Powerful. Positive. Non-conformist. Kate Tempest leads Generation Next // Cover Feature for Live Magazine
I’m sitting on the ground of a theatre somewhere out in the hills of Suffolk. Before me is Kate Tempest – the 26 year old poet/spoken word artist and writer whose words bubble with anger that inspires. Fists clenched, she stares out, gazing upon the audience from her podium. “We don’t know the names of our neighbours. But we do know the names of the rich and famous”. Her words ring around the stalls, burning their way to the core of the faces that watch, mouths gawped open. This is Kate in the midst of performing ‘Brand New Ancients’, the second of what we can hope will be a long line of plays from Tempest. But this is unfamiliar territory and Kate sits on uncomfortable ground. “I put playwrights on this pedestal, it’s just an incredibly disciplined form,” she tells me when we meet on the streets of South London a week later, “I’ve got so far to go”.
Since 14, Kate’s rubbed shoulders with culture. Bouncing from record shop to record shop as a youngun, she’d sit in complete admiration of the music around her, “I hadn’t found words yet, I wanted to be a musician”. Learning to play guitar, she’d make beats in her bedroom with friends, while trading life amongst the record store racks. But she was never made to feel comfortable, at least not in the way she looked. “I went in to get some work experience and they put me in the hardcore ragga and rnb shop, and as a 14 year old white girl, I looked out of place”. And these early experiences clearly left her asking questions, “I learnt a lot about how to deal with looking like a fish out of water”.
Growing up on the streets of Lewisham, South-East London, Kate was always inspired by a love for the graphic and urban, but as a white girl, with blonde hair, and a self-admitting lack of care for her appearance she found herself running into problems – “I wasn’t that engaged with school, I wasn’t getting on with my family, I was a bit out on a limb”. But by this point, aged 15, Kate was writing in secret, spurred on by her childhood friend Quake to find her own interest – “he just said to me one day, you need to find your own thing”. Spitting 16 bars from the safety of her bedroom, Kate would spill a childhood of reading onto page, finding hip hop as the perfect format. “Then all of a sudden all this secret writing I was doing, I could do and be safe doing it because of the bravery you get from hip hop”.
By 16, Kate was grabbing mics from the hands of MC’s at local raves, spurred on by a conviction that what she was saying needed to be heard. “I remember having this insane obsessive hunger as soon as I walked into anything where people were gathered listening to music. I couldn’t even enjoy the music. My body wouldn’t stand still. I just needed that microphone”. Kate had found her calling, and the stage was her setting – “When I put pen to paper, everything made sense in a way that didn’t when I wasn’t doing that” – but what she lacked in control, she made up for in conviction. “It was my way of communicating”. She looks back on it now as being incredibly embarrassing, but at the time, these unofficial battles gave Kate a chance to get away from the pre-conceptions.”If you go through life in a certain way being pigeon holed, not really fitting in to any category, then, getting the mic was a chance to change people’s preconceptions”.
But, now, as I speak to her on top of Hilly Fields, Lewisham, as an older and more mature character Kate realises why people were put off by her, “When I was young I had all this anger, and I still have it, but I want to shout less and be heard more. There’s something about that young anger that can make people not want to listen”.
Kate tells me that of late, she’s learnt what she wants from life. “I’m in a more positive place than i’ve been for a long time, I’m really happy, I’m in love.” Yet when I ask her about how she feels about the state of Britain, her tone is less positive. “How are we going to tell these kids to change their territorial mentality and their anger, if that’s what we’re being fed from since we can eat?”
Kate’s poems offer the perspective of a cynic, someone who can’t just sit down and let things brush over her without feeling anything. And that’s an attitude that seems to parallel with Plan B, who’s recent ‘iLLManors’ project has seen ‘close comparisons’ with Kate’s ‘Brand New Ancients’ play. Both spot the change in this generation, an inspired perspective that challenges those in power. “Every generation that comes through challenges the ideals of the previous generation. But not only are the new generation coming up and challenging those ideals, but the whole world is rising up”. But instead of complaining, openly, about the state of affairs in Britain, Kate tells me she’s learnt to channel that aggression into her work. “My complaint is much more satisfactially made if I make it an artistic journey rather than a political one”. Some may see Kate as radical, a new face set to bring the art of literature to a new generation, someone more conscious, but Kate admits that’s not her plan – “I’m not out to change the world, I just want to know more”.
An essence of revolution is potent in Kate’s work. From the racy, ‘Renegade’ to the questioning ‘End Times’ a similar bleak outlook flows. “Revolution is a cycle,” Kate tells me, “and maybe that cycle is coming again?”
Sitting and watching Brand New Ancients, it certainly seems that way. But Kate see’s it as a social change, and not one she welcomes. Poems like ‘Cannibal Kids’ talk of a violent youth, who are taught to step on the necks of those before them to get what they want, “we are the products of such a violent nation”.
But after a fellow poet, Angry Sam, told her about the links between a common conscious now, and the BEATS movement of 50 years ago, Kate tells me she’s started noticing things more. “At the moment it’s a similar vibe, whether it’s the drugs people are on, or the internet”. Revolution is in the eyes of the ‘these cannibal kids’, “and they’re not just taking what they’re told”.
The future for Kate is bright. In late August she’ll headline the Old Vic Theatre to a sold out crowd, while a new play, to follow up ‘Brand New Ancients’ is reaching it’s final stages. A new album with Sound Of Rum, and one of her own are all in the works.
Kate is sky high, living her dream, and enlightening audiences daily. But she’s not convinced she’s even started yet, “There’s something I’m trying to say, and there’s a message I want to spread, but I’m not there yet.” She tells me she’s got dreams of writing a novel, but is yet to feel strong enough to do so. “I want to leave a legacy, maybe I never will.. Maybe I’ll only get that moment when I die, I don’t know,” but until that point, we can be inspired by the words of Kate. She may never find out what she really wants to say, but the effect she’s had so far has left many a heart charmed. After all, she’s come a long way from the day’s of nicking mic’s of MC’s. “I’m on a really long journey that I hope is a life long journey. It’s been happening all my life, and it will be my life. It’s never going to be it, I’m never going to be satisfied. I can be better, the work can be better. I want to do writing justice”.