George the Poet meets Munya Chawawa: ‘Poetry isn’t perceived as being masculine’

George the Poet first met Munya Chawawa when he was invited on the latter’s Reprezent 107.3 FM radio show to talk about his single, Follow the Leader, and recently launched podcast. Some three years on, and the careers of both men are transformed: George has left his label to become a spoken-word artist, activist and PhD student. His Have You Heard George’s Podcast? has also reached Peabody award-winning heights, with a new series introducing his expansive theory about Black music’s untapped socio-economic potential. Meanwhile, Chawawa has become Britain’s foremost social-media satirist, laying into government corruption and grime beefs with equal alacrity, and earning a major label record deal in the guise of posh drill rapper, Unknown P. His latest viral video, the Matt Hancock-inspired Shaggy parody It Was Me, has 2.5m views on Twitter and counting.

Both men drop bars, but you couldn’t call them “rappers” – they’ve had to invent new artistic forms (such as George’s podcast-length poems) to keep pace with their own creativity. So, when the two sat down together to map their respective journeys, the intersections and connections – from macho expectations to monetising rhyme – kept popping up. The questions came from both directions, but this time it was George – now a seasoned podcast interviewer – who got to ask his first …

George the Poet: The elements that you combine show a deep understanding of the subtext within grime, but I can also tell you’ve got a broad view of British society … you can quickly draw a parallel between some government figure and a play on words that would resonate with the street. How much access did you have to the culture, growing up?

Munya Chawawa: Barely any. As a child in Zimbabwe, we didn’t have access to any of that music, really. I missed out on a lot of old-school bangers that everyone would sing at raves. Then I moved to Norwich [aged 12] and, again, there was no real access to that kind of music. I was also bullied at school, not like severe bullying, but just people making efforts to sabotage my academic work. For example, the day I was in hospital having my appendix removed, the boys in the class told the substitute teacher I was selling weed. But the thing is, I was a very good boy!

GtP: Do you think that you would have had that hard time if you acted like a rebel?

MC: I don’t think there would have been any way to gain acceptance, because the other Black guy in the year, he was misbehaving, but it didn’t do anything to boost his acceptance. So, anyway, in order to stand up to these bullies, I started to train a lot. I’d literally go home and do 1,000 press-ups and 1,000 sit-ups, every single night, right? So I was absolutely shredded, and while doing this I was typing into YouTube, “workout music”. One of the first things I heard was a freestyle by P Money on MistaJam’s show [on BBC Radio 1Xtra] and I would just play it relentlessly. There was a part within his freestyle where he would go through the letters of the alphabet and do, like, a rhyming word for each one.

GtP: I remember that one. Genius.

MC: That was my first introduction, and then what I would do was – bearing in mind, I’m in this little village, so I had to entertain myself – pick songs and learn the words. When I moved to London, I thought to myself, “you know what? I’m not even gonna pretend I know about all this stuff”. I’m just going to ask people, like, “What’s a clash?”, “Who is Burna Boy?” And then, the way that I turned it into satire, was imagining what would have happened if I’d moved to London and I hadn’t bothered to learn.

GtP: My mind is blown! We just have inverse journeys. So I was there, but I wanted to get out, and the age you were when you were discovering grime – 14, 15 – was the age I was when I became an MC. But the over-simplified narrative in the music started to bother me, because I had little brothers. I didn’t appreciate older guys basically putting a battery in their back to be of the streets. And then I got a breather, finally, when I went to uni. That’s when I was able to shake off what you were immersing yourself into, the rapper thing, and I became a poet. But imagine who you would have been without that education! The music just comes and acts like a flying carpet from your window, to some world where you can just become. So before you started doing your online thing, did you ever try writing?

MC: Lyrics? Nah … Oh no, that is a complete lie! I would put on these beats by MF Doom and my little sister and I would freestyle for hours. I loved doing it, but I thought to myself, number one: I’ve got the weirdest accent in the world, no one’s going to want to listen to this. Number two: rappers usually talk about their life story; my life story is that I’ve been chased by a fox that ran through the village today. So I was just like a rapper in my room, y’know? But I loved it. I loved rhyming, trying to fit syllables and words, and combine semantics. In my mind it was like a big jigsaw puzzle.

GtP: I can hear the love that you have for it, because you take an idea and you organise it exactly as I would. Because it’s all about solutions, isn’t it? How do I get from A to B, while maintaining a rhyme? But you think about it very methodically and it comes across clean.

MC: I remember, when I got you on the show [Breakfast With Munya], I wanted it to feel like an intelligent interview. I’m really proud to see someone so intelligent, and who speaks on matters that are Black. The fact that you’ve been to Cambridge and you are a poet, you could easily monetise it, without ever turning back to where you’re from, and the issues that do affect our people. But you’ve not shied away from that, and I have a huge respect for you for doing so.

GtP: I felt that you approached that interview with respect, which is why I’ve always remembered you as a talented interviewer … So when you popped up as a fucking satire artist, I was like, “Yo! This guy?!” And watching your satire, I felt like I related to you more. Like, I always was uncomfortable with the fact that most Black storytellers from my environment, most rappers, have an audience because the hook is trauma. That’s what the audience wants from them: they want to hear how dysfunctional their upbringing was, how many drugs they sold, how many summers they spent in prison. And we’ve partly adopted this in the culture as bravado. Now we call it “toxic masculinity” – and maybe it is also that – but looking back, there were kids that were clearly going through abuse, right? So it becomes a natural response to stick your chest out and act like nothing bothers you.

MC: I don’t think poetry is perceived as being very masculine. In the same way, satire, acting or any kind of putting yourself out there isn’t viewed as the most macho thing. One of my characters, Unknown P, he’s this archetypal elitist and with that there’s a certain flamboyance that can be perceived as quite camp. Some people are so stunned! They’re like, “What if people think you’re gay?” And it’s like, so what? Get with the times! I’ve happily been able to sort of park my masculinity in order to get into character, or to put across a message. And the fact that people respond so positively suggests to me that there are probably a few guys who’d like to do the same, but just feel they don’t have licence.

GtP: And it’s not just toxic masculinity. I also set my sights on other things that need to be rethought. We cannot afford to keep having only a couple of superstars in each generation. You listened to P Money and that set you on a train, and that train was populated with millions of unseen people who made a contribution to the culture that you were able to benefit from. Likewise [for me]. What would be ideal is if the economic consequences of this culture were reinvested into the communities that drive innovation. But the turnaround time [of your sketches]: everyone wants to know how you do it. A thousand push-ups, from year 9! Is that it?

MC: I just think I want to do the best version of what I can do, and I understand it takes certain sacrifices. Sometimes I’ll miss special occasions, or if a mate invites me to dinner, I’ll say, “Yes, but I might cancel on you five minutes before if Matt Hancock is snogging his aide behind a door.” I’m happy to make those sacrifices because, right now, I feel like I’ve got great momentum, and I can. That’s the simple reason. At this point in my life, I haven’t got any kids, I’ve got time, so why wouldn’t I? What are some of the sacrifices you’ve had to make for your art?

GtP: Well, when you met me, it was as a musician and I had to step away from doing that. I had to. I was intending that my hook would always be: “I have a compelling argument for the future of the community”, but I always knew that I’d have to create demand for that. Otherwise I would have to service existing demand and just try and slip that in there – which the label tried to influence me to do. So, moving away from the label, not being plugged into the machine that allows you to be the No 1 artist, that was definitely a sacrifice. And my family didn’t understand at the time. But there wasn’t a doubtful bone in my body. Even at that point, I was clear that rhyming is a magic potion; it’s a charm – it literally works like a charm. If you can rhyme your thoughts, you’ll find a space to do it.

MC: I was going to ask you: your first-ever poem, what was it about?

GtP: It was about the Emancipation Proclamation, I was 13 years old.

MC: Nice and light, then! Did you even know what poetry was before that?

GtP: I had a vague idea, yeah. And the vague idea that I had is pretty much what I still do. We did English GCSE and I found all these different technicalities to how poetry is defined in this country. That was interesting, and I got the grades I needed to, but I just went back to what I was doing at home with my friends, in order to create the poetry career that I now have. How crazy is that? The streets taught me.

MC: I think your first poem is a bit more impressive than mine. I think mine was a remix of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. So you’ve outdone me there.

Comments are closed.