A good friend gave me a book for my 40th birthday Everything Speaks in its own Way, by Kate Tempest. On the night after my birthday party, a little dazed and bruised, I opened the book while waiting for a friend in a pub. I read a poem called ‘Snowfall’: ‘It was the first weekend I’d let myself become entirely chemical in over three years./I felt the happy rip through me as if it were real,/ And I felt love and I felt it so truly, so thoroughly.’ I read on and was struck by her simplicity and honesty, how her writing didn’t fit into any formal idea of poetry, how some extracts were just thoughts and feeling, observations, the inner workings of her heart/mind. It felt familiar to me: a London voice, a kindred spirit, hers from South London, mine from North. My friend chose wisely. I texted him: ‘I like her voice. Thank you.’ And he said, ‘You must go and see her perform.’ So I did, last night.
She performed her award-winning ‘The Brand New Ancients’, the last performance of the Spitalfields Music festival, to the backdrop of a musical quartet. Branded ‘An epic spoken word performance of everyday Gods’ it’s a story that follows two generations within two families, through love, misunderstanding and miscommunication. A tribute to modern-day heroes, some defeated, some finding their own quiet victory. Made all the more interesting in the setting of Shoreditch Church.
My friend was right. The words would have shouted loud and clear on the page, but had more power spoken by Kate, humble in her appearance, as if she’s just walked off the streets that she speaks so eloquently about, but coming alive when she performs. It’s in her blood. Perhaps this is her power. She belongs to the streets, got her education from her peers, learnt her craft through rapping and chatting, making up rhymes, not from any fancy school or verbose book. Her words come from her heart, their rhythm and pulse working with her body: her voice rises with emotion and her legs shake, then she quietens through more tender moments, such as when her characters fall in love. She stands back and lets the music do the talking, poignant in this humble admission that words can’t express everything. It’s evident that she’s been doing this since she was a kid. That it’s like breathing, sleeping, brushing her teeth.
Why do we put pressure on ourselves to read all the right books, to write in the right style, to fit a publisher’s criteria of what they want to sell at any given time, when we have people like Kate reminding us to be real? She could teach us writers many things about owning our work, inhabiting it, being bold, being true to our creative spirit. She’s become a name by being natural, and in doing this she has challenged literature by blurring it with music and rapping.
Kate Tempest, in my opinion, is the modern-day hero she speaks about: a girl of the street who has made it big, without losing sight of who she is. Lucky, yes, to have got a name for herself for doing what so many kids try and fail to do, but she is also talented. Her storytelling is sublime, swimming through at least eight characters, all so well defined that we know exactly where we are at all the twists and turns. She stood before us for an hour and half, spoke fast, rapped at times, shouted at others, but didn’t miss a beat. Her words came as effortlessly as her breath, the music complementing every step. And what she spoke about was every-day life. Not the unusual, not the extraordinary, just the stuff of people’s lives. Love lost, mistakes made, the next generation trying to get it right. We all know that story, and yet her honesty helped us imagine our own family’s trajectory, and where we’re all heading in this modern world. At the end, the lights went down and we all stood to praise her, the God of the spoken word.