Hailing from Lewisham, spoken-word poet and rapper Kate Tempest is a bit of a local hero. I’ve seen her perform twice at Glastonbury. Both times she’s expressed this feverish, visceral love of what she does, as well as an almost naive disbelief at the huge crowds her work now draws in.
But she’s from my neck of the woods, raised in Brockley – coincidentally also the stomping ground of MC Novelist. Like me, she’s a south-east London girl. I’ve occasionally passed her walking the streets of New Cross. She even graduated from New Cross’ own Goldsmiths College, a hallowed rite of passage for south-London creatives, (alumni include artists such as Steve McQueen and Damien Hirst.)
After writing and performing relentlessly since the mid-noughties, she has grafted hard, gradually becoming more and more respected. Her first album, Everybody Down, was nominated for the 2014 Mercury Prize. In the same year she was selected as one of the Poetry Book Society’s 20 Poets of the Generation. The debut novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses, came out in April this year. This autumn she is back with new recordings. ‘Don’t Fall In’ and ‘Picture a Vacuum’ anticipated her second album, the aptly titled Let Them Eat Chaos, released on Fiction Records last Friday. You get the picture: she’s relentless in her output.
Maturing against a backdrop of recession, war, and cynicism with a New Labour government, Tempest has written and performed her poetry virtually non-stop since she was sixteen. She gradual-ly rose to prominence in a South London squeezed by austerity, gentrification, and increasingly lim-ited prospects.
But, more than that, she’s also proved herself to be a sharply self-aware writer, mindful of a poet’s responsibilities to not only draw attention to London’s injustices, but also to urge listeners to con-front the uncomfortable, to no longer look away from what troubles us. Maybe it’s not surprising that she was an active political protestor before throwing herself into her art. Disillusioned with be-ing unable to force change, she turned to the arts as a means of educating and energising others.
Tempest’s music – full of unpolished, righteous anger – strongly reflects the political climate she’s inherited.
Or at least, that’s what is at play in ‘Europe Is Lost’, a rap released at the end of last year and in-cluded on this month’s Let Them Eat Chaos. It is an impassioned cry against the numbing daily ex-istence of a society handed to us by corporations and governments.
Tempest shows us a mirror of a sanitised London, a city embracing a consumerism handed to us as a distraction from the atrocities committed to maintain this relentless stride of commercialism. Her lyrics, the “System’s too slick to stop working/ Business is good/ Bands every night in the pubs/ There’s two for one drinks in the clubs” set the tone for her disillusionment. It is a tone of the banal-ities with which we fill our modern lives, of our empty attempts to find temporary meaning. As does “These are the rights we were born to/ Working and working so we can be all that we want/ Then dancing the drudgery off/ But even the drugs have got boring”.
It’s a theme that’s long been present in her work. In ‘The Beigeness’, which featured on Everybody Down, she sings, “We used to walk tall but who cares when you’re having a ball?”
It sounds all the more ironic when you’re listening to it down in the pit of a gig, ignoring everything else in your life for the sake of having one good night. Yet this is one of her most skilful touches as a poet: she’s adept at turning her accusations abstractly levelled at society or the government to-wards you as an individual. Soon you begin to question your own moral responsibility, living in a London characterised by apathy.
‘Europe Is Lost’ is long and relentless. The repetitive guitar strings and cymbals in the background serve as a backdrop so Tempest can unleash her voice in all its raw sincerity, the real highlight of this offering. Conversely, the cymbals’ constant clanging echoes the daily drudgery, that persistent plodding leading us to oblivion which Tempest is so full of contempt for. As she says, this is “the land where nobody gives a fuck”, and now, we’re paying the price for it.
England is “the land where nobody gives a fuck”, and now, we’re paying the price for it.
You get the sense that Tempest would have us unleash chaos on the world as a response, and hon-estly, she makes a compelling case. Chaos is chaos, but it’s better than numb acceptance. Surely it’s better to fight for something than to blindly ignore it. But she sums her work up best in the finale of Europe Is Lost: “All I want to say about these lyrics are in the lyrics themselves.”
Kate Tempest doesn’t court celebrity or relish in giving interviews or insert herself in a particular movement. Instead, she allows her work to speak for itself, and places the onus on us, her listeners. She’s shown us her view of us, of the world, and now – we need to decide what to do with it.