Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Dark Times

There was a glorious moment at Concorde 2 in Brighton last night when a grinning Kate Tempest had just taken to the stage. As the beats boomed across the sold-out venue, and Tempest spat out the opening lines of Marshall Law - “Everywhere is monsters/tits out, wet-mouthed, heads back/shouting and screaming just to prove they exist” – we grinned back and a palpable wave of anticipation ran through the crowd: we felt we were in for something special. And that is exactly what we got.

Like the first part of her Shakespearean namesake, South London poet and rapper Kate Tempest is certainly sharp-tongued. However, she is no foul-tempered shrew, just angry at the way we are living now; but with her skill in creating stories that reflect the struggle of life, there is undoubtedly something of the Prospero about her contained in that chosen surname.

At 29, Tempest is already a veteran of hip-hop open mic nights, a published poet with her collection Everything Speaks in Its Own Way and a performed playwright with Wasted. In 2013, she combined the latter two disciplines in Brand New Ancients, a theatrical spoken word piece that won the Ted Hughes Award. And then last year she followed this all up with Everybody Down – a statement not a command – a concept album with Tempest’s Becky and Harry at the centre of a cast of characters all trying as best they can to avoid snagging on the tapestry of life.

These are dark times, Tempest tells us between songs, we are living in a state of emergency and it feels like the end of the world; but hardly anyone is talking about it and those that are, we are not able to understand – is she referring here to a certain verbose Lothario turned revolutionary? She bemoans the fact that we no longer seem able to rely on artists to reflect the times, to contextualise events; but in that same opening song she observes: “CEOs and these modern day Scrooges/…meant to be hard times, right, a recession?/but these guys are buying more than ever.” She seems to be doing a good job, from the platform of popular music, of articulating against the neo-liberal philosophy that the world is yours - unless you are ugly, poor or sick. And in Lonely Daze, a catalogue of how hard it is to get a job, to fall in love, to stay honest, there is resonance in the refrain of “will it be this way forever?/these are stressful times.”

Despite the serious message, it is also a party. There is a band of three on percussion, samples and beats, and a soulful backing singer who perfectly counters Tempest’s rapid-fire delivery. At one point, we all sing Happy Birthday while the percussionist films the audience from the stage so he can send it to his mum. And there are some nice Darth Vader vocal treatments on Chicken for the character of David – “even David’s enthusiasm is boring” - the personification of low expectations and conformity who is told “as long as you live for other people’s opinions/you’ll never be more than afraid.”

Fear is something Tempest identifies as one of capitalism’s desires. That and turning against, and blaming, each other. One of her poems is an appropriation of the opening of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by smartphones.” She is also well aware of the roles of greed and technology in keeping people in their place. The chorus on the infectious Circles illustrates that entrapment and the lack of a way out: “I go round in circles/not graceful, not like dancers/not neatly, not like compass and pencil/more like a dog on a lead, going mental.” And the potential for that rage to turn to violence is neatly summed up in A Hammer – “When all you’ve got is a hammer/everything looks like nails.” Tempest says she does not have the answers but she is able to brilliantly elucidate the frustrations of this life; this is my job, she says.

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