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George The Poet: By Royal appointment

TALENTED: George The Poet

FOR HIS entire life, George The Poet has straddled two worlds: the estate and academia.

Born on the notorious St Raphael’s Estate in north-west London, the 21-year-old, real name George Mpanga, has successfully battled preconceived notions about black men birthed from its high concrete walls to gain three A grade A-levels, a subsequent place at Cambridge University and positioned himself as one of London’s leading young wordsmiths.

“It’s a bit of a myth when you’re told that kids from estates aren’t interested in school,” he says.

“What is quite interesting about our area is that despite the low success rate among a lot of young men, we all want it. We’re all from a background that encourages it, I was just lucky enough for everything to work out for me.”

The poet’s Ugandan parents, who had witnessed many of George’s friends turn to a life of a crime, focused their energy on ensuring that their son was afforded the best education they could. He was schooled outside of his area and admits that this was a learning curve in itself.

“My school ran a tight ship. You couldn’t really act up because it had a strong disciplinary system and clear ideology. I realised that the outside world saw little value in the estate experience. This made me angry. That anger grew with my awareness of our relegation to the peripheries of society and that’s when grime found me.”

George found solace in the British genre and developed a unique style in which to tell his story.

In probably one of his most poignant pieces entitled Estate of Mind, he reflects: “I’m from a place where a lot of people die for nothing… We’re stuck in a ‘hood. Do you know what a hood does? It absorbs the rain and it blocks out the sun, it stores the pain and it knocks out the fun.”

He says: “My poetry came from rap. It became poetry only when I wanted to communicate better with the audience.”

George performed rap locally at youth clubs and other venues from the age of 15. At 18, after enrolling in university, he began concentrating on the art form, building up a strong following on YouTube where postings of his performances have collectively garnered over one million hits to date. It was these performances that caught the eye of senior broadcasting executives.

Last year George was chosen as the face of BBC’s Hackney Weekend ad campaign, seen by thousands who attended the sold out two-day festival in the east London borough. He recited My City, a poem which urges inner city youngsters to aspire to a life beyond crime and grinding poverty.

Describing 2012 as “the defining year of my life,” he says that he realised just how far he could go.

“I think that was a turning point for me. Before, I was open to suggestions, I didn’t have an agenda, but now I have and I owe that to 2012.”

He also built up an impressive celeb fanbase throughout the trailblazing 365 days, one of the most notable being hip-hop legend Nas, whom he supported at a recent live show.

At the mention of the US rapper’s name, George’s tone moves from laid back to jubilant in a matter of seconds.

“It feels amazing, man. I will never be able to express that feeling in words. It’s very humbling but, at the same time, it gives you a sense of perspective so if this is what can happen out of a hobby, something I did in my spare time, imagine what could happen if I treated it as a career. Imagine all of the people I could get on side.”

Already cheering him on is UK rapper Wretch 32 and singers Kyra and Jacob Banks with whom he shares the same management.

“I’m so privileged to be working with these people. It’s not like I’m making the best out of whoever I get, this is the crème de la crème. These people are so good, these people are pioneers and it’s an honour. Whenever I hear them or they share new stuff with me, that’s inspiration for me.”

A culmination of the poet’s inspirations will make up the basis of his landmark one-man show at London’s Royal Albert Hall on January 14, an amazing feat for the poet, who admits it’s a career-defining event.

Before the show, which took place on his 22nd birthday, he said: “Everything is going good. I’m just a bit nervous. Whenever you deliver a poem, you’re presenting your raw thoughts. You think ‘how are the audience going to receive it?’ I always want the best so I’m worried about anything less than the best.”

Adding to the pressure is that within the audience, no doubt spiced with celebrity fans, was two of his biggest.

“My parents were there, which made me more nervous. One of the best things about performing is that you’re talking to people that you don’t know.

“My mum is too real [when it comes to constructive criticism], she’ll be like, ‘don’t you think you should’ve got a haircut? Don’t you think that shirt is too tight?’”

Currently running poetry workshops for underprivileged young people - using the £16,000 prize money from winning 2012 business-pitching competition, The Stake - George says his goal is to “force people to care more”.

“I think in areas like where I’m from, kids just don’t have enough. If more people outside of the situation cared, it would do a lot for them. Young people are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. I thought one of the biggest battles would be convincing them that poetry is worthwhile, but from the first session, they were like, ‘Yep, I’m involved. Teach me how to do it.’”

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