by Sam Rees
“I hope the words resonate…let this tonight be a story about love”, Kate Tempest tells her audience as she takes to the Roundhouse stage.
In Korean-American novelist Chang-Rae Lee’s 2004 work Aloft, the protagonist articulates the alienation inherent to technologically-based methods of communing:
“…in this new millennial life of instant and ubiquitous connection, you don’t in fact communicate so much as leave messages for one another, these odd improvisational performances, often sorry bits and samplings of ourselves that can’t help but seem out of context. And then when you do finally reach someone, everyone’s so out of practice or too hopeful or else embittered that you wonder if it would be better not to attempt contact at all.”
The fragmentation, the effort to offer this fragmentation across the table, the receiving of the fragmentation, with its inadequate reaction. It all feels pretty of the zeitgeist, no? The tragedy of assembling something one feels represents them well, only for it to be misunderstood, or rejected, or both. And, in this rejection, to have that very method of transportation questioned, mocked, condemned. Why bother at all?
“Let this tonight be a story about love”
Kate Tempest is perhaps one of her generation’s most celebrated and formidable artists, with a hybrid style that splits the difference between ‘conscious’ hip-hop and performance poetry. It is a style which has found its way into recorded albums, plays and hard-to-classify endeavours. The weighty but never leaden lines of verse that tumble from her mouth, rich in assonance, metaphor, and sparkling wit, wrapped around complex rhythms that, by turns, explode like a backfiring car and float like cigarette smoke, will delight as well as intimidate; “wordplay” does not satisfy as an apt description, this is wordpower.
On International Women’s Day 2020, the 6 Music Festival commissioned a line-up of all female artists at Camden’s Roundhouse, which this writer attended. It is a day riddled with contradictions: the racial hegemony of the acts, the guilty feeling of tokenism. How do we navigate through this? It is certainly worth the ticket price; Anne Meredith filling the room with joyous polyrhythms, Jenny Beth’s snarling post-punk, and the soupy shoegaze of Kim Gordon are all transcendental live experiences.
Do we leave it there? Is it simply a delightful day, and a strong testament to the power of female talent in the music world, so oft-overlooked? We can call it progressive, for sure. But is it radical?
“I hope the words resonate…”
The “samplings of ourselves” that Lee writes of are undeniably a haunting prospect, and how one resolves this, while retaining a stability of identity, is perhaps an impossible quandary. Who are we in relation to other people? How much of ourselves can they possibly know? And, perhaps most saliently, how does art mediate this relationship?
“Let this tonight be a story about love”
In Theatre & Globalization, Dan Rebellato describes theatre company Complicite’s 1999 piece Mnemonic in the following terms:
“At the beginning of the show… [a performer] addresses us directly, asking us to find under our seats a bag containing a blindfold and a leaf. He instructs us to put on the blindfold and feel the leaf, with its branching structure of veins, as a kind of family tree…with the implication that everyone in the theatre is part of a single family.”
Connection defines us in the immediate and visceral, and in the abstracted story of wider humankind. From the tactile exploration of a leaf, intensified of course by sensory deprivation, we come to understand the remedy to the “odd…performances” and “sorry bits” which can come to constitute our dialogues with others; namely, a faith in the inherent interconnectedness of our personal and global experiences.
What are the building blocks of this unity? The hot-poker of generational rage is a strong place to start. Tempest launches into opener ‘Europe Is Lost’ which tears into the “hideous” “smile” of “big business” and the “ghettoised children [and] half a generation…beneath the breadline”. Each new injustice spat out by Tempest provokes another cheer of acknowledgement from the young crowd. Something special is happening here: a form of togetherness achieved through recognition of the systematic means of division.
It does not stop. We move to unity through self-laceration on ‘Ketamine for Breakfast’, with Tempest prowling the stage with glee as she purrs through the Mike Skinner-like garage bounce of its infamous chorus: “tried to fight it but I’m sure/if you’re bad to me, I will like you more”. Then onwards, to unhealthily dependent relationships and how delicious they can be on “I Trap You”, to the glorious derangement of being stuck in a rut on ‘Circles’. Each moment of dark subversion, of anti-romance, of urban saturation, pushes the crowd into a greater fever at the relatability of the experiences being conveyed; genuine advocacy is occurring, where concerns which are hard to categorise and articulate (and are therefore often dismissed as vague and unrealistic by those with a monopoly on power) are being actualised and exposed to a community of people desperate to make sense of their own problems, and to know, for their survival, that these problems are not unique. As Tempest observes on ‘Bad Place For A Good Time’: “all over this city people are hungry for things that they don’t know the names of”.
A word on liveness. In his 1749 Lettre sur les aveugles, Denis Diderot writes a fictitious account of a debate between blind mathematician Nicholas Saunderson and a priest, in which Saunderson exclaims: “if you want me to believe in God, you must make me touch him”. This is, to all intents and purposes, a corresponding thesis to the one asserted at the start of Mnemonic (and incidentally also uses the functional limitation of blindness to make its point). This thesis could perhaps be understood as:
The tactile offers us communicable possibilities which surpass the intellectual parameters of any given discourse.
One could perhaps go even further and offer the addendum that these possibilities are radical, or even liberating, because they move into spaces we cannot articulate. Thus, there is an obligation on us to ascertain what is truly numinous and ineffable, and what concepts would be within our grasp, if only we had the socio-political tools to dissect them. On ‘Hot Night Cold Spaceship’, Tempest wonders if God is in fact just out of reach and “whispering of something… [she is] not hearing”.
We see here the apparatus which can empower us to move past Lee’s depiction of a fractured and scattered communicative landscape; namely that trying to force feelings and sensations which are so all-encompassing and multi-faceted through the singular prism of language diminishes them to the point where the act of communication loses its utility. We had better simply feel the leaf, touch God.
In the midst of a health crisis, which is also swiftly mutating into a crisis of capitalism, how is Tempest’s performance reframed? Recalibrated? Reclaimed? How, in short, can we believe in anything if we are not allowed to touch each other, let alone God? And how, in the face of isolation, can we hope to be anything more than “sorry bits and samplings of ourselves”?
“Let this tonight be a story about love”.
So, to Tempest’s closing song, ‘People’s Faces’. An unobtrusive piano melody drifts around the space, very much the heartbeat and bloodline to this final testament. The world conjured up across these six minutes can only be understood as the dialectic response to all that has come before it: the rage and defiance, the virtuosic bars, as fast and wounding as a machine-gun, the cheekiness, the threat, the iconoclasm and anarchism. All of this has eaten itself.
What is left? Tenderness. Compassion.
The unacknowledged pain is unsolvable. This is resolutely true, whether we encounter it in personal or social contexts. Yet there currently sits at the heart of dominant cultural practice a deranged horror at the idea of being in this pain, and that, in the dying embers of late-capitalism, there is a cure for everything. Every therapist has their price, after all. In his excellent 1999 essay ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song’, musician Nick Cave offers us a colourful assessment of the issue: “sorrow is sent to the back of the class, where it sits pissing its pants in mortal terror. Sadness…needs space to breathe”.
Tempest gives this space up to pain. It breathes heavily and freely across the Roundhouse auditorium. It is no contagion-if anything it is cleansing. The shiver of catharsis that ripples through the room is authentic, overwhelming. Tempest tells us:
“There is too much pretence here/and too much depends on the fragile wages/and extortionate rents here/we’re working every dread day that is given us/feeling like the person people meet/really isn’t us.”
Shoulders lower, backs unstiffen, frowns relax. The delicate empathy with which Tempest lays out in purest terms the material and spiritual malaise of contemporary western existence unlocks a release of tension so entirely palpable in the room. Maybe it is best described as the gratitude of being seen authentically, or perhaps the comfort of togetherness. Each unique experience and specific sensibility melts in the heat of commonality, or, if one may, of solidarity. We, as a room of individuals, coagulate into something endlessly complex and contradictory, but undeniably unified.
Suddenly, the question is answered:
Our individual experience is, in fact, nothing of the sort. It is the common reflection of the material universe as it currently operates.
Or, as Tempest exclaims:
“Even when I’m weak and I’m breaking/I’ll stand weeping at the train station/’cause I can see your faces/there is so much peace to be found in people’s faces.”
French-Cuban American essayist Anaïs Nin suggests in her 1976 collection In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays that “we do not escape into philosophy, psychology, and art-we go there to restore our shattered selves into whole ones”. The implication here is, perhaps, that the “shattered” identity is the normative one. It is the one we exist with through our functional lives, or even because of our functional lives; it is the necessity of that mode of being. But it is not a satisfactory, desirable or possible condition of being permanently. Maybe it is not entirely true that the restoration does not also offer escape, however. What does one mean by this word, when its relationship to art has always been knotty? Do we mean to forget? If so, then Nin’s claim corroborates with the experience Tempest offers, which has as much to do with remembering as anything else. But there are more complex forms of escape, forms which may prove useful to us all in the coming months. By being brought emotionally and intellectually to a place of true recognition with respect to our social conditions, through the eloquence and revelation of Tempest’s work, we are taken through a vital stage in the process of change. Tempest tells us in the closing minutes of her set “there are no new beginnings/until everybody sees that the old ways need to end”. In fact, to frame this in the bluntest terms, we are forced to stop ignoring our own oppression. We are helped, in a sense, to escape ourselves.
This offers tantalising possibilities. Lee’s “sorry bits” and “samplings” are, it can be argued, “us” in our entirety, not ‘us’ only in our attempt to communicate. Perhaps we can never be whole, perhaps there is no such thing as an individual whole. Perhaps to touch God, we must engage with the leaf, that is to say, to engage with the inevitability of the collective journey we have always been on, and always will be.
If we are to be “sorry bits”, then let us be bits looking after one another, at least, and for any reader consumed with a dread at the current situation, feeling the seductive pull of parochial thinking, or noticing their fear turning into misanthropy, please…
Let this tonight be a story about love.