By: Shaina Joy Machlus
Originally published in Shookdown Underzine Issue 7, in Spanish (written and translated by Shaina Joy Machlus)
“Can you talk about being a white rapper, in terms of cultural misappropriation?” Kate Tempest’s voice immediately shifted from attentive dissonance to sharp surprise. A challenge accepted. A moment of hesitation. And then the poetry begins.
If Kate Tempest were interviewing herself, what questions would she ask? How would she sharpen her aggressive authenticity into pointed, meaningful inquiries? Anyone who’s listened to Kate’s raps can feel that her music demands answers, because she is smart enough to question everything, even herself.
Let Them Eat Chaos, her most recent album, is saturated with a deep exploration of isolation. Ironically, it’s impossible not to feel solidarity in the striking gloom of her lyrics and deep bass lines. The industrial musical tone matched with the poetics of Tempest evoke the chaos of current societal circumstances on a micro and macro scale. Global warming, gentrification, racism, and the helplessness of swirling around in such an abyss.
More so, Kate provokes others into a realm of similar questioning. When it came to interviewing such a figure, it was imperative not to hesitate in asking the most difficult of questions. We look to our artistic leaders for guidance and wisdom. Their knowledge expands much further than the accordion-folded insert of their latest CD. Gratefully, Kate matches questions of music, politics, the state of the world, and the general heart of humanity with long, complete monologues. At one point, when trying to encourage her to give a shorter, general statement, she gives a low laugh and responds with an even longer answer.
With ‘being misunderstood’ acting as the worst crime anyone could commit against Kate, her entire life is committed to mastering the ability to express her ideas completely. It’s refreshing to talk with such a serious human and artist. All too often people, especially women, are expected to talk happily, lightly about their life’s work.
Kate’s voice is rough, what might be assumed as unenthusiastic. But why shouldn’t it be? An incredibly successful poet, playwright, writer, and lyricist, her expectations for words and communication are steep.
It is no coincidence Let Them Eat Chaos is themed around human connection. Even in interviews, Kate pulls you quickly and profoundly inside her artistic space. The transcript reads half therapy session, half deeply personal conversation.
Let us not waste another moment.
TT: How are you?
KT: Yea, not bad, I’m alright.
TT: Congratulations on your album, it’s very powerful.
KT: Thank you.
TT: Can you briefly explain what inspired this album?
KT: I mean a lot of things really… everything that went into my life over the last couple of years probably in some way inspired this album.
It’s a story about 7 people who are all awake at the same time, 4:18 am in the morning, all feeling pretty isolated, vulnerable, alone, until a big storm breaks outside and reminds them that they’re all part of something much bigger than themselves. At which point there’s a moment of redemption. That metaphor can be extended out endlessly and stand for lots of things but can also just stand for itself and the power of remembering that amongst all this manmade stuff, we’re human beings that need to have contact with nature.
TT: There’s a heaviness and a darkness to the album, is it coming from this idea of isolation?
KT: Yea, isolation, disconnection from yourself and disconnection from others. There’s a lot in the album about being atomized, being entirely separated from yourself.
TT: Has your music helped you become more or less isolated from the world? You talk a lot about being in your home and writing music, being in your own world.
KT: I find that writing lyrics brings you closer into life rather than isolating you from it… I’m on the move quite a lot. I’m often touring so I’m writing in the back of the tour bus or on a park bench or in a cafe. It brings me much closer to other people because I’m in this constant process of trying to understand or explain life as I see it.
TT: Can you talk more about how your music connects you to other people? And also other people to each other?
KT: My music connects music to other people in it’s performance; when we are on stage in front of an audience, we’re connecting with ourselves firstly and going into a very intense and beautiful space, which is where creativity comes from… Very heavy and light all at the same time.
Simultaneously in that moment we’re connected with every single person in the room. The day that we’ve all had as well as everybody’s else’s day that has lead them into this room at this moment in the evening. It’s a beautiful thing that music does. It solidifies unity and a sense of togetherness in a way that we don’t really have access to in our lives. Maybe in the past, previous eras of humanity we would have found those feelings in religion or in ritualistic ceremonies, but we’re still human beings, we need that. We haven’t changed, the world has changed. We have changed the world. We still need to stand with a group of people in the dark with bass, drums and storytelling. And connect with ourselves and our humanity. That’s what music does for me.
TT: In your poetry and playwriting, does this generate the same breadth of emotion? Or is it something different?
KT: Every performance is different. Every story requires a different approach or set of disciplines. When I’m performing poetry I am probably even deeper into that space because I’m not communicating with any musicians. I am just going in, in, in and up, where the poetry lives. Just above my brain, it lives in the space above my head. So when I’m telling my poems it can be more intense but less enjoyable than playing music.
Playing is a perfect combination of all of the different disciplines that I’ve worked across, a way of combining the power and ritual of music with the openness and the discipline of telling a poem or story in a theatrical narrative technique.
TT: Can you tell us more about your creative musical process?
KT: I work with a producer named Dan Kerry. I worked with him on this album and the last one. We are very close to each other creatively and our minds respond to each other very well. The idea is to be bigger, stranger, darker, weirder, more complete… So he wouldn’t write those beats if I weren’t in the room and I wouldn’t write these lyrics if he weren’t in the room.
TT: How separate is your creative life from your everyday life? Do you go into a totally different space for performing?
KT: In my band and the people I work with, they’re my friends. It’s people I’ve known a long time. We’ve been doing this together since before anyone was listening to us and we will be doing it when everyone stops listening to us.
When I’m around my friends and family, I don’t like to talk about my work.
TT: Any specific reason why?
KT: Because you have to work so hard in this job. You have to be thinking so intensely for so much of your day about your creative output– you’re either writing, recording, or touring. So when I am chilling with friends or chilling with the band after a gig, I’m just chilling and not thinking about the more intense side of what we do. Especially because when I’m performing it’s so intense; the place I have to go to is very deep. It can take a hell of a lot out of me, so I have to protect myself.
TT: Earlier you used the word rap to describe your music. So you would categorize your music as rap?
KT: Yes, I suppose so. This whole thing started with me rapping when I was 15. I dreamed of being a hip-hop artist. I was making records with rappers from where I lived. It just so happens that I’ve also got a career in poetry, playwriting and fiction. I call myself a musician but I would say it’s rap music, I am a rapper.
TT: I wanted to get your opinion on appropriation when it comes to white people and rapping?
KT: Um… what do you mean?
TT: The tradition of rapping and hip hop is from black culture. And I wanted to get your thoughts on the appropriation of this culture and white people who are also using this culture to express themselves.
KT: Where I grew up, in South London, hip hop culture, black british culture and the black musical culture was such a hugely important part of my life, development of my mind and pursuit of knowledge. It taught me so much about improvement, skills, wisdom and the importance of knowing oneself.
When I began to rap, just speaking for me personally, I felt a part of the culture. It wasn’t like I was trying to adopt or appropriate something. I think in London, especially at that time, if you were in “it”, it was for you. Although it was definitely a majority black, male art form, I just fell in love with lyricism.
Hip hop culture has been very important for many people all over the world. It’s a dominant cultural force. People could say it began in the Bronx (New York) in the late 60’s or people might say it began in Africa with the Griots, or people might say it began with the Grecian, Homeric Bards. The idea of walking around with stories in your head. You use your language as a device to further yourself, further your experience and your community.
I have nothing but humility, love, and respect for hip hop and hip hop culture.
TT: And how are you using your lyrics to honor hip-hop and better your community?
KT: One thing that hip hop taught me when I was younger was the importance of authenticity. “Keep it real” is a very important phrase in America. The way for me to ‘keep it real’ and be authentic is to speak for and to the community that I am a part of in South London. I think this is the role of the artist. Not to stand on some elevated stage and speak about themselves, and be applauded for it, but to use the sensitivity of an artist disposition to channel and reflect back the concerns of their community. I don’t begin an idea with asking my work to do anything other than that; I try and facilitate the idea when it comes. Since I care passionately about people, I care so much about people, of course my work is reaching out. It wants you. The idea at the root is connectivity.
TT: What are your main concerns in the community right now?
KT: Talking about the record again, there is a deep sense in all of the characters of isolation, a kind of numbness that is prevailing in all of their lives. Even the character who is pretty successful feels unable to know if he is really living. There is this sense of disconnection, vulnerability and a sense that these characters are masquerading through their lives; they have lost touch with their humanity as well as the humanity of their neighbors.
This idea of disconnection, getting potentially closer and closer yet still so far away from each other, is where the power of music and literature comes in to bring us together again. They teach us empathy.
TT: So, we combat isolation through art?
KT: It’s a difficult thing to sum up in one sentence.
Directly and immediately the real concern people are facing in London is housing. There has been a huge reduction in social housing, nobody can breath for a minute for fears about their rent. Lots of mothers with young children are being moved away from other members of their family that can support them. Being moved outside of the city. It’s fucking disgraceful.
I don’t think me making an album can do anything about this to be honest. But what I can do is sing about those things in a way that could galvanize people to remember that they’re not alone.
TT: How do you see this message and your music continuing in the future?
KT: Improve, get better. I just want to try and write something better tomorrow than I wrote yesterday.
TT: Who are your mentors in this journey of self-improvement?
KT: I read voraciously. I listen to music voraciously. Right now I’m sitting at a table and there’s 9 books in front of me. There’s a rapper called Trim, that put out a record called 1-800 Dinosaur, that’s an incredible record, I recommend that. And Leonard Cohen.
My mentors are people around me, people I’ve known all my life. There’s a theatre director called Ian Rickson, who’s been a great mentor to me. I’m reading John Pilger, he wrote a collection of essays called “Hidden Agendas”.
I feel really lucky to have a very good community of people around me who inspire me. Mainly friends but also artists.
TT: Any other comments about social issues happening in the larger community? Like Brexit or the refugee crisis?
KT: Well, I think that we are living in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. Huge. What’s happening to the migrants, the refugees, it’s fucking atrocious.
I don’t have anything to add really, I’m living in it the same as you are. I feel like everyone just feels like they’re standing at the sidelines of some monstrous happening, not knowing how to stop it…and this powerlessness is a dangerous feeling because it can lead people to division, to fear, to hatred.
I think it’s very important to remember to engage actively with your empathy on a day-to-day basis. And remember that every single human being that you pass is exactly that, a human being.
TT: It seems being a human being means so many different things to different people right now, how can we all live together in equal justice?
KT: I gave a speech to open the Sydney Rights Festival a few months ago and in that speech I talked without script, just from my heart, about some of the things I’ve been seeing on some of my travels around America and Australia and around the tour that I’ve just been on… I think it’s very important to allow yourself, as distressing as it is, to realize the truth of what’s happening. There is a barbarity at root here, in our time, in our culture. So I think that the longer we can persist in denying that in ourselves, then the worse it gets. So I suppose I’m just pleading for people to remember their humanity… This is all I can offer really.
TT: Can this pleading be heard in your music?
KT: I hope so.