“You done alright. This place is lovely.” It is the first time Kate Tempest has visited Terry’s, which is my favourite traditional London café south of the river. “I let you choose because I don’t like inviting journalists out anywhere,” she explains. “People pick things apart, don’t they? Everything becomes loaded. A train station platform would’ve done.”
By and large, people go to greasy spoons because they are manual labourers in need of calories, or because it’s the morning after the night before. Others simply like them for what they are not: “some stupid posh eatery that charges £12 for a breakfast”.
Tempest, a politically charged and variously gifted young artist, is one of them. She smiles when I read aloud the quote from a character in her book.
At 10.30am on a midweek morning, we are among the hungry customers standing in the narrow aisles between tables and chairs, waiting to be seated. Tempest and I would have killed time outside but it’s raining hard. So we begin the challenge of keeping a conversation going while looking out for a free table.
She is dressed casually in odd socks, jeans and a baseball cap, her baby face framed by curly orange-blonde hair that falls below her shoulders. She is 30 but looks, as she puts it, “about 15”.
In her short career Tempest has already gained acclaim as a rapper, poet, playwright, novelist and recording artist. She is also the first performance poet to attract mainstream attention in the world of pop since Linton Kwesi Johnson and John Cooper Clarke almost 40 years ago. Yet she resists classification. Part of what’s great about her work is the way it stretches the boundaries of genre until you see where it breaks: ancient myths alongside street rap; epic narratives about everyday struggles; subjects both routine and lofty. Think William Blake via the Wu-Tang Clan.
Everybody Down, her 2014 epic poem/concept album, was nominated for the Mercury Prize; while her new work Let Them Eat Chaos, set to post-dubstep, and something of a post-Brexit address, was performed live for a primetime BBC TV programme a few weeks ago. I was in the audience that evening, beneath a chandelier in the fading Art Deco elegance of south-east London’s Rivoli Ballroom. “This is happening right now! Don’t hide behind your phone screens!” Tempest called out. Living the same moment in the same room, she went on, “is as close to connecting as many of us ever achieve”. For the next 48 minutes she patrolled the stage bent forwards and deep in concentration, sometimes with her eyes closed, spitting out rhymes and witticisms with intensity; a small, mighty force. “It don’t feel like home no more/ I don’t speak the lingo./ Since when was this a winery?/ It used to be the bingo.”
Eventually we are shown to a table in front of a bar area and till that’s just big enough for one member of staff to stand behind. I tell Tempest that, while the red-and-white chequered tablecloths may have seen better days, the fry-ups are better than good.
Let Them Eat Chaos is a record that follows the young, alienated residents of one south-London street. In “Ketamine For Breakfast”, Gemma finds it hard to get ahead. Zoe is priced out of her neighbourhood. Esther, a carer, sinks beers after a long night shift. There are jokes about David Cameron having it off with a pig’s head, the instant gratification offered by taking selfies (“Here’s me outside the palace of me”) and two-for-one booze deals, but this does little to fend off the fear that strikes in the middle of the night.
Each character’s standalone tale links up with all the others to keep the flow going. The microscopic detail of these lives initially seems distracting, but the cumulative effect lingers. Individual narratives are projected on to a much larger canvas, in which the global financial crisis, immigration and environmental catastrophe come in and out of focus. “Massacres, massacres, new shoes,” Tempest says on the standout track “Europe is Lost”.
“A common theme that unites my work is the idea that we are all part of something much bigger than ourselves,” she says. “We live in times that are so complicated, so mental and crazy, there’s this kind of tunnel-vision trap that we fall into. We become preoccupied with our own immediate experiences, ignoring the people right in front of us. It’s a sure-fire way to poor mental health, because we should all be intimately and eternally connected.”
She’s approaching something like full flow — her speaking voice so close to her rapping style that I’m expecting a beat to kick in — when a waiter arrives to take our orders.
Menus are inspected. Tempest opts for scrambled eggs on toast. As a regular, I go for “The Blowout” — one sausage, two fried eggs, three rashers of bacon, bubble-and-squeak and beans. We both order £1 bottomless cups of tea. “Well cheap!” she notes, her words doused in a thick multicultural London English accent.
I’m a fan of Tempest’s work but approach our meeting with caution: whatever I ask needs to be considered from multiple perspectives. There are the dedicated hip-hop heads; the type for whom the true Tempest is the teenager in big glasses with the rapid-fire flow, trading verses in underground rap battles or rhyming at squat parties. She was 16 when she performed in her first open-mic event, at a record store in central London.
“The place went mad,” she remembers. “The room was packed with testosterone. Every one of them a man. When your audience think you’re going to be shit, you really focus on wanting to change their minds.”
Poetry buffs came to her later — most of them in 2012, when she became the youngest-ever winner of the Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry. “Brand New Ancients” reincarnated the gods of old as members of two London families, domestic discord rippling through the generations. Artist Cornelia Parker, who was on the judging panel, found it “compulsive” when she read it first as a piece of prose. “But when I heard it as an audio piece it was electrifying . . . [It] has informed the way I see the world since. It rings in my head.”
Characters from Tempest’s poems reappear in her debut novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses, published this year. The book is full of youthful consciousness: twenty-somethings fall victim to rising property prices, they cannot find jobs, they are represented by an out-of-touch establishment.
And then there is all her music, plus the two plays . . . How to speak to all these audiences simultaneously?
“I don’t separate the forms in the way I receive them or create them,” she says. “Today, I’m going to be blown away by a rapper and tomorrow by a poet — it doesn’t work like that. I receive lyricism and literature with an open soul. The commonality is the lyricism. It’s just the words. That’s all.”
On how her career has progressed, she says: “It’s strange. When I look back all the steps seem so necessary. But at the time I was just following ideas.”
Big ideas, it turns out: poverty, class and consumerism are recurring themes. “But I’m not comfortable with making overt statements,” she says. “In the times we live in, no one can tell a story without it being political.”
I’m unconvinced, pointing out how much she holds forth on the evils of capitalism in her work. No doubt she’s against the system. “Well, yeah. But I don’t want to be labelled as a ‘political artist’,” she insists. “Nor am I ‘the voice of my generation’.”
We agree to disagree and the breakfasts arrive — along with two Canadian tourists. “Don’t mind if they join you, do you?” says Austin, the proprietor.
I politely ask if they could they sit elsewhere. But Austin’s question turns out to be a rhetorical one. “I’ve got a business to run,” he says. “Don’t care about your interview. Shuffle up, please.”
The tourists sit down and, as small talk ensues, I savour a moment of relief. Spending time in Tempest’s company is pretty intense. Critics often note that she has a powerful but occasionally shy stage presence and that dichotomy remains offstage, where her body language is laid-back but she seems to view every question with suspicion, at least until she starts talking and ideas carry her away. And then her body contorts into a posture of total belief.
In her work she has a knack for a devastating throwaway line — “He had a smile like dog shit hidden in grass” is one among many — and in person for telling it like it is: “I fucking hate interviews”. She’s laughing when she says it but you sense she means it. Both tourists shoot me a pitying glance.
For Tempest, the downside to capturing so much anger and frustration in her work is having to explain it further in interviews. “All the attention spins me out. And the work loses its magic,” she says.
It’s not that she’s intentionally being confrontational, she goes on, but broad statements are often taken out of context. “There’s a lot of misinformation about me on the internet. When you’ve just released new work which expresses nuanced views on a given situation, the last thing you want to do is sum that up in a couple of sentences. Sentences that won’t get close to expressing the scope and complexity of what you are thinking and how you feel. It’s also about protecting my private life. Everything I’m comfortable with saying is in my work.”
Up to a point: in between mouthfuls of egg, she adds, “Though I don’t want you to feel like you’re reading my diary. My personal experiences aren’t for sale.”
Born Kate Esther Calvert, the youngest of five children, she was raised in Brockley, a historically working class area in south-east London that is now, like many other areas in the capital, coming up. She likes the area so much she has never left. Her mother was a teacher and her father a builder who spent five years retraining at night school to become a lawyer. Rolling up her shirt sleeve, she shows me a tattoo of cherry blossom that winds round her right arm. “According to a Japanese saying my dad told me, poets start writing when the cherry blossom falls. The tattoo reminds me that cherry blossom is always falling. So I guess my born-in thing about working hard comes from him.”
Tempest wasn’t such a hard worker at school. She dropped out when she was 14 and worked alone from home. “I wasn’t really concentrating on my education back then,” she admits. She went on to the Brit School, a performing arts academy where Adele and Amy Winehouse also took classes. “It was an amazing place but also kind of terrifying. For the first time I was surrounded by people committed to what they wanted to do.” Again she left before finishing the course.
By her own admission, Tempest was a troubled teenager. Socially she felt excluded, partly because of her sexuality. Beneath the cherry blossom is a home-made tattoo bearing the name of her ex-wife, India, in faint grey block letters. “There’s a shameful, shivering heart in probably every young gay woman,” she says. “Some of my work is confessional because I want to reach out to them. I’m speaking to that shame, saying it’s OK.”
Throughout her teens she worked in a record shop, and increasingly spent time performing her poems at protest camps and festivals. “I lived in a trailer for a bit with a bunch of very politically active people, hanging around on picket lines rapping at riot cops,” she says. But following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, “I realised that messages of dissent only go so far. I became disillusioned after that. More than a million people turn up and march for the end of a war and fuck all happens.”
The café is full but customers keep on coming. Austin is hovering, so I order an apple and rhubarb juice to ensure we aren’t moved on.
How does she find time to do all the work? By writing anywhere and everywhere: “In the pub, on the back of a bus,” she says. She describes her working process as “schizophrenic” and worries that one day she might lose her mind. “As soon as something is finished, you move on to the next thing and try and create something better. The minute you are satisfied with your previous work, you’ve lost the opportunity to improve.”
What motivates her? “I have put pressure on myself to create so much work because, in the music industry for example, as a white woman who raps, your seriousness is challenged all the time. So I wanted to build a foundation that was serious and strong and that no one could challenge the integrity of.”
Her scrambled eggs have long been cleared away and our tourist friends have left. But Tempest isn’t finished. She takes my pen and starts drawing on a paper napkin. “For language to come alive, for it to really mean something, they all have to blaze with intensity at the same time,” she says, gesturing purposefully at a triangle with the words “writer”, “text” and “reader/performer” marked at each point. “They have to connect. Otherwise there can be no magic.”
I pay the modest bill and we walk outside. Tempest worries whether she has come across as being too critical of the ways things are going, and says she counts herself lucky to have grown up in south London. “Everything always seems to be going to the dogs when, really, you’re just probably completely out of touch. But, yeah, I’m in love with the south London of my childhood. There’s a beauty and dignity in rough lives.”
John Sunyer is commissioning editor of FT Life & Arts
Illustration by Seb Jarnot