rap music and urban music had 21.5 percent of all music listened to in this country. Go back to the numbers – what proportion of the country produces black music? Three percent of the country is black, and a fraction of them innovate rap to where it is. So it’s probably less than one percent of the population who are generating 21.5 percent of the music being listened to. It’s ridiculous. It’s part of the economy that has just grown and grown. We’re doing very well.”
What would you like to say about giving more recognition to the voices behind the work?
“UK rap tends to come from a corner of the black community in particular that’s seen as problematic. It’s commonly produced by people that have a problematic relationship with the law. Yet for some reason, when those people are able to speak some element of their truth in a way that is completely on their terms, then it contributes to economic productivity. It bumps up GDP. What I see there is a much more interesting talking point than ‘what white people don’t yet know’.
“We need to celebrate it, design investment strategies around it, understanding that this is not a unicorn. This is not a fluke. Black teenagers across the world and throughout history, from the invention of jazz to its evolution into bebop and then transformation into R&B in African-America and the invention of ska in Jamaica and then transformation into rocksteady, reggae, hip-hop, dancehall, jungle, garage, grime – this is a thing that we do. This is our opportunity to reassess our story and redesign our freedom strategy.”
Check out George The Poet’s NME Award winning Have You Heard George’s podcast here.
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