Sometimes it can be difficult to reconcile a love of hip-hop with feminist ideals, or a taste for dark, bass-filled rooms and an interest in intricate, classically influenced poetry. Kate Tempest makes both extremely easy.
This is probably because Tempest’s life, on the page, seems a mass of what would conventionally be seen as contradictions. Growing up in South East London, Tempest describes her youth as “wayward”. Aside from open mic nights in Carnaby Street, her first audience for her hip-hop was police, as she would “hang around on picket lines rapping at riot cops”. So her subsequent graduation from Goldsmiths, tour support for John Cooper Clarke and Benjamin Zephaniah, work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and winning of the Ted Hughes poetry prize, all before turning 30, might have surprised her secondary school teachers and peers.
It is in no way surprising when either listening to her tracks, or reading her poetry. It is not an exaggeration to say that Tempest is one of the brightest talents around at the moment – both in the sense of blazing more brilliantly than most, and in the sense of being incredibly intelligent. Her lyrics seamlessly blend piercing social critique with aching personal tenderness. She spits with the passion, strength and craft of a skilled rapper, thrusting stories of drug addiction, capitalism and personal disenfranchisement under the stage spotlights, but also clutches the microphone as if in pain when relating raw, haunting words of yearning love.
The pain is real; Tempest really opens herself up in a truly vulnerable way when performing. She asks for acceptance before her final performed track, as it comes from her “most tender place”. She swigs beer before beginning to speak, signals to her band to repeat the intro and, as the track ends, looks close to tears as her band members embrace her. Watching her is unbelievably intimate, in a way that holds no awkwardness. By turns it is like watching an impressive artist or activist, and being talked to by a friend. Between tracks she manages to grapple with her visceral political anger, while remaining funny and warm. She draws the human tenderness out of her audience, calling for “more empathy, less greed” in a way totally divorced from triteness, in a way that feels powerful and necessary.
With all her obvious, overwhelming talent, it is almost unnecessary to even mention her gender, her youth, and her refusal to conform to reductive media-built images of performers: her words more than speak for themselves. Yet it is undeniably true that, as she herself says while on stage, for any aspiring female writers, the presence of a young woman who has broken through all barriers to do what she loves, and do it exceptionally well, is intensely inspiring. She makes you want to be smarter, write better and make the world a better place. As two women said on leaving the gig: “Let’s change the world right, on Tuesday afternoon?”