A life of rhyme: Kate Tempest's poetry-music fusion

She learnt her trade doing battle with rappers. Now Kate Tempest is going down a storm on the spoken-word circuit.

Megan Clarke
Monday 01 March 2010 01:00

Kate Tempest opens the door to her south-east London home, dressed casually in grey jogging bottoms, an orange jumper and odd socks.

The 24-year-old is exhausted from touring the country, performing on the spoken-word circuit, and this is her downtime. In a gravelly south London accent (she's Brockley-born and bred), she asks if I mind her smoking. Before I have a chance to answer, she lights up a fag in the front room of the four-floor Victorian house she shares with eight friends, and cracks opens a Polish beer. It's only four in the afternoon but Kate likes drinking Tyskie. It's cheap.

It's not difficult to see why Scroobius Pip (performance poet and one half of dan le sac Vs Scroobius Pip) called Tempest "the highlight of my listening year" on his Spoken Word Surgery recently on Radio 1. So impressed by her raw poetic talent was he that he asked her to support him on his nationwide tour. She has already entertained ecstatic festival crowds at Glastonbury, Latitude and the Big Chill, as well as supporting John Cooper Clarke at Leeds Carling Weekend. Not bad considering she started out performing her gritty, rap-rhymes at squat parties. Now audiences across the country have the chance to hear her on a nationwide tour, she has just released her first poetry album with record company Pure Groove, and her band, Sound of Rum, have recently signed a record deal.

It was hip-hop that first turned Tempest on to the power of the spoken word. "My first point of contact with literature was through hip-hop," she says, flicking a rust-coloured curl from her face with a ring-encrusted hand. "The first time words really meant something to me properly was through Wu-Tang [the multi-platinum selling rap group]. From engaging with those words it became easier for me to engage with texts. I understood poetry, I started understanding what I could get from novels."

Happily, GZA, leading light of the Wu-Tang Clan, was the first person to call Tempest a poet after she rapped for him at one of his gigs six years ago. Before then she hadn't considered herself to be anything quite so distinguished. She was so determined to meet her idol she rapped to the bouncers in exchange for a backstage pass. After meeting GZA and sharing her lyrics with him she was set: "If I could do it to him – who is my god – then I can do it to anyone."

Tempest cut her teeth as a teenager, performing at open-mic nights in Deal Real, a hip-hop record shop and hang-out for London rappers on Carnaby Street. "I looked like Harry Potter at the time," she says. "I had glasses, a duffle coat and a newspaper under my arm. People were just like, 'what the hell are you doing here?' I got on the mic and never looked back – I was 16."

The underground world of hip-hop and MC battles served as an arena for her to try out new lyrics and she thrived on the testosterone-fuelled competition. "That's where I learnt that if you're not very good at rapping and you're in a cipher – a group of people doing a rap – the whole thing is about getting better. You want to be better than yourself. It made me really determined." She did it every Friday for two years.

In those days, before Tempest had made a name for herself, rappers would refuse to share the limelight with her because she didn't fit the mould. "I used to have to get my friend, who is a man, to pretend he wanted to rap so that he could get the microphone and pass it to me. I'd start talking and people would be like: 'What? You can actually spit rhymes?'

"Now," she says, a touch nostalgically, "it's all poetry, where people give you space."

These days, since gaining notoriety and winning several poetry slams, Tempest has become a fixture at more formal, organised poetry events, performing at spoken-word evenings across the country for Apples and Snakes (the leading organisation for performance poetry in the UK). Despite finally taking centre stage, she laments the loss of jostling for the microphone that characterised her early career. For Tempest, the struggle to be heard is a major part of the enjoyment she derives from poetry.

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Her bolshy, self-confident streak hasn't always served her well; at school she was often taken out of class for being disruptive. When she left at 16 with no A-levels, her future was uncertain, but a lack of qualifications didn't hold her back. She simply introduced herself to the course convener at Goldsmiths College in south London, who accepted her request to study English Literature immediately. The spoken word has always been the currency with which Tempest is most comfortable.

Her talent is not an academic one; it is raw, unabashed emotion, and as such, she felt stifled at Goldsmiths: "I was studying poetry but it was killing it for me, I hated the way they were ripping it apart. I felt so inferior the whole time; that my creative engagement just wasn't worth anything. It's all meant to be of the mind, but I'm kind of all about the guts when it comes to words."

Guts are certainly what spring to mind when you watch her perform, clutching at her stomach, as if she's in pain. You get the sense that she wants to create something tangible and real through language, that she's giving birth to her words. Her poetry, which deals with issues ranging from social exclusion and personal disenfranchisement, to the effects of capitalism and even Greek tragedy, is as much about words and syntax as it is about watching her physically agonise over the delivery of every syllable.

The key to writing great lyrics, she explains, is to drown out the worldly static and just "be open to receiving". These days, though, Tempest finds her natural ability only gets her so far. "That's where I'm at – the transition between it being a really natural thing and then all of a sudden it being my career. I'm trying to make peace with it not being this tap that you just turn on... I really want to develop my discipline, carve things out for the page."

Ultimately, Tempest would like to progress from poetry to writing fiction but admits, "I'm just not there yet". She sees herself as a woman on a cultural mission, to be "commercially present so that young girls see that you don't have to do what the Pussycat Dolls are doing in order to be a successful woman." Despite her ambitious goals, though, she always keeps it real: "I don't want to be on a massive moral mission – that's just gross."

This balance between arrogance and self-aware vulnerability is what makes Tempest so captivating. She describes her method of writing as "schizophrenic" and worries that one day she might lose her mind. She also worries that her performance poetry is "self-indulgent", which is why she's much happier performing with her three-piece band, Sound of Rum: "If you are playing with a band it feels a lot more communal – it's about the audience as much as it is about you venting your frustration with the world." The tour with Scroobius Pip sees Tempest performing her poetry against the backdrop of the ambient hip-hop stylings of her band. She's excited by the prospect of working in new media and reaching new audiences, though she's worried that fans of her poetry may not like her music – and vice versa.

For the moment, though, it seems that everything she touches turns to gold. Will she be rapping forever? "No," she says. "I don't like the idea of rapping at 40 – there's no grace in it." Before I leave she shows me some postcards on the wall of her study, pictures of the people who have influenced her: Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, W B Yeats and W H Auden. At the end of the line she points to a picture of Tracey Emin in a compromising position. She keeps it there, she says, to remind herself that no matter how popular she becomes, she's never too far away from pissing on the floor and calling it art.

Kate Tempest is supporting dan le sac Vs Scroobius Pip tonight at Concorde 2, Brighton. She is also appearing at Wordplay, The Good Ship, London NW6 on 6 April. Tempest's album, 'Broken Herd', is out now on Pure Groove.

Chapter and verse: More poetry-music fusions

1. Scroobius Pip

The grand-daddy of spoken word, and not just because of his distinctive long beard, Scroobius Pip is a charismatic performer whose poems cover everything from suicide to bumping into your ex in a club. The Essex bard is currently touring his "lit-hop" with dan le sac. His 'Poetry in (e)motion', a graphic poetry book, has just been published by Titan.

2. Poeticat

A graduate of the Brit School, there's a touch of Lily Allen to Catherine Martindale's propulsive poems, which she performs with a band as Poeticat over ethereal, folky guitars and pulsing Peruvian cajon drumming. Her hilarious tales of West London life are told in a tumble of words and pop culture references. "Fake baked arms up in the air/ And all the boys have fluffy hair".

3. Benin City

Described as Outkast-meets-James Brown, Benin City combine the spoken-word skills of Joshua Idehen and Musa Okwonga with a jazz backing of drums, bass and saxophone. Charming, funky and very funny, they perform their poetry with panache and it's getting plenty of airplay. They release their debut EP, 'Invisible Cake', this week.

4. PolarBear

PolarBear raps his tales of urban trials and tribulations over trippy beats and piano. An engagingly cheeky stage presence, his "spoken screenplay" show 'Return' has just finished a run at Battersea Arts Centre.

Alice Jones

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