CamFest Speaker Spotlight: George the Poet

George the Poet is a spoken word performer whose innovative brand of musical poetry has won him critical acclaim both as a recording artist and a social commentator. He will be in conversation with Sharath Srinivasan, David and Elaine Potter Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, about political activism, the meaning of education and more at the Cambridge Festival on 26th March (6-7pm).

It’s the first time the two men have come together for around six years. Sharath interviewed George for his place at King’s College, Cambridge, to do a degree in sociology, politics and psychology and was also George’s director of studies in his final year. He recalls thinking that there was something special about George at the age of 17 due to his vision, drive and the way he articulated his ideas. “It wasn’t totally clear at 17. But by the time George left and moved into the media milieu he married his way with words with a sharp analysis, creating a unique ability to hold court to shape the agenda” says Sharath. 

George is currently doing a PhD at UCL'S Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose on the socio-economic potential of black music. He says it started as an exploration of innovation in black music and how it can contribute to the way diaspora communities are organised, but has become more about politics than he anticipated. “I’ve come full circle,” he says, referring back to his time at Cambridge.

The Festival event will cover everything from demographic change at Cambridge since 2009 when he was interviewed by Sharath to what education is for. Sharath says that when George started he was teaching politics in Africa for third-year students most of the class were white social-justice oriented students with a focus on helping people from other parts of the world.

Now near two thirds of his class are Black British students and there is a completely different dynamic as the subject has undergone a huge critical interrogation of the issues around who constructs knowledge, and who defines problems and solutions. George agrees that when he started at Cambridge there were very few black students in the humanities which he says contributed to him withdrawing a little into his poetry.

When he comes back now he notices the change.  “The centre of gravity has shifted,” says Sharath. “There is a sense of community that probably didn’t exist for George.”

George also talks about his own personal development since Cambridge. He says for some years he focused on his career which made him less direct about his political ideas. Now he feels he has come back to those ideas and his confidence in his own political voice has grown, as evidenced by his popular podcast.

His recent series is on After Empire and the impact of colonisation.  “Education is often about what you think over time,” he notes, referring to two papers he did in his final year on media, culture and society and on the political economy of capitalism. Both have influenced how he thinks about the world and have been helpful in framing some of his experiences since Cambridge.

Sharath remembers George in his final year being very much in demand for his spoken word performances. As his director of studies, he worried about how he could get him to take his finals seriously. He knew George was not destined for any old job and he wanted him to focus on the ideas that excited him. “Ideas matter to who George is. I remember him saying that he was enjoying what he was reading in that final year. He was able to think about those ideas in terms that he cared about,” he says.

George adds that he had felt alienated in his second year from the social theory texts he was reading. For Sharath that is a part of the educational process of learning who you are. “The aim is to expand students’ horizons and encourage them to think about the world independently,” he says, adding that students play a role in how universities should be at the vanguard of new thinking.  

George says that he is now much more wary about the celebrity circus and how it can take you away from ‘digging deep’. He recalls one thing that struck him as he was learning. “I wish I could make it all rhyme,” he says. For Sharath, George’s own work is testament to how rhyme can be used to convey complex ideas.  “There’s a feeling that you have to be super intelligent to be interested in the books I was reading,” says George, “but language is the main barrier.”

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