Playwright, published author, spoken-word performer, and rapper, few have such an impressive range of artistry to present as the British multi-talent Kae Tempest. Their first two albums were nominated for the Mercury Prize and their emotive performance of the socio-critical poem Brand New Ancient stirred the minds and hearts of the audience. The fierce stage persona spitting out harshly honest rhymes could raise goosebumps on the one or other listeners skin. Still, it is the words that truly move. With lyrical power, delicate observational skill and raw emotion, the words pour out of the artist’s mouth and take on a life of their own – just as Kae Tempest intended them to. But as an artist who is an incredibly talented and passionate performer, the singer would rather hide behind the words, than to be one the spot theirself. Nevertheless, they opened up about the forthcoming record The Book Of Traps And Lessons, the power of poetry, and hopes for the future.
Combining the old and the new
Rap might be an abbreviation for ‘rhythm and poetry’ but the genre is oftentimes confronted with a certain bias. Kae Tempest, who started out rapping at the age of sixteen, shatters all of the clichés effortlessly. They fuse the poetic artistry of the golden age of literature’s classics with contemporary beats demanding the listener to open their mind as in what is considered poetry. On their debut and sophomore record, the songs leaned more towards the genre but with The Book of Traps and Lessons, the artist distances themselves from their roots in rap and Hip Hop. Kae Tempest comments that especially their collaborating producer Rick Rubin wanted to make this record different from the previous works. ‘His encouragements lead us to the discovery of how to make a lyrical album, where the words can play the central role and not be in service to the music.’
Instead of indulging in catchy Hip Hop beats the vocals almost stand on their own. Kae’s powerful voice, at times raging and emotional at times only a shy whisper is accompanied by mellow shimmering synth sounds or gentle piano chords. By focusing their performance on the word instead of the music, the record becomes an entirely new and unique experience for the listener.
The rapping closes the ear off to the music. Rubin’s idea was that as soon as the ear hears something, it understands it to be a certain thing. When that thing is recognized as music, as Hip Hop beats; it closes some people off to the contents. You stop listening and start imagining. This limits the ways, in which the poetry can be engaged with. This record is a much more open form. In fact what the fuck is it?
I came to..
‘I’m pleading for my loved ones to wake up and love more’ was the sentence on which Kae Tempest’s last record Let Them Eat Chaos ended. Set on the deserted city streets at 4.18am, the singer told the stories of seven unique characters in their individual struggles and experiences. By adding these people into their poetry, the artist managed to distance themselves further from their work, whereas on The Book of Traps And Lessons, the poems are not filtered through the view of another character. This makes the recent record sound more personal than the previous one but the writer states, that they merely left out the description of the person, and that ‘this one might be a continuation of one of their perspectives’.
Following the call to wake up, the forthcoming LP starts with ‘I came to under a red moon.’ The first line of the third record seamlessly blends into the story of the last one. Tightly knit together you probably won’t even realize where one song ends and the other one begins. It is all one smoothly running story connecting the dots along the way. The album functions as one monumental poem, it only makes sense when you listen to it back to back. Of course, this is also the way Kae Tempest performs their record on stage.
Letting the words do the work
‘The feeling I get on stage is hard to explain. It is a feeling of connection, a very delicate exchange and something so beautiful but dangerous because it could go wrong every minute.’ In their extremely passionate live performances, Kae Tempest likes to take a step back – to let the words to the work, to let them sink in. ‘I am probably the least interesting part of the whole thing.’ She laughs, ‘I wish the words could sit here and be interviewed’. The down-to-earth personality of the artists makes the encounter with Kae very special. Even though they like to hide behind the poetry, Kae has a lot to say. With witty lines like ‘Stroke the phone screen with your thumb like a mother’, they disguise harsh critiques in moments, everyone, encounters on a daily basis and uncovers the absurdity of them.
‘Going out onto the stage without knowing what will happen, is part of the victory of live performance. It could all go so wrong, but still doing it and overcoming the fear is the important part. You just have to let the words out and let them do the work for you’
Reading poetry as a musical language
Especially in the spoken word theatre, the person on stage carries great responsibility. No matter how great the texts are if they aren’t presented in a compelling way the poetry will not find its way to the listeners. However, this is different when it comes to reading poetry, Kae Tempest says. ‘Read it out loud’ is their crucial advice. Like this, the lyrical quality of the poem will truly come out. Whereas when you only read it for yourself, it is easy to miss out on the hidden rhymes and elegant intonations. ‘Poetry is about pace and rhythm. It is a musical language, really.’ Kae Tempest advises me. On paper the artist arranges their spacing of words in a way that slows down the mind of the reader. Whether this is on the page or on the stage, if a sentence just stops right in the middle to continue a few seconds after, the attention is caught.
A dead insect collected
Between the pages of an old book written in a language you can’t read
Now dry the inside of your elbows in
As you read these lines from the song Keep Moving Don’t Move you will probably realize the way this spacing slows down your reading. It emphasizes the sentences by simply making your brain stop to think twice. ‘I am trying to create a more original reading. Like this, your eyes and brain have to stay engaged’, the writer comments on the poem.
Getting into the headspace
Kae Tempest belongs to the group of those who can only work in the loneliness of their own company. ‘I write all the time, but I need to be alone to write.’ Everybody is familiar with the lines we doodle into our notebook when nobody is looking but rarely are they as fierce and important as the ones in theirs. But she corrects me; the doodles they write into their sketchbook are usually not the ones that Kae publishes.
‘There is a big difference in writing for you and writing for somebody else. At this point in my career, I write less for myself, and more with an end in mind. Every time I sit down with the need to accomplish my task, to meet the deadline. When I write for myself I am just trying to make sense of the things through my writing. I always ask myself whether this is ego or creative instinct that I am writing from right now. If the answer is ego, then it is not meant for anybody else.‘
Especially writing for a deadline is something that pushes the British artist to work harder on their words. It is a ‘mad thing’ Kae says, ‘but it is useful after all’.
It is clear, that Kae Tempest has a sense for lyrical arrangements and poetic sentences. Simultaneously implicit and explicit the words bear deeper meanings immediately understood by the listener. Transporting these without losing the magic and interpretational openness of poetry, the writer balances on this line very skillfully. But pretty words aren’t all. Kae is aware of the issues our society is facing nowadays and the struggle we need to engage in to overcome the toxic system.
They’re killing for money
They’re crippling countries
They’re just doing it all beneath a flag that says FREEDOM
The words on Brown Eyed Man hit hard. In expressive lines, the writer lets out their anger about the oppressive structure and false promises of the capitalist government. A sense of impending doom radiates from the entire record. Harsh messages performed with utter directness, no gimmicks, no commercialized tunes, just the truth. This is war and Kae Tempest is ready for the battle armed with razor-sharp words. Kae spits them out like a dragon would spit fire, coming straight from the heart to make others see, what they have long recognized: we need change.
All Humans Too Late
‘What can be done to stay human?’ Kae asks on All Humans Too Late. Bent by the system we live by, squeezed into boxes to fit the standard, the human race seems to be heading towards rock bottom and taking the planet earth down with us. Draining human and natural recourses and forcing the last bit of life out of the heart and the forests. Who doesn’t conform to the standard stands out – not in a good way. So ‘what is the good heart to do but go inwards?’ Kae Tempest wonders with honest and heartbreaking despair.
I want to nourish
I don’t want to feed, like some ravenous mouth
With no guts only greed
Depicting the future in such a gloomy, but sadly realistic way, is there any optimism in Kae Tempest that the future might bring some good after all?
‘Yes, I am still optimistic. People are good. Greed is bad. What needs to change is the capitalistic system, which has its roots in blood and violence and exploitation. Exploitative individualistic capitalism for me is the reason for the apocalypse. The only way to break free from this system is to realize how it has manifested itself in you and to fight these patterns.’
What’s Kae Tempest Reading?
Here are two exclusive book recommendations from somebody who knows what’s good in the world of the word.
The Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra
This one is a non-fiction book about the struggles of our modern world and their roots in globalization and capitalism, as Pankaj Mishra argues. Kae Tempest’s work reflects the problems he crystallises: rootlessness, competition, and materialism.
The Empty Space: A Book About Theatre by Peter Brook
I read this one when I was on tour. Peter Brook says a lot of beautiful things about the theatre, the stage, and the audience. For me it is especially useful, thinking about my stagecraft. I am always trying to improve my performance skills, with ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’ I want to focus onto a more active theatre.