George the Poet: ‘Jay Z has betrayed black radical tradition and Beyoncé is a classic capitalist'

George The Poet (Feruza Afewerki)
George The Poet (Feruza Afewerki)

“Clear that man’s name. He doesn’t lie!” I have just asked George the Poet, aka George Mpanga, a question that has been bugging me for almost two years. A friend of mine once got into an Uber with a driver, who, after a little small talk, professed to be Mpanga’s dad. Was it true?

“Yeah, he Ubers every now and then,” Mpanga laughs when I recount the story. “God bless him, man, telling people about me. Sweet.”

His humility is disarming, but it’s easy to see why Mpanga senior would want to boast about his son. A rapper-turned-author, podcaster-turned-PhD candidate, the 33-year-old Cambridge-educated Ugandan-Brit is the ultimate multi-hyphenate. These days, it is hard to say what Mpanga is best known for – perhaps the genre-bending spoken word poetry that saw him reading at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, or his Peabody Award-winning podcast. But none of this is really the focus of Mpanga’s new book, Track Record. While it is part memoir, it is primarily a socio-economic history – of the music industry, Britain’s colonial past, capitalism and what he terms the “war on Blackness.”

His intellectual bandwidth is staggering – jumping from Karl Marx, the origins of neoliberalism and the Commonwealth to the “third world debt crisis” which led to Ugandans like his parents migrating to the UK and ending up on St Raphael’s estate, a closed-off neighbourhood in the shadow of Wembley stadium. There were elements of poverty, difficult home lives that spilled over into our lives,” he says of the north-west London estate he grew up on, which also produced England footballer Raheem Sterling. “But for the most part it was a great place to be a kid.”

George The Poet (PA Archive)
George The Poet (PA Archive)

“Things changed when we were teenagers, unfortunately. Violence started to play a bigger role in our lives, conflict resolution deteriorated, criminality accelerated, and none of us knew why.”

Dynamics of coercion emerged with older boys on the estate – by the age of 16, Mpanga had already been involved in a few violent clashes. But it was also in these difficult teenage years, while attending the prestigious Queen Elizabeth’s grammar school in Barnet – his mum woke up at 6am every morning for a year to prepare him for the entrance exam while working a full-time job – that Mpanga’s love affair with music started.

It was the Noughties, and grime had just burst onto the scene – a fresh, exciting and hyper-local sound. The fledgling genre was being shaped by legends Mpanga was growing up with, some of whom, like Wiley, Tinchy Stryder, Lethal Bizzle and Kano, would go on to become household names. “What a time to be alive,” he says, smiling when I ask about this period. “It was exciting. Prior to the grime generation, black British culture was still very much junior to Jamaican and African-American culture, in our dress sense, our slang. It was very common for British rappers to rap with an American twang. But with grime, we were rapping in our accents. The videos that were starting to pop up were clearly shot in neighbourhoods like ours. The music followed a pace of our life that was unique to our experience – it was just fun.”

When I got to Cambridge, I approached it with optimism. But it was a culture shock

After taking a DJ course, Mpanga began rapping with his friends, building up a following at school and later Cambridge University, where he enrolled to study politics and sociology at King’s College in 2010. Writing lyrics and recording videos at his dorm room desk, his music career flourished, but his social life plummeted. “When I got to Cambridge, I approached it with optimism. But it was a culture shock,” he says. “Not having damn near anyone from the world that I was from – it was taxing. It made me reclusive.”

At that time, question marks had also begun to form around his love of hip-hop and grime, something that Track Record dwells heavily on. After a mutual friend from a recording session was killed over an argument which started with some lyrics, he began to grow more disillusioned with what he saw as the scene’s glorification of violence, which often spilled onto the streets. It prompted his estrangement from grime, and movement towards spoken word.

Kano, who rose to prominence at the same time as George the Poet (Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)
Kano, who rose to prominence at the same time as George the Poet (Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

“A lot of people just roll up to the artistic space, and they're completely unprepared to think in broader terms about the effect that they might have on the world or how they might be being used,” Mpanga says.

He was also frustrated with the lack of radicalism in the music scene and the idealisation of the pursuit of wealth by hip-hop and grime’s figureheads. After years of soaking up the blood, sweat and tears of the “streets”, he felt that the genres had become pyramids, with largely commercial major earners at the top. And for Mpanga, there are no sacred cows in the game – he is unafraid to drop names.

“Jay Z,” Mpanga laughs. “He got various special mentions in this book as a perfect example of the propagandised myth of black capitalism. I used to immerse myself in Jay Z's rhetoric, but then I saw his repeated betrayal and corruption of the black radical tradition. And then you have Beyoncé, dressing up as a Black Panther [referring to her 2016 Super Bowl performance], appropriating all sorts of revolutionary rhetoric and imagery, but conducting her business in classic capitalist formations.”

On the week that we speak, Mpanga has also taken to X, formerly Twitter, to express his disappointment in another of rap’s heroes, Kendrick Lamar, on his failure to publicly address the war in Gaza. “There is a contingent of hip-hop that would really disagree with my stance on Kendrick’s silence on, yes, Gaza, but also everything – the increasingly militarised police force in America's cities, the stoked animosity within the black community towards new migrants into America, the forcing out of the vote of so many chunks of the black populace,” Mpanga says.

“The implication that Kendrick – who has risen to prominence on a platform of conscious rap – has no obligation to get involved in the collective struggle to end the genocide and to get justice for Palestinians, that is completely wrongheaded. And I can see how someone who has spent more time loving hip-hop than accessing a political education, through no fault of their own, can be misled into thinking that we shouldn't expect anything of these rappers.”

Kendrick Lamar performing at Glastonbury in 2022 (PA)
Kendrick Lamar performing at Glastonbury in 2022 (PA)

For Mpanga, the contract of celebrity itself involves forfeiting the potential to be political in any meaningful sense of the word, in return for the lifestyle, the connections and the cocoon of privilege. It is a contract he refuses to sign, instead withdrawing from the mainstream and refusing to become alienated from the community he came from.

“Implicitly, what these people are saying is that hip-hop and celebrity in general has no duty to reality,” Mpanga says. “So you can tell us a million stories about your murdered black male friends from your childhood in a way that does nothing for their families, or to address the overall trends that led to all these black bodies piling up.

“You can tell us about that over and over for your profit, but when it comes to what is happening right now – where you can cause a change in tide among a whole generation – you have no obligation to that? That's what you're telling me? I don't go for it at all.”

There are various mechanisms within the music industry that would ensure that a black, progressive voice will not receive the same funding as a black, non-progressive voice

But Mpanga has suffered as a result of his principles. In 2014, fresh out of university, he signed a record deal with Island Records, but the relationship soon soured, as the label refused to invest in the original projects he was creating. He was eventually forced to release his EP, Chicken and The Egg, for free with no promotion – it went on to achieve critical acclaim anyway.

“It was clear that my messaging and my approach was going against the grain of what the industry was comfortable with,” Mpanga says. “I don't think it's a coincidence that my more progressive, more experimental, against the grain ideas were deprioritised.”

“There are various mechanisms within the music industry that would ensure that a black, progressive voice will not receive the same funding as a black, non-progressive voice. And I saw that in the label’s overt rejection of the things that eventually brought us awards, nominations and acclaim.”


His experience at Island eventually prompted him to quit the music industry altogether. He published a volume of poetry, Search Party, in 2015, and creating his podcast Have You Heard George’s Podcast, which won in five categories at the British Podcast Awards in 2019. That same year, he rejected the offer of an MBE, referencing the “pure evil” of the British empire’s actions in Uganda. What does he think of other black Brits accepting these honours?

“At the time I was very non-judgy,” he says. “My stance has since changed. Yes, I accept that everyone has a different project. But I will say that I can't take them seriously when it comes to empire. If you don't think that your role as the descendant of colonised people is in completely rejecting the imperial order, I take you a little less seriously.”

Mpanga is now studying a PhD at University College London, writing a thesis about the value and economic power of black music and how it can be used across the world for a better future, under the supervision of pre-eminent economics professor Mariana Mazzucato. He has also just become a father for the first time. When I end our chat by asking him if he has ever considered going into politics, and his feelings about the UK’s political future, he sighs.

“Yeah, I've thought about it,” he says. “The two party system is probably the biggest turn off for me – there is no wiggle room for someone with my politics.”

“The stance of Labour on Gaza is a perfect example. We have no material. I don't regard Keir Starmer as a reflection of what the spirit of Labour once was. I don't see him as a Leftist at all. So my choices are between him and Rishi Sunak or whatever clown the Conservatives will cough up? It's not really an alternative to anyone who's paying any level of attention. You're taking the piss.”

Track Record by George the Poet is published by Hodder & Stoughton on April 25