Photography Mathias Karl Gontard 

London's George Riley sings about the whitewashing of climate activism

The soul singer and law student’s new single ‘Cleanse Me’ is out today, just in time for the Global Climate Strike. Watch its beautiful video here.

by Frankie Dunn
18 March 2021, 12:43pm

Photography Mathias Karl Gontard 

George Riley was born and raised in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, a place where “you can just blend in to the madness, no matter how you look”. The 23-year-old artist still lives there today, enjoying this anonymity. “I’m staying in Bush,” she says. “I hath decided.” George reckons her futuristic soul music sounds like the city it was birthed in — an eclectic blend of the jazz, trip-hop and electronic sounds that surround her. We reckon she’s spot on.

Late last year, after a lockdown spent studying (she’s midway through a law qualification), featuring on Fauzia’s latest release alongside Kelela (no biggie) and avoiding social media, George released “TRIXXX”. Her fourth single, it reflected on our collective obsession with platforms that reward Eurocentricity and impact us more than we could ever understand. As you might have gathered, while George loves music, she certainly doesn’t subscribe to the expectations of the music industry in 2021. “I don’t like being a product,” she explains, matter of factly. “I’m sure there were a lot of negatives about how the industry used to run, but at least back then you were selling vinyl or a physical manifestation of the music; now I’m selling myself (the warped internet version).” Despite this, she’s already won over legions of fans, including the likes of Gilles Peterson and Virgil’s musical director Benji B.

Her new single “Cleanse Me” — with harps courtesy of Maria Osuchowska — is inspired by the climate crisis. “I wrote in response to a bit of a, shall we say, ‘heated’ discussion I had with someone about the whitewashing and commodification of climate activism,” George says. “I’m most definitely not an expert on the subject but I just find there to be something very off about the way people advocate for climate justice. Perpetuating an ahistorical narrative about how we actually came to be in this mess is dangerous and unhelpful. I think, in general, if your activism is detached from how race and class intersect, you will fail to create substantively equitable solutions.”

The track is incredibly peaceful considering its subject matter. Reflecting on weather changes and urging listeners to not erase integral parts of the discourse, the music video — which you can watch below — sees George move hypnotically as animated plants bloom around her. In true lockdown style, the playful visual was shot in George’s bedroom on her laptop, in collaboration with her friend, the visual artist Jason Vas. “We met at university and he’s been helping me with my creative ever since,” she says. “There’s no way I could do the internet without him!” Sporting a stunning array of wigs and fits, it tracks George as she imagines “some kind of utopia in my bedroom, only to snap out of it and realise it doesn’t exist”. The project is George’s best yet and a sign, we’re convinced, of more magic to come. 

Watch the video below and get to know George Riley a little better via these 10 fun facts.

1. You can call her ‘Grandma George’
“I’m 23 but I honestly feel 83 — I’m very nostalgic. I don’t know what the right time [for me] is but this isn’t it. I’m not very internet. I hate everyone being all up in everyone else’s business… it’s not for me. I like books, good chat, good food, good music, an olive, a glass of wine. That’ll do me.” 

2. Songwriting is her emotional outlet
“I’m super emotional and would be so lost without it. I’m very grateful to be able to make something and feel better -- feel relief and feel detached from it. I don’t know that I tell stories as such, not in the way that some of my favourite songwriters do, I just let whatever’s in my head come out and it sounds like that; a bit of a collage.”

3. You basically can’t pigeonhole her or her work
“It spans a lot of genres and I guess I’m nothing but an amalgamation of influences that is very mixed and eclectic. Oliver Palfreyman’s production is the same in that way. But if I had to answer I guess it’s quite ‘future’, quite ‘city’, quite ‘London’, quite ‘soulful’. And I can’t speak for anyone else but it makes me feel good.”

4. George reckons her music would be a good soundtrack for a sci-fi cult classic
The Fifth Element… if there were more Black leads.”

5. She’s built an Afrofuturist world around her forthcoming mixtape
“The aesthetic is based quite heavily on The Fifth Element: great outfits, fabulous colours… a retro-futurist, Afrofuturist kinda vibe. This influencer type girl gets gifted tickets to Soho Moon (Soho House on the moon -- big coloniser energy). Anyway, she goes there and it’s awful. You have to level up into these skins like on Fortnite. I’ve not played, but I hear things. So yeah, they only cater to white people's hair, aesthetics, that kind of thing. But she has to stay to get the content, so she gets really pissed. She’s also mourning an ex, and promptly decides to return to Earth, rescinds her contract with the white influencer mafia and tries to figure out life on Earth. So… let me know if you hear that in the music!” 

6. The narrative of “Cleanse Me” reminds George of this part of Audre Lorde’s The Master’s Tools
“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference -- those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older -- know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.”

7. If you liked that, and are interested in preventing climate change, George recommends you get to know Climate in Colour
“Someone I’m really inspired by, who I think is really creating with the community in mind, is Joycelyn Longdon, the founder of Climate in Colour. They’re making a huge effort to diversify the climate conversation and make learning much more accessible. I attended one of their workshops in the first lockdown and I learnt so much! I recommend 1000% — there’s also a really cool website designed by Rifke Sadleir, as well as a YouTube channel and you can also sign up to their Patreon.”

8. In a happy coincidence, she’s releasing “Cleanse Me” the day before the latest global climate strike
“Just one of those strange serendipitous occurrences! It’s a great opportunity for people to think more widely about climate justice. There’s this huge disconnect in the west that says knowledge is produced and categorised rather than experienced and learned. I hope people start seeing it from this perspective and start asking people rather than trying to guess.” 

9. George made an appearance on kids TV as a child
“I was on a CBBC game show. I’m not gonna say which one because I just Googled it and the whole thing is online! All you need to know is that I was 10, I was out in the first round and it was a mortifying experience!”

10. Once she’s got exams out the way, it’s over for you bitches
“I’m doing a law conversion and I’ve got my exams next month, so acing my exams is on my list of plans for 2021 because I’m a big dork! After that, I’ll releasing my debut tape -- 10 tracks produced by Oliver Palfreyman, which I’m excited about because we’ve been working on it for what feels like a lifetime.”

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