George Mpanga widely known by his stage name George the Poet is a London-born spoken word performer of Ugandan heritage. His innovative brand of musical poetry has won him critical acclaim both as a recording artist and a social commentator. He recently made a revelation when he declined to become a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) saying on his podcast that the “colonial trauma inflicted on the children of Africa” meant he was unable to accept.
The British Honours System is a centuries-old structure established by the British monarchy to recognise and reward exceptional individual achievement, bravery, and service to the United Kingdom.
A Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) is the third highest ranking Order of the British Empire award. This order of chivalry is awarded to individuals for making great, and or positive impact in the arts or sciences and public service that is outside of the civil service sector. Would be recipients can decline the accolade or in some cases be stripped of it for breaking the code of conduct.
Although it is a perceived honour to be part of the Order, when it was formally offered to him, George explained that he felt “a burning sensation in my chest”.
He said: “I’d like to apologise to the friend who recommended me on my assurance that I’d accept, I didn’t know I would feel this way.”
“Your forefathers grabbed my motherland, pinned her down and took turns. They did that every day for a couple hundred years and then left her to treat her own burns. Now all of her children are born with a set of unique concerns and gaps in the information that we really do need to learn and none of us know why, why we got absorbed by a ‘higher entity’, why I have to fight for my identity.”
“I see myself as student, admirer and friend of Britain, however the colonial trauma inflicted on the children of Africa, entrenched across our geo-political and macro-economic realities, prevents me from accepting the title Member of the British Empire.”
He added: “It will remain unacceptable to me until Britain takes institutional measures to address the intergenerational disruption brought to millions as a result of her colonial exploits”.
“I have no issue with other black people who have embraced this title, I encourage variety of thought across our society and within my community. I encourage future generations to seek the relevant information to make an informed decision. What do the words British Empire mean to you? I love this country… But I will not be told how to feel about my history.”
Among his many accolades, George was shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice category at the 2015 Brit Awards and he came fifth in the BBC Sound of 2015 poll. In 2018 he was elected as a member of the National Council of Arts Council England.
Ppl are violent because they don't want to confront truth. Easy to say 'forgive & forget' when you've only benefitted from colonial extraction & violence. Today's world system was set in place by colonial activities &structures. Cancel debts & geopolitical power & then let's talk
— Amiera Sawas (@Amierasawas) November 26, 2019
‘The Empire’ still represents oppression
George is not the first poet to reject an invitation to join the order based on the atrocities of the past. In 2003 , the acclaimed Rastafarian poet, Benjamin Zephaniah refused his appointment as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) from the Queen, describing it as a legacy of colonialism.
In an interview with the Guardian at the time he said, “Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear the word ’empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised… I am profoundly anti-Empire.”
Zephaniah also criticised fellow artists who he claimed succumbed to their ego and subsequently compromised their artistic integrity by accepting the honours, “There are many black writers who love OBEs, it makes them feel like they have made it … They are so easily seduced into the great house of Babylon known as the Palace.”
His sentiments were echoed in his poem, “Bought and Sold”, which boldly laments in its first stanza, “Smart big awards and prize money
Is killing off black poetry
It’s not censors or dictators that are cutting up our art.
The lure of meeting royalty
And touching high society
Is damping creativity and eating at our heart.”