In this piece, aired in 2017, London-based spoken word artist, George the Poet, states his case for why artists should be ‘political’. He says artists are not just entertainers and they can’t simply ‘sit on the fence’. Rather they should be the vanguards of the social movement for change.
His words and his sentiment are captivating and, for any of you active or dormant creatives out there, might make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. It is a call to action, for artists to be advocates and their audiences, activists. George acknowledges how his place, as a poet in his community, positions him to have a positive influence on the young people who follow his work.
George Mpanga, born to Ugandan parents, grew up in Harlesden, North West London, just a stone’s throw from my own former neighbourhood. His voice and sound are iconic of UK black urban youth and, like many, his first art form was rapping. However he quit just before the release of his first album and moved into the genre of performance poetry. Why? To have a greater impact.
“Poetry can make things clear. No one gave a monkey’s when I used to rap, but the minute I turned the music off and delivered the exact same words acapella, people paid attention.”
In a Q & A with fellow poet, Raymond Antrobus, back in 2012, George explained “Poetry can make things clear. No one gave a monkey’s when I used to rap, but the minute I turned the music off and delivered the exact same words acapella (literally), people paid attention.”
For an artist who wants to convey important messages about life, culture and society, capturing people’s attention is everything.
These days, George combines poetry and social political commentary in his multi award-winning podcast, Have you heard George’s podcast?
In 2019, he turned down an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) because ‘he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to make people “really understand how damaging the legacy of British colonialism has been on the African continent”’
George took this moment in his personal life to raise awareness of a bloody period in history that continues to influence the lives of black people around the world today.
If you listen to his podcast, you will hear how George uses lyricism, rhythm and rhyme to highlight important issues and raise awareness of the opportunities for change. In doing so, he follows in the footsteps of other activist poets, such as Jamaican-born, UK dub poet, Linton Kwesi-Johnson, who once said, “Writing [is] a political act and poetry [is] a cultural weapon.”
Arts for Systems Change
Our aim is to explore the creative ways in which powerful ideas can be transmitted. We want to support artists of all genres and backgrounds to be a voice for their communities and a catalyst for change in our society.
Art can bring personal and social transformation. It can be a tool and a gift. It can shed light, raise questions, illuminate hope and bring people together.
Not only can it provide poignant commentary on what is broken in our systems, Art can bring personal and social transformation. It can be a tool and a gift. It can shed light, raise questions, illuminate hope and bring people together.
Yes, we can make pictures and films that please the eye, we can play music that makes you tap your feet, but when artists offer their craft in service to humanity, to a positive vision for the Earth, then both they and we, their audience, take a step closer to fulfilling our true potential.
Are you a visual or performance artist, writer, musician or film maker with a focus on social change? We want to hear from you.
Become a member of Systems Change Alliance and be part of sharing your work and ideas in our Community Forum.
For more info, get in touch at [email protected]
Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande