Spoken-word artist POTENT WHISPER talks to Bethany Rielly about the disaster that exposed the deep and dangerous divisions splitting Britain down the middle
THE GRENFELL disaster opened a chasm between rich and poor, exacerbated by a media and political Establishment which ignores and disconnects itself from such communities.
But there are people who have always represented and spoken up for them — artists.
While much of the press held back about how and why the fire happened, they immediately shouted the truth. It happened because the residents of Grenfell Tower are poor.
“What happened at Grenfell, that was an act of war/The murder of innocent people who died because they’re poor,” is the chilling opening of Potent Whisper’s spoken-word piece Grenfell Britain.
Along with Lowkey, Akala and Stormzy, the rapper and spoken-word artist from south-west London — aka Georgie Stephanou — was commended in Parliament as being one of the poet laureates of the disaster by Kensington’s Labour MP Emma Dent Coad.
His piece, released on YouTube shortly after the deadly fire, is an unflinching attack on Kensington and Chelsea Council, Grenfell’s Tenant and Management Organisation and the wider factors which have been eating away at social housing and endangering and displacing tenants for years.
The piece, performed in an estate in Woolwich, south-east London, acts as an auditory guide. It explains in detail who should be held to account, their exact role in the disaster and, more importantly, what we can do to ensure Grenfell residents get justice. “If you want revenge there’s many names to get your tongues on/Very many companies and many hands with blood on/But we won’t let any of those devils pass the buck on.”
This is Potent’s trademark and it links many of his works aiming to empower people with the knowledge they need to take action and resist.
“Perhaps the greatest attack on the British public is the deliberate lack of information and false information being provided by the mainstream media,” he tells me. “A person cannot defend themselves unless they first come to realise that they are being attacked.”
This is often the case when estates are targeted for regeneration. The demolition and rebuilding of social housing is often packaged as being “for” the community but in reality tenants are kicked out of their homes and the new builds are sold on the open market with little or no social housing in sight.
Through rhyme, Potent breaks down complicated and deliberately misrepresented issues such as regeneration, translating politicians’ garble into accessible prose.
As a result he considers himself and other artists to be the “people’s media,” whose role it is to inform and arm communities with information.
The threat of regeneration features heavily in Grenfell Britain and follows a previous spoken-word piece Estate of War, released earlier this year.
In it, Potent warns tenants that if their homes are found to be unsafe in the wake of Grenfell, it could be used as an excuse to tear them down.
Knowing the fate of those who lived on London’s Heygate and Aylesbury estates — to name just two — Potent exposes what regeneration really means: “They’ll smash down your homes/You’ll get dashed out and cashed in/You’ll be on the streets in a click, it happens that quick.”
The 28-year-old is an activist as well as an artist. In heavily gentrified Brixton, he’s a wellknown and respected figure, having co-lead the Save Brixton Arches campaign against the mass eviction of a row of independent businesses and has challenged everything from library closures to Trident.
But his fight for the rights of social tenants is a more personal one. Growing up on an estate in a single-parent home, he and his mum routinely faced abuse by council staff, were threatened with eviction and denied vital repairs to their home.
“As a child I quickly learned that life would be quite the battle and that I, like my mum, would have to go on to fight for even my most basic needs,” he says.
With years of campaigning against gentrification, regeneration and evictions under his belt, Potent knows more than most how deeply connected the Grenfell disaster is to wider housing struggles across the country.
“The incident was caused by an amalgamation of factors that have been and continue to cause the suffering and death of social housing residents across Britain,” he explains.
“They include placing profit before people, the human cost of austerity, the destruction and violence of estate regeneration, the dehumanisation of working class people and the failures of housing legislation.”
He stresses that this is the context Grenfell must be viewed in. The disaster is a consequence of Grenfell Britain, in which nurses use foodbanks to survive, people with disabilities die after being declared fit for work and social tenants burn to death because money is valued above the lives of the poor.
“Every single day we’re seeing Grenfell killings/We suffer corruption is a Grenfell system/This isn’t Great Britain, it’s Grenfell Britain,” Potent declares and the piece ends how it starts, with a chilling battle cry: “Their screams are burnt into our minds/And their names into our hearts/The fire might be out but a rage has been sparked/It’s a rage that will blaze on every street, with every march/There won’t be a day of peace until justice comes to pass.”
His words still resonate deeply three months after the deadly fire. In that time, we’ve witnessed the Grenfell survivors treated with the same contempt that killed their family members and neighbours.
We’ve seen the repulsively rich reject them as their neighbours in a luxury block for fear they would “bring down the local property prices.” We’ve seen probe chair Martin Moore-Bick try to remove the social context from the inquiry.
And we’ve seen local councils continue to push through their regeneration programmes.
The deaths of more than 80 people have done little to change the Establishment but, as Potent warns, the rage it has sparked will not stop “until justice comes to pass.”
Potent Whisper’s Grenfell Britain is on YouTube. He’ll be appearing at a fundraiser for the Morning Star with singer-songwriter Lilly Gaskell on October 14 at the Constitution pub, 42 St Pancras Way, London NW1 0QT. The Event starts at 7pm and tickets (£10/£5 reductions) are available from Mary, firstname.lastname@example.org