Whether he’s chopping it up with AJ Tracey over a game of FIFA on Copa90, breaking down the most important social and cultural issues on his ‘Halfcast’ podcast or bringing the newest UK sounds to the world via his Vibbar collective, Poet is on the pulse of everything that matters to the latest generation of Londoners.
Before becoming recognised as one of football fan culture’s most prominent faces, Poet was among North London’s most influential community leaders, having turned around a flailing youth club in Ferry Lane before working as a community coach for Tottenham Hotspur, working with the city’s most talented street ballers. The positive energy present in Poet’s work today isn’t anything new – moving people and culture forward has been at the heart of everything he’s ever done.
VERSUS linked up with Poet in his old North London stomping ground, yards away from his old secondary school, to unwrap his story so far.
VERSUS: We’ve just stepped off the train at Hornsey station. Why did you want to bring us here today?
Poet: We’re going through Hornsey. I’ve done so many pieces on what growing up in Tottenham was like – on Ferry Lane – and I’ve kind of neglected this part of my life and I don’t know why because it was a very essential five years…so where we are now is walking towards the bus stop I used to go to every day after school to catch the 41 back to Ferry Lane. It’s mad, it’s years ago I used to come down here so being back here now – as an older man, with my girlfriend in front of me pushing my kids – it’s crazy. If we turn left, we’d be approaching my secondary school.
What was school life like for you?
It was difficult. I had a lot of older cousins and they were all known for different things. Back in the day there was an ‘oh my God, you’ve got a known older cousin, don’t mess with him’ feeling towards me…which is interesting because I was a complete paradox to being bad. I was so, so good. I was caught in a place where the good kids rocked with me and the bad kids thought about rocking with me because they knew my older cousins. I didn’t really fit anywhere and I floated from group to group, I never really had a core group of friends. My school life wasn’t really about education, it was more about survival.
How important was football and sport during school? I always found it gave school some sort of structure, socially…
That’s very true. Football was always at the centre of everything during school. It’s how you made friends and it’s how you got social significance, so to speak – it’s how you grew in confidence. We played football at lunch every single day for five years, we’d make teams in the morning and play for an hour at lunch time – we’d set aside ten minutes to rush for food at the end but that’s it. School was just an excuse to kick ball.
“Ian Wright never compromised, he was always true to himself, and that was inspiring.”
Did you ever harbour ambitions of making it professionally?
Of course! Everyone used to get Merlin sticker books, play FIFA and think ‘yeah that’s gonna be me one day’ – then you realise you don’t really like getting in a scrap every day! That competitive life wasn’t for me. I still like playing, of course – man’s a cultured centre back.
What’s your earliest memory of being a football fan?
My earliest memory as a fan was the summer before I went to secondary school. My house was all about music, music, music since I was young…that’s all I knew and loved. But when I started going outside and talking to the boys on my estate, no one was really into music like that, they were all about football. I remember I got a Sky Sports catalogue and it had a fantasy football thing at the back, so I spent weeks looking at every single player and memorising them so when I went outside I could chat about it. I started watching football clips on TV and one thing stood out: Ian Wright. I used to idolise him, everything he did was so sick and I’d say he was my entry point to being a football fan.
I hear that about Ian Wright so often when I have these types of conversations. What was it about Ian Wright, in your own mind, that made him an icon like that?
He was black and – to be honest – there weren’t many positive black role models on TV at the time. He didn’t fit the norm. There were other black players in the Premier League – Les Ferdinand, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke – but Ian Wright was such a character. It’s the same reason I loved Puff Daddy at the same age, these people had big personalities. Puff Daddy was more than music and I think Ian Wright has always been more than football…he looked like me, he spoke like me and he made the dream of being on TV – not even as a sportsman, just in general – become such a realistic target. He never compromised, he was always true to himself and that was brave and inspiring. It gave me confidence and I owe a lot to him.
“We were street guys. We needed someone to talk about football in our tone.”
At what point in your life did you realise you’d be able to channel this enthusiasm, creativity and energy you felt towards football into a career?
When I was in year 9 I went to drama school, so being in entertainment was always a goal for me but the dream of talking about football, that’s still a new thing – talking about football on social platforms wasn’t a thing when I was in school. I always loved football but I felt there wasn’t really a voice for our generation, talking about the game the way me and my mates did. We weren’t Andy Gray, we weren’t Richard Keys, we weren’t Gary Lineker, we weren’t Alan Hansen…we were street guys. We needed someone to talk about football in our tone so we made a football show in 2012 covering the Euros and it all grew from there. Before that I was doing music and entertainment stuff but it didn’t feel unique, I wasn’t being myself…so I looked at football and found a new lane.
You’ve done some mad things in a pretty short space of time. What are some of your favourite moments?
I still say the sickest thing was when I got the initial phone call from Copa, they hit me up and asked me to come down and do a screen test…Vuj was the only other guy that spoke about football on Twitter to me, so I called him and got him to come down, too. I told him that I didn’t know if we were gonna get paid, I didn’t know if we’d be successful, I didn’t know anything…and it’s turned out to be one of the best calls I ever made. I’ve ended up working with my best friend every week for five years now and it’s such a strong relationship. We’ve had the opportunity to sit down with David Beckham, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Leo Messi…everyone that’s idolised by the public, we’ve worked with.
Working with Ian Wright was a mad ting. When I met him, I had to say “I’ll come back to you in ten minutes” because I was so lost for words. I was in shock. The same thing happened when I met Thierry Henry…those are two guys who revolutionised the way I looked at life and I was getting a chance to work with them. I had to say to Thierry “bro, I’m sorry to sound like a fan boy but you were everything to me growing up”…I wanted to cry, I feel like crying now.
What is it about you – as an individual – that makes you able to talk about football so fluently, so authentically? It’s not easy to connect with people the way you have.
I know the game and I know the people. I’m very much of this culture and of this life. People don’t realise I used to do work for Tottenham Hotspur as a community coach and then I’d bring players through to get professional contracts. Nile Ranger got his first trial through me and my friends, we got him a trial at Southampton. I understood football from a coaching perspective – not at the highest level – but in terms of how difficult it is to be a footballer. I speak about football from the perspective of someone who tried to be a footballer and then helped his friends make professional careers out of it…I’m very passionate because I’ve seen it from grassroots all the way to the top and want our game to be the best it can be.
“There are good people on this planet, regardless of race and social class, who genuinely care about helping.”
How important were those years to you where you worked with young communities in Tottenham? Do you still carry those experiences with you?
It was sick. Community work gave me a real perspective on life. It showed me how cruel the world can be but it also showed me that no matter how much you generalise and stereotype things in life, there are really good people on this planet regardless of race and social class, who genuinely care about helping others. At first I did it because I didn’t like the way Tottenham was and I wanted to help my community.
When I was growing up I used to love youth clubs, they were very important for me, but I knew that access wasn’t there for the next generation. I managed a youth club when I was 19, Ferry Lane Youth Club – the numbers were shocking, attendance was low – and I turned it around to become one of the most engaged youth clubs in London. We doubled the numbers and it’s something I’m still very proud of. When I was 15-years-old I was doing so much, but now, half of these kids are out here doing foolishness because there’s nothing for them to do and they’re bored! Police are always on the estates. I had some of the baddest yutes come with me at this club and it was an achievement for me, it changed their lives because it gave them a purpose that wasn’t there previously. People should never feel restricted because of their environment.
You speak so passionately about self-improvement and inspiring young communities. Are you still carrying those values with you in the work you do today?
One hundred per cent. It’s all about family. Right now I’m walking with my cousin, someone I used to look up to and he’s still here with me now. I’ve got friends who have been with me since day one. There are so many projects I don’t put my name to because it’s not about me, it’s bigger than me. I’m always asking “how can I get my friends in? How can my friends make careers out of this?” – I want to make positive contributions. I can confidently say I’ve had an impact on Craig Mitch, who’s presenting for the Premier League now. I introduced Maya Jama to the football scene and look at all the things she’s doing now. Look at Vuj, he’s making so many moves. There’s so many little things and changes that I can say I’ve helped grow. That makes me so happy, bruv.
One of your latest group projects is Vibbar. You’ve already mentioned how important music was to you growing up – and we know you did some MCing once upon a time – what’s inspired you to chase music again?
The reason I’m called Poet is because I used to MC and me and my cousin Skribz came out with a tune that was number one on Channel U for three weeks or something like that and it was sick…but we digressed from music because of the complications within the industry and I don’t think I was old enough to comprehend or understand what was going on. But I stayed in music. I was always in the studio and lots of my friends are heavily involved in writing and producing. I always wanted to create a collective of individuals where it was about the art as much as the music.
I wanted to form something that placed importance on the video, the artwork, the writing, the live shows, the styling…and I’ve had the beauty of doing that with Vibbar. We got all our friends and brought them together, it manifested into what it is today. Our passion is so deep rooted and it’s creating so many opportunities…we just did a show in Sweden and my boys got paid to do it! That’s been their dream for so long. If there’s one constant throughout my work, it’s about giving people a reason to believe the things they think they can do are actually possible.
Photography by Jay Kamara.