Erupting Through the Cynical Crust of Complacency
It has been awhile since poetry on the airwaves left my wife Julia and I breathless. Listening to the spoken word artist, Kate Tempest, recite her poem, People’s Faces on the New Yorker Radio Hour, was what James Joyce would have called an aesthetic arrest. I began downloading her new album, ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons,’ produced by the infamous Rick Rubin, before the interview was over. Reading that she had one engagement in New York, we didn’t hesitate but bought our tickets and headed to Brooklyn to see her.
Kate Tempest on the New Yorker Radio Hour: Against Numbness
Entering Elsewhere Hall, we realized that the opening act would push Kate’s set back to 10pm. Even though we had to get up early, we were committed. So, we sat on the floor and made new friends; a beautiful couple, a massage therapist and an actor/ playwright from Venezuela. We talked about the balance needed to keep art organic and the playwright’s latest work, Craddle Song, which addresses oppression, choice, gender, being human, and being tender; hard issues handled with humor weaved in to bring the audience closer- to the playwright, to each other.
Here we were, unplugged from our phones, making friends with strangers; off to the right start.
At 10, the lights went down. Kate and her accompanist, a veritable symbiotic electronic landscaper, hit the stage and we were instantly immersed. The show was billed as Kate Tempest and Deep Sea Diver. The soundscape encapsulated us and the stream of Kate’s words did indeed immerse us to the bottom of our complex cultural ocean. Articulating the intense urban realities of our humanity, Kate did not pull any punches. Yet, we were not left in the darkness. Her reflections not only kept us from drowning but pointed the way to shore.
“Justice, justice, recompense, humility Trust is, trust is something we will never see Till love is unconditional The myth of the individual has left us disconnected, lost, and pitiful I’m out in the rain It’s a cold night in London And I’m screaming at my loved ones to wake up and love more I’m pleading with my loved ones to wake up and love more.” -Kate Tempest, ‘Tunnel Vision’ from ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’.
Immaculate. The experience went beyond the convention of going to see a performer on a stage. Even the music transcended genre. While it swirled with electronica, spoken word, hip-hop and trance, the sweetness of honesty curled into the mix and fell like petals at Kate’s feet. A space was cleared, to cheer us on, back into life.
“We die so that others can be born. We age, so that others can be young. The point of life is to live love if you can And pass it on. Live love if you can and pass it on.” –Kate Tempest, ‘We Die’ from ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’
Born in Britain in 1985, Kate left school at 16 to start performing. She has received a constellation of accolades as a poet, author, playwright and recording artist. This includes the Ted Hughes Award for her poem, Brand New Ancients and being dubbed a Next Generation Poet by The Poetry Book Society; an honor which only comes around once in a decade.
Now, at 33, looking much younger, sounding much older-with a voice that defies identity, Kate is centered, organic, unadorned, raw and real; no pretense. She puts her finger on the pulse of what it means to be fully human. Her words are a call for us as listeners to free ourselves and nurture authentic beauty crowded out by fear and greed on our over-populated planet.
In the midst of dance beats, we weren’t dancing but listened fiercely as she mirrored our inner truth so deeply, our shouts were involuntarily, surprising even us. The sold-out crowd couldn’t help but validate a truth that wasn’t pushing an agenda but was pushing us up towards the air from the muck, the moving mud of manipulation that’s been rushing past our ears for years on end.
“So come on, pump us full of nothingness And hear us sing the melody And watch us dance the thin line Between the in-thing and integrity.” …And our leaders aren’t even pretending not to be demons So where is the good heart to go but inwards?” -from ‘Three Sided Coin’ from ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’
“They’re taking everything from us and telling us nothing is ours, but here we are, dancing.” -Kate Tempest, ‘I Trap You’ from ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’
The poetry stands on its own, but her sense of rhythm, purpose, and delivery, drives the audience into a sense of expansion, of being a part of something larger than themselves. It felt like we were all standing at Sinai, or hearing the Sermon on the Mount, or like we were groundlings pressed against the stage at the Globe for the first performance of Romeo and Juliet. There was an immediacy, a recognition of something real beyond illusion being handed down; to shake us, to wake us.
Her words have the authority and ring of prophesy. I know that may sound blasphemous to some. Standing there listening beyond the words to the force of her conviction, I knew Kate was most definitely tuned into a higher frequency.
“We’re all written in the holiest scripture It’s just we’re living in this time that says no inhibitions, Get yours, keep going the distance, no limits And don’t bother protesting because nobody listens Besides All your solutions dissolve under scrutiny And you can’t stand a note of derision Instead seek approval to justify your existence Have opinions but have no resolve or conviction Just keep your head down Breathe the fumes and indulge your addictions Routine is healthy, ignore the affliction The cost to the soul and the constant constriction Don’t consider too closely, have no intermission Keep throwing your fists in slow repetition Most of us manage, what makes you so different? Now, you seem a bright spark Go ahead, take the road with the pilgrims Head for the temples of democracy Freedom, growth, reason, liberty, hope But don’t pay attention to what’s hanging from the rope. …total existence needs meaning and myth Many misjudged the way and got lost in the mist Your loneliness is the symptom, not the sickness… This is the garden. Now you better start sowing or there won’t be a harvest.” -Kate Tempest, ‘Holy Elixir’ from ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’
I have started to wonder if, because being present is now more vital than ever to the human race, the signal from “upstairs” might be being simulcast via different individuals. Maybe, the old model of just one bearded messenger has been updated. We might need to be reached by various people through myriad mediums, like Greta Thunberg, another young girl, who at 16 left school with a mission, speaking up for science so that we can wake up and act. These voices, call out to us, so that our history and humanity will not only be held in the memory of underwater trees.
If we think that someone outside our circle is incapable of being a vessel of wisdom, then we have missed the point of the show. If we are hoping for a Messianic age, the Second Coming or some form of global deliverance we may miss it if we are still attached to form.
Even the shift we see in the youth and communities who are expanding definitions of gender, self and being, can be an invitation; it may even be a divine prod to get us to love beyond form.
“It’s not enough To imagine we’ll be happy when we’ve Got enough Stuff. All this stuff Is blocking us. I’m neat with no chaser I’m all spirit. …Even when I’m weak and I’m breaking I stand weeping at the train station ‘Cause I can see your faces There is so much peace to be found in people’s faces. I love people’s faces.”
-Kate Tempest, “People’s Faces from ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’
People’s Faces from Elsewhere Hall 10-1-19
I know not everyone will be able to take in what Kate is saying. Yet, what she offers, she offers so completely, it changed my perspective. We can begin to lean in to our intuition, to trust that our voice, when connected to the source of our love does make a difference. All of our prophets and poets push against the cynical crust of complacency. Kate Tempest tears through it like Old Faithful.