George Mpanga wanted to make a TV show. Looking to expand his conscious-growing work as the internationally recognized musician and spoken word artist George the Poet, he wanted to bring those talents to a new venue.
He was told he didn’t have the requisite experience. So he took on a new challenge: Take all of the current affairs-centered ideas he wanted to bring to sociology and humanities students and transfer them to an audio setting.
“Embedded deep in the logic of how we approach the podcast and the soundscape is a kind of stubbornness and determination to show that we can make visual some very elaborate ideas, with or without a production credit,” Mpanga told IndieWire.
So along with producer, composer, and songwriter Paul Carter, who works under the name Benbrick, they set out to tackle the principals of episodic storytelling with a podcast of their own. Together, the pair embraced all their questions about creative freedom, current events, and artistic self-doubt and shaped them into “Have You Heard George’s Podcast?”
Over two seasons, the show has taken on a fascinating structure, with large-scale arcs about artistic power connected by self-contained episodes that can each stand on their own. Early episodes looked at the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The most recent installment culminated a lengthier examination of the effects of Britain’s imperial history on the Black artists in and from its former colonies.
With all of these wide-ranging ideas existing in a single podcast endeavor, Mpanga and Carter have built a sturdy foundation to hold all of them. Original Benbrick compositions back each of these soundscapes. The dialogue and narration is all in verse, performed in a way that becomes so integral to the show that it’s easy to forget (over long stretches) that these ideas are being delivered in rhyme.
And many of these stories flow through the lens of George, the series’ central figure. As with any other creative endeavor that blurs the line between fiction and autobiography, Mpanga wanted to see what routes this character might take, even as he shares many of his goals and uncertainties.
“I’m interested in what George looks like outside of my head. I’m interested in people’s opinions. I’m interested in the things they might not say, but might secretly think, might begin to resent about me. I’m interested in how my relationships might take unexpected turns. So I’ll write about that from a personal perspective,” Mpanga said. “When I write it’s never arbitrary. It’s never, ‘Oh, this is a thought I had today.’ There are priorities that need to be addressed. I try to apply that self-analysis to the purpose of looking at these priorities.”
Part of what makes “Have You Heard George’s Podcast” feel like such a personal creative expression is the idea that Mpanga gives his literal voice to so many of these abstract ideas. With his words pitched up or down, the result is a kind of conversation with himself. That wasn’t always the plan, but it became a useful byproduct of the production process.
“A lot of the voices that I do myself were intended as demos. I was rapidly developing this concept and doing it from home, from my studio setup. So in my mind, that was a placeholder. I guess the entrepreneur in me, or the creator in me, was like, ‘Let’s just use our resources. If you can do the voice, just do the voice,'” Mpanga said. “I understood that the poetry was going to be the vehicle that drove interest if I got it right. And for me, getting it right meant that poetry as a vehicle drives us to a destination that is even more interesting than the vehicle. So that the poetry is like secondary after a while and now people are just looking out the window like, ‘Where are we going?'”
The pair are not precious about where they draw inspiration. Carter said that he’s been trying to glean possible new ideas from the sound design of “The Last of Us, Part II.” Mpanga referenced the way he’s unpacked what make songs from Disney movies so effective. In turn, “Have You Heard George’s Podcast?” is one of the better arguments for empowering creators to follow their own passions and interests, in whatever unexpected sonic places they might travel.
“We were both doing music before this and saw different limitations that rubbed us the wrong way. Songs have to be three minutes and the chorus has to come in after 30 seconds and you have to have three choruses. And the more that we experimented with the podcast, the more we realized that our listeners are intelligent and you don’t have to make things easy,” Carter said.
“When you write a song, you have an idea. And you have to be true to the idea and you have to allow the spirit of the song to lead you to whatever it’s gonna become,” Mpanga said. “If we had gone about it in a different way, getting partners on board at the outset, and having to explain to the partners what we were going to try and achieve episode to episode, I wouldn’t say it would necessarily come out disjointed. But you can imagine how that would transform the character of it.”
Music has been an ever-present throughline in the series, perhaps most prominently in Season 2’s penultimate episode “The Bag.” Not only does it situate George the Poet in a legacy of musicians that stretches back many decades, it’s one of the best examples of Carter’s ability to remix ideas in music form. Whether it’s spinning out instrumentals from existing songs or taking sounds from the real world and imagining how they would echo inside a virtual representation of someone’s mind, there’s a full tapestry that complements the words being spoken.
“I have a list of things that I’m constantly trying to address. And because of that, I have a menu of audio options that I need to apply to that list. So what I end up doing is describing to Benbrick what I intend to demonstrate, then it’s Benbrick’s role to be practical about that and say, ‘Alright, this is how we get from A to B.’ He really understands the physics of music and he can compute that in a way that makes sense to his genius,” Mpanga said.
“A lot of it, we’re thinking of where the camera would be in the room. And that, as a metaphor, works for the score as well. Once I see it as it is in George’s head, it all comes together,” Carter said.
If the partnership that makes this series wasn’t already evident in the final product, it certainly comes through in the credits of each episode. You can almost see the smile in Mpanga’s voice as he explains that the show was produced by Benbrick and George the Poet “with original music — and sound design — by Benbrick himself.”
Earlier this spring, the show earned a Peabody Award, cited for “its innovative use of poetry, spoken word, and prose to build Black worlds and to explore issues large and small, historical and contemporary, intimate and personal.” Much of that exploration is possible because of the symbiotic way that those ideas are realized.
“In terms of the minutiae of sound, we’re both equally obsessed, which is a very rare quality to find. It’s really rare that you come across someone that you work with that you really gel with and feel like you can do anything with. We both are happy sitting for an hour going through sounds of doors. We get enjoyment from finding the right sound for the right scene,” Carter said.
“I also find it empowering that when you pay more attention to the people around you, there is limitless potential to the ideas they share with you,” Mpanga said. “You find that your environment and your network is abundant. It’s the most generous resource that you can tap into.”
For more of the best podcast episodes of 2020, check out our full mid-year list (including the Season 2 finale of “Have You Heard George’s Podcast?”) here.