Rose Rouse rocks around Harlesden with George the Poet
- Credit: Archant
Writer Rose Rouse is on an adventure – not in Cuba, Bali or the Outer Hebrides but in Harlesden where she lives. For four years, she walked and talked with friends, neighbours around busy NW10 and meets people you may have heard of living on your doorstep. This week, she walks spoken word artist, George The Poet.
I’ve wanted to walk with George The Poet for a couple of years. Brought up around Harlesden –it’s often said that he’s from Stonebridge, but he’s from St Raphael’s in fact – he’s 24, the second eldest in a Ugandan family, the Mpangas, who arrived as political refugees in the late 80s. He (and his mother) managed to get him to Cambridge University, transform himself from a rapper to a poet and back again to a rapper, and more recently get signed to Island Records. He’s currently on a national tour. Recently he had a considerable slot on Ch 4 news. That is all pretty amazing.
But more than that, he’s a bold voice for social change. George cares magnificently about the disenfranchised, often ignored parts of society – specifically black young people – from areas like NW10. And he’s willing to take on not only the police and the establishment, but also the values that are so often trumpeted by rap videos and lyrics.
I’m excited! I’m old and excited by someone young who is daring to step out and up.
He’s even on time. We meet on the High Street. “I used to hang out round here back in the day,” he says, “I still consider it my neighbourhood.”
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We’re walking by the former Mean Fiddler (the sign has only just gone down and it’s been closed for years) and I’m telling him about the gigs – like Billy Bragg and Los Lobos – that I used to review there. George is a little beside himself that he never had the chance to visit this legendary venue. The next minute, he’s grabbing plantains from a shop, obviously enjoying the opportunity to buy some again.
Also it strikes me as we sit down on a wall to chat that George actually grew up on St Raphs when Harlesden was at its worst in terms of shootings, stabbings and violence. He was only eight when it was all starting. It must have seriously affected him. “It really did,” he says clearly still disturbed by that era, “there was no choice, there was no room to be any different. If you didn’t want to get involved with violence, it was very difficult. I remember having my bike taken, and getting into a fight about it. And then my dad didn’t understand that I could be just doing nothing, and this could happen to me. Later, he was robbed as a cab driver and saw the bad side of the area, and got hardened.”
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But you are still willing to step forward and challenge the culture that created it. “The only way to release this fear is to embrace death,” he says seriously, “that’s the way I can step forward but it’s difficult. It’s a bittersweet. I also realise that embracing death and incarceration is the way that gang members release their fear and that enables their recklessness. It’s the same mechanism but used for different ends. I’m aware of the importance of being able to have dreams in your life and that I was encouraged to have dreams by my mother.”
What was it like going to this posh grammar school and then going back to St Raph’s? “A culture clash,” he says, “the school gave me a lot in terms of internal rules and understanding about how Britain works. But I wanted to get kicked out for a long time, I wasn’t comfortable. I was still a minority. Most of the kids there were Asian. Most of what was really useful to me, was learnt outside the classroom. There was the unspoken agenda. There was this arrogance about the world and how it ran that I started to understand. But with regards to my position, I was between a rock and a hard place. I didn’t fit in. It’s funny because I was amongst the so-called privileged but I didn’t see them that way.”
George is a young man who is constantly debating with himself where he can be the most useful. How he can contribute to his community. How he can help his community stand up for themselves. How he can get the respect to be an influence. What I love is how much he wants to enable social change. How serious he is.
I was thinking of walking to St Raph’s. But George has his car – and it is a BMW – so we drive. This is a first. A drive, not a walk. And a first for me, to visit St Raph’s. The other side of the north circular. And so we’re sat outside some of the low-rise, red brick, 70s housing on St Raph’s. George is telling me that when they arrived here in the 80s, they were one of two African families, and everyone else was Jamaican. “We were a minority within a minority,” he says, “like I was later at school. It was another culture clash.”
Is it more relaxed now than when he grew up? “Well, now there are more Somali families here,” he says, “and my two younger brothers do seem more relaxed than I was. Sometimes when I do poems about the area, I do wonder if I’m making it worse.”
A curly-haired woman emanating warmth, walks towards us and invites us in. Ah so, this is George’s inspirational mother.
The lounge is full of photos of the family. Like a big celebration of their Ugandan heritage. Above the television is a sepia big photo of all of them, mum and dad plus their four sons.
Mrs Mpanga explains in her graceful way that her husband and herself were political refugees. That the president who had come after Idi Amin was far worse than the infamous dictator. That this one was killing and torturing people who were thought to be rebels. Mr and Mrs Mpanga were, at the time, caring for Aids sufferers. She is proud that Uganda was the first African country to treat Aids seriously. “It is called ‘Slim’ there because people lose so much weight,” she says.
But they were on the wrong tribal side, and Mrs Mpanga had been communicating with her sister in Kenya about what was really going on. “We had to leave,” she says, “it was too dangerous for us there.”
The Mpangas are Christians and go to All Souls Church in Harlesden. “I don’t go any more, “says George, “but I’m very grateful for Christianity. It gave me a black and white way of looking at things when I needed that. “
We start talking about how he got into to Cambridge. It turns out that a teacher at Queen Elizabeth’s tried to dissuade him from applying. “He showed me a negative graph, told me it was unrealistic and that I wouldn’t get in,” says George, “that really took the wind out of my sails. I lost a lot of confidence after that. It was my mum who persuaded me to go for it. She totally believed in me. It’s what got me everywhere. This experience taught me one big lesson. You don’t get anywhere without self-belief. You only really have yourself to depend on. That’s what I’m always trying to take out to other young people.”
How was Cambridge? “I loved the lectures and I threw myself into the social scene for the first three months, then I realised I didn’t fit in. I felt awkward. There really were very few black students. I felt lonely but I started to go out to do gigs at other universities. That’s when all of that started happening.”
Poetry came about because rap didn’t fit in. George removed the music, and hey presto, he was a poet. Perfect. Another crack that opened up into an opportunity. George may be often an outsider, but it’s a creative outsiderdom.
There he was out gigging around the country venting his anger about what was happening in Harlesden. “I hated the area because all the shootings and violence made me feel powerless,” he explains, “something bad happened to someone I knew and it stayed with me. That’s how it turned into social commentary and me wanting to enable social change.”
Before Cambridge, he went to Uganda for five months. “It was an amazing time. I saw the possibilities of what I could do over there. It seemed like freedom to me. To see so many black people in significant roles, you never see that in the UK. It was liberating. There’s no glass ceiling there. All my life, I’ve been told to tread carefully because I’m black and you never know how people will interpret your actions. There was no treading carefully there.”
A longer version of this walk can be found in A London Safari – Walking Adventures in NW10 which is available from local shops like Sweetland, the Royal Oak, Paraskevas Salon and Alma’s café but also from Amazon and bigger book shops.
George has just released the single Cat D and is touring in Feb and April (livenation.co.uk).