Public Enemy are rightly preparing to be inducted into the rock’n’roll hall of fame as artists who changed music and whose commitment to lyrical truth and the philosophy of the personal as political inspired millions, while Kate Tempest has been awarded the Ted Hughes poetry prize. What links them, is that Kate Tempest showed such self-confidence in her talent at an early age, that she once framed a question to her hero Chuck D at a festival in the form of rhyme, that earned his respect and praise, the skill and bravado that has made her such an important artist in evidence as she delivered her poetic statement.
The award is official recognition for what many of us have known for some time to be one of the UK’s outstanding artistic talents. I first saw Kate at a Peace Not War benefit gig nearly 10 years ago, when as an 18 year-old, she ripped up the stage with rhymes filled with rhythmic mastery and linguistic complexity. She was beyond her years even then and seasoned performers knew it and remarked on it.
What sets her apart from the many talented artists of the time who opposed the Iraq war is her ability to combine wisdom gained from her experiences growing up in south London, with a mastery of rhyme and imagery that weaves together the sacred and the profane; but there is also a deep compassion in her words towards those who have fallen on the wrong side of the tracks, to those who life has treated harshly. She demonstrates an empathy with the everyday experiences of the “common people” and a defiant energy in response to all that nullifies us, alienates us, makes us feel unworthy to occupy our own space.
The award is for her playwriting, specifically for her spoken word performance Brand New Ancients, positively reviewed by the Guardian’s Lynn Gardner, that brings a spiritual element to the everyday tale of two families in conflict. She finds divinity where others would not think to look and she exposes the hypocrisy and the rank sterility of the mass media spectacle and those who have raised themselves up as idols, false prophets such as Simon Cowell and the many vacuous celebrities who pose as entertainers.
In this modern age of social media and Youtube, there are many clips of her poetry online and, for those who are able to relate to her streetwise wisdom, there are many opportunities to marvel at how she manages to weave words with such mesmeric dexterity, to tell stories with such a deep sense of what it is to be human, a recognition of the pain and numbness of urban life in London and the joy and love of existence.
But while there is a knowing self-confidence that has continually spurred her on to perform at any given opportunity, what marks her out is the vulnerability she displays that seems to come from a conscious and courageous act of will. I saw her perform with Saul Williams on a memorable night last year at the Queen Elizabeth hall and felt those in attendance, including me, hang on her every word. I watched her step off the stage and go into the audience in mid-performance, like she really wanted everyone present to know they are just as important as she is, that her words would not matter as much if there was no one to hear them. Such confidence and vulnerability on display at the same time is a potent mixture for an artist.
Kate Tempest’s words have the power to change people, to inspire them to believe in themselves, to love literature as she demonstrates, for example, with her knowledge and love of the words of William Shakespeare, and to believe in the power of words to heal, to bring communities together, a reminder that raw energy and talent can inspire us to overcome the sense of oppression and heartlessness that seems to pervade our society at this time, not just to elevate us transcendentally, but to celebrate our humanity and to see beauty in the everyday and the mundane.
With the recognition of Kate Tempest, it feels to me that the spirit of 2003 and the peace movement is alive and well and ready to shake up the world and I hope she now reaches the wider audience her undoubted talent and integrity deserves.