In January, rapper Kate Tempest closed her set at Melbourne’s Sugar Mountain festival with an incendiary spoken-word performance. Like the rest of her set, and her album, Everybody Down, it was kinetic, flowing and political, full of living characters and scenes. The crowd was captivated, but two men behind me talked throughout. Then a nearby young woman turned to them and said, “Look, this is actually really important. So you need to shut up.” It worked.
When I tell Tempest this she laughs and asks me to convey her thanks to her mystery fan.
It’s true, about Tempest. There’s something important in her voice that demands total attention. She jumps between forms effortlessly; she has produced a Mercury-nominated album, an award-winning poetry collection (Brand New Ancients) and an acclaimed novel (The Bricks That Built the Houses). For a 30-year-old, that’s a remarkable output.
You may have caught her on Q&A last night, closing the show with a compelling three-minute performance called Progress.
All of Tempest’s works centre on the same small group of characters in South London. Repetition is common in her work. Tempest might rap about a scenario and then write about it in her novel in a slightly different way. Each addition builds on the others to create a complex, tight-knit world. Her lyrics have a literary heft and her prose leaps off the page, singsong and alive. The truth in the body of work lies somewhere in between all the versions. It’s a living universe.
“I kind of conceived them all at the same time,” she says of her different media. “There are moments where they all fit together, but they don’t need each other. They all work separately, but they’re all holding hands.”
Tempest grew up in South London, in Brockley, which she calls “a shitty part of town”. But it’s a place she keeps coming back to. “It’s where I found myself, where I grew up, and where my friends and family are,” says Tempest. “In a big city the proximity of life all around you is inspiring. There are so many people from different backgrounds and walks of life with different dreams, and we live together.”
It’s perfectly natural that this simmering pot is the starting point for her art. It’s clear from her words that she’s steeped in it. She sees beneath London’s moneyed sheen to what she describes in her novel as “bread and booze and concrete … all the tiny moments blazing”.
“Fiction begins in a truth,” she tells me. “Truth is what sends you to the page.”
Tempest didn’t grow up on poetry. Not many kids do. She grew up on hip-hop. “I was into rhyming,” she says. “I started doing spoken word because I couldn’t find anyone in music who wanted to go at the pace I wanted to go at. I found these events where you could just go on your own without music.”
Through contact with the spoken-word scene she began to identify with poetry. “I had this feeling that it could be mine,” she says. “There’s a feeling around poetry that you’re not really allowed to love it if you haven’t studied it.”
But the novel and the album are the two forms that she’s always been in love with, long before poetry. “I just didn’t have an idea big enough to merit a novel,” she says. “I had to sharpen my tools a bit. I feel much more comfortable in my own voice now.”
How does she bounce from recording studio to computer keyboard so gracefully? Doesn’t she lose sight of that moment of audience reaction?
“Performance is about going into a room and getting a reaction from that room,” says Tempest. “But literature still has that moment of performance, and that’s the moment when the reader picks up the novel to read it. The reader’s role is as important as the singer is to the song. It’s crucial. Until a novel is read, it doesn’t exist yet. It’s half finished. In that moment, that’s when it’s completed and becomes a living thing.”
Kate Tempest is appearing all week at the Sydney Writers Festival (May 16 to 22), and then at the Byron Bay Writers Festival on May 24.