Mark Grist is one of my favourite poets, so when the chance to interview him came up, once I’d stopped leaping around with excitement, I picked up the phone and gave him a ring. He’s performing at the TakeOver Festival in York on Friday 22nd, get yourself tickets because it’s going to be a great show. Thanks to The Yorker + Katharine Wootton for arranging the interview
Mark Grist is the teacher-poet-rap battler who shot to Reddit-induced fame last year when he out-lyriced cocky youngster Bradley “Blizzard” Green. In his spare time, as well as leading projects in schools, teaching, being half of the double act Dead Poets, spitting lyrics, making TV and radio appearances, Mark manges to find time for a spot of touring. He’ll be at the TakeOver Festival in York next week, so Farrah Kelly rang him up for a chat.
His show, “Rogue Teacher” will be part of the annual theatre festival spread over three weeks in March, June and October in York. Performing on Friday 22nd March, “it’s the story- the tragic tale- of a secondary school teacher who quits to become a rap-battler. Then he shoots to fame after going viral on the internet, and we find out about all the chaos and fun that comes with that”
Sound familiar? Grist’s rap battle with rising rap star Blizzard has rocketed to well over 3 million views- not bad for one of the scenes most unlikely stars. “It’s quite a distinct art form, separate from page poetry. With page poets, they seem distant, like they’re hiding away. Rap battling is high-stress, you get a great nervous energy.
“I enjoy the restricting elements rap battling enforces on you, creativity comes from being restricted.”
Amongst these restrictions, Grist is a big fan of making things that little bit harder for himself. He’s written poems and spat bars only using one vowel, and has also vowed not to use sexist or homophobic language in his battles.
“It’s surprisingly difficult, it’s so widespread in battling that you have to analyse everything. Everyone else asks me ‘”why are you worried?”, but on my journey as a teacher, I punished people for using the same language. I can’t then use it myself, because I don’t want to be a hypocrite.”
Since the video, things have cooled down considerably for Grist; “it’s all less intense now. I’ve got a more regular working week.” Is he still recognised? “Yeah, I find it funny, I’ll be chatting to someone and tell them I do rap battles. They’ll then tell me about this YouTube video they saw with a teacher and a student…Then they go ‘that was you, wasn’t it?’”.
Teaching clearly still has it’s hold. He runs workshops in schools with the other half of the Dead Poets duo, Mixy, showing pupils how to tap into their poetic creativity through rap.
“I’m worried about the direction education is going in. It’s looking bleak, they’re stifling these kid’s creativity”. Grist is unimpressed with Gove’s changes, commenting that the EBacc makes it easier for middle class suburban youngsters, but much harder for others.
“I do miss teaching, I might go back in a few years. It’s really amazing that I’ve got to do these things, it’s nice to mix it up a bit.”
Grist’s softer side resides in his more “standard” poetry. Away from the buzz and aggression of battles, some of his best work is starting to gain appreciation. His “feminist anthem”, Girls Who Read also shared a little of the internet fame, making the front page of Reddit.
“There’s lots of reasons a rap battle will become big, but that was just a poem being recorded on a mobile phone.” Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come. Grist’s poetry deserves real recognition- this isn’t just your average “down-with-the-kids” teacher.
Grist seems to agree: “I’ll do rap battling for another year, but I’d like to produce another piece of work to be remembered by. I won’t always be ‘that guy from the YouTube video’”. Though to be fair, the battle isn’t a bad piece of work to be remembered by.
Originally published: TheYorker March 17th 2013. Read my orignial blog post on the viral video here: Rapping Lyrical