The poet and rapper Kate Tempest is only in her 20s but well on her way to redefining poetry for a new generation of cross-genre performers, listeners and readers. Tempest burst into the mainstream as the youngest-ever winner of the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry (2012), for her ambitious Brand New Ancients – an hour-long performance piece with orchestral backing – which casts ordinary people as Homeric gods. In 2013, Brand New Ancients appeared as a book with Picador. At the time of writing, Tempest has been nominated for a Mercury Music Award for her solo debut, Everybody Down; her second book with Picador, Hold Your Own, has just been published; and she was selected as one of 20 up-and-coming ‘Next Generation’ poets by the Poetry Book Society.
Kate Tempest started out as a teenager in Brockley, a district of south London, "rapping at strangers on night buses and pestering MCs to let her on the mic at raves". A dozen years later, she is a prizewinning poet, playwright, performer and Mercury-nominated recording artist, and a 'face'of contemporary poetry.
Tempest's performance style is passionate and articulate; she recites in her south London accent with the speed and fury of, well, the Furies. And she has the authority of complete conviction; as she told Sam Parker for the Huffington Post, "I want to talk to the people who don't want to listen."
She was already established on the performance scene when she sprang into public view with her Ted Hughes Award win for Brand New Ancients – a dazzlingly ambitious piece that renders ordinary, failing humans, like the ones Tempest grew up among, into the gods of ancient myth. The sad, tawdry stories of Clive and Tommy and their messes of parents, Brian, Mary, Clive, and Jane, are familiar enough from any housing estate:
The gods are in the betting shops
the gods are in the caff
the gods are smoking fags out the back
the gods are in the office blocks
the gods are at their desks
the gods are sick of always giving more and getting less
the gods are at the rave –
two pills deep into dancing –
the gods are in the alleyway laughing
the gods are at the doctor's
they need a little something for the stress
the gods are in the toilets having unprotected sex
the gods are in the supermarket
the gods are walking home,
the gods can't stop checking Facebook on their phones . . .
Tempest has described in interviews her inability to talk to her local friends about things like poetry, but her ear for the people around her has given her a keen sense of ordinary life's fragility. From rapping on night buses she progressed to poetry slams and pursued a full-fledged rapping career, which she considers her main focus.
The musician Billy Bragg was recently interviewed about Tempest, having invited her to tour with him:
As Bragg notes, Tempest's sensibility is poetic even when she's doing hip-hop. When her first album came out in 2011, with her band Sound of Rum, one blog described it as such:
'Icarus' (recorded in 2010 and viewable on YouTube) tells the familiar Greek myth but naturally, as one young person speaking colloquially about another young person. It's real, immediate and personal story-telling, without any of the so-called 'elitism' usually attached to writing on the classics. This could be the story of a boy from Brockley:
but the happiness he felt is one he never would have found.
Gifts are dangerous when they are given and not earned,
and the lesson merely heard, well that's never a lesson learned.
But by the time his father turned, the wax had completely burned,
feathers scattered on the waves, and they just rolled on unconcerned.
But for that small moment before he fell into the sea,
Icarus the headstrong had been completely free!
By her own admission, Tempest never got into poetry at school, although she now evinces as much conviction about the poetry of Milton as she does about the lyrics of Ghostface Killah or Roots Manuva. In an interview for the Independent, she states, "At school it's the worst thing if the teacher comes in and tries to do some kind of 'rap Shakespeare"'; but, she adds, "even if it's been in a book for 400 years it should still be spoken". As for her own awakening, on that night bus, she comments, "I never really found a poet who made sense for me until I found hip-hop. Then I realised how exciting language is, and I fell in love with poetry and rhyme . . . I'm just reading Ted Hughes now. He's fucking incredible."
In September she was nominated for the Mercury Music Award for her 2014 debut solo album Everybody Down from Big Dada. As the record label's website describes it, "Rather than the bragging and boasting of many raps, in a story rhyme the MC presents a narrative – a street update of Ovid or Homer if you want to get hifalutin about it." And the stories of the album's characters also form the basis of Tempest's forthcoming novel from Bloomsbury (2015).
In addition to Brand New Ancients, Tempest has written other work for theatre, including the plays Hopelessly Devoted and Wasted for Paines Plough, and Glasshouse, a forum theatre play for the homeless theatre company Cardboard Citizens. She has written poetry for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Barnado's, Channel 4 and the BBC, and she has worked with Amnesty International to help secondary school children write their own protest songs.
With the whirlwind of activity and recognition gathering around her, she can be regarded as the spearhead of a resurgence of performance poetry, which includes a growing acceptance of it into the mainstream, as well as of a new way in which poetry is becoming live currency. With her novel coming out next year, and Hold Your Own just released , there's no sign of her dropping from sight anytime soon.
Icarus "thought he was invincible; he weren't. In principle he burned. He smouldered in those myths so that we, who never flew before, could learn from what he did . . ." Unlike Icarus, Tempest has earned her wings.
Hold Your Own, Picador, London, 2014
Brand New Ancients, Picador, London, 2013
Profile on the Next Generation 2014 website
Tempest's Mercury-nominated album Everybody Down on the Big Dada website
Author page at Picador
Interview on the Huffington Post
Profile on the Ted Hughes Award website
Guardian profile after winning the Ted Hughes Award
Guardian profile after Mercury nomination and inclusion in the Next Generation 2014 list
Biographical profile in The Guardian
Review of Tempest's band Sound of Rum on Their Bated Breath
Video of Tempest peforming 'Icarus'
Film of Brand New Ancients created by Joe Roberts for the Battersea Arts Centre