Joanne Mathers talks with multi-award-winning rapper/poet/ playwright/novelist Kate Tempest, ahead of her New Zealand visit next month
Her local is a nexus around which South London's outrageous fortunes twist and turn. Outside, luxury apartment blocks rise, community gardens are bulldozed, and crack dealers tout their poison. Inside, regulars of decades sip warm beer, shoulders squared against the weight of change.
The Bird's Nest in Deptford is just managing to survive. It may soon be priced out of existence but for now it's holding on. Many previous inhabitants of this formerly multicultural, working-class neighbourhood haven't. They've been forced to the margins of the city, replaced by affluent young professionals who've spent $983,000-plus on tiny, apartments in soulless high-rises.
"The last real pub in the south is surrounded by wankers," Kate Tempest mourns. The wankers in her song Keep Moving Don't Move (the second track on her glorious, grinding The Book of Traps and Lessons) aren't just the urban hipsters who've taken up residence, they are also the crack dealers who appeared out of nowhere, bringing an undercurrent of violence to the streets.
"Things suddenly got really heavy and there was loads of crack everywhere," Tempest explains, over the phone from London. "The pub was in the centre of it all."
She's been drinking at Bird's Nest since she was underaged: "There has always been someone working there who is really close to me. I've always played my music here first. But this light and important place is now being threatened."
In a universe of Botox-fuelled Instagram celebs, Tempest's searing, socially astute ultra-realism is a panacea. The multi-award-winning rapper/poet/playwright/novelist released her fourth album last year. And New Zealand audiences will get to see her perform it live when she headlines Splore Festival and plays at New Zealand Festival of the Arts in February.
Tempest is celebrated for her unflinching take on life within the system of hyper-capitalism and the empathy with which she shares the experience of those struggling within it.
It's not easy listening. Her track, Tunnel Vision(from the 2016 album Let Them Eat Chaos), presents a litany of 21st century ills:
"Carcinogenic, diabetic, asthmatic, epileptic, post-traumatic, bipolar and disaffected Atomised, thinking we're engaged when we're pacified Staring at the screen so we don't have to see the planet die"
Her material's tough ... and so is getting hold of her. Tempest is notoriously cautious of the media and dates and times have been chopped and changed for weeks. But when I do catch up with her, she's up bright and early on an early January London morning. And more than happy to chat about love, music, gentrification and Islamic mysticism.
Tempest was last in New Zealand in 2016, her Auckland show held the King's Arms. This much-beloved music venue has since been bowled over to make way for apartments; quite fitting considering how gentrification informs so much of her work.
London is in the grip of the same process as Auckland (as are so many international cities). This is something she is both saddened by and pragmatic about.
"London is still amazing. Gentrification means that the trains are now regular," she says, with the hint of humour in her voice.
"You can get amazing food but the people who have lived there for years are drinking at the same pubs they always have, not at the posh coffee shops. And you can feel these people getting pushed out."
Tempest (born Kate Calvert in 1985) was bought up in the southeastern London suburbs of Brockley and Lewisham. She was surrounded by stories and art: her lawyer father was a poetic user of language, her aunt and uncle both artists. A bright kid at primary school, she became disillusioned and angry with the system in her mid-teens. At the same time, she discovered hip-hop.
The South London of her youth was inhabited primarily by Afro-Caribbean families. She was brought up in the midst of this colour and noise, with reggae and dub blasting from boom boxes. It was with a Jamaican friend that she discovered dub raves, listening as rappers spat their particular patois over killer beats.
It was an epiphany for the brilliant teen. By the age of 16 she would be creating her own material, perfecting her rapping skills at open-mic nights under the mononym Tempest.
This performing became a backdrop for her everyday life (studying, working in record shops). She was also in love with the written word and self-published a book entitled Everything Speaks in its Own Way, in 2012. It was then that she was discovered by Don Paterson, an editor at Picador. She was asked to write another book and commissioned to write a play by a theatre company.
Momentum gathered, her second poetry collection, Brand New Ancients, won the Ted Hughes Award in 2013. It was all uphill from there.
South London has a particular fascination for me, as I lived there in the mid-1990s. I tell her my memories of a vibrant cultural ecosystem, that was tinged with looming violence. Of jungle music shaking windows of BMWs parked outside council estates.
She says that if I went back today, the change would be startling.
"It's a very different place now. There is still a kernel that is true and strong but there are so many new buildings, skyscrapers, with luxury flats built cheaply and sold for huge profits. And they rip the heart out of a community."
Some of the progress has been violent. She shares the story of a local community garden, near where she lives, that had been loved and nurtured for years by the local residents. It was bowled by developers.
"It was an amazing community space and they just kicked the people off the land. They were violently taken out. The process was violent."
Tempest's work exists within this tension - the interplay of fragile humanity and insatiable global capitalism. She articulates the isolation and rage of the poor and dispossessed; the care worker exhausted by double shifts of care work, young black men being beaten up by police.
There's so much pain and rage in her work and the listen can be harrowing. But interestingly, through all the pain, the most recent album leaves you with love.
Listen to People's Faces is the album's closing track and most recent single. The opening gambit decries her country's descent into the political maelstrom:
"It's coming to pass / My countries coming apart / The whole thing's becoming / Such a bumbling farce
Was that a pivotal historical moment / We just went stumbling past?
But then, hope
There is so much peace to be found in people's faces.
I love people's faces.
And Firesmoke, a celebration of the ecstasy of love:
"My visionary is a vision I watch her dancing by the window / And it rips my flesh to ribbons / And the whole world is just ripples In the middle distance I listen to her hips / I push my kisses to her lips / We move like we were born to move.
I ask Tempest how love can exist in a culture typified by competitive individualism, the celebration of the surface? She pauses before answering.
"I think that we have been led to believe that we are by nature competitive. But I actually feel that this isn't true – I believe that we are nurturing and loving.
"There is a school of thought that says before we were predators, we were prey. We had to work together to survive and there are real problems when we are disconnected. I think our primary impulse is love."
The disconnection inherent in the technological world we inhabit also plays a starring role in Tempest's work. The inhabitants of her imagined universe are huddled over their cell phones in the London dark: you can almost hear their footsteps on the pavement.
How does she think we can find escape from this brave new world? She says she derives meaning from moments of creation and connection.
"I find it useful to notice the times you are really connected. Music and creativity get me back into the present. I feel this when I play. People who are so hungry for connection, and music is an antidote to the numbness."
Music was an antidote for the boredom and dissatisfaction she experienced as a teenager. Working in record stores and surrounded by friends with stacks of vinyl in their small living rooms, she heard the greats.
"The first time I heard Nina Simone singing it was unbelievable. I loved early Mos Def. When I heard Bob Dylan I was thought, 'What the f*** is this? Lauren Hill was a big one for me - and John Coltrane."
As a teenager, she studied, she analysed them. They were her teachers. "The music was so profound. I wanted to know how people created a legend."
The music in her two earlier albums hip-hop tinged dubstep beats and prominent bass.
The Book of Traps and Lessons is a departure from this. Produced by Def Jam founder and megastar producer Rick Rubin, who is known for his stripped-down down sound, his use of space allows the words to shimmer. At one point the music disappears entirely and we are left with pure poetry.
She's also moved away from the characters that populated her earlier albums (Gemma, ex-drug peddler; Esther, the carer in a basement flat). She's now sharing her own reality. She's opening her soul and it's deeply moving.
While firmly located in the grind of 21st century London, Tempest has recently found a means by which to transcend the often brutal day-to-day. Her partner was born in Algeria, with roots in Sufism and she has been immersed in the study of mystic Islam.
Probably best-known for the practice of whirling (devotees spin until they reach a trancelike state), Sufi teachings are offering Tempest "not an escape, but a return" to her humanity.
"There's an ancient tradition of using music to achieve trance states. It allows you to be more present, more precise, to connect with others. It's beautiful," she says. "When really divisive stuff is propagated, it's important to focus on the universal. On what we all share."
It could be argued that division is now the status quo in the United Kingdom. The "leave" or "stay" Brexit vote revealed a nation that was rent down the middle. Everything is upside down: the formerly left-wing working class eschewed Labour's socialist new order, in favour of tow-headed toff Boris Johnson and his conservative Brexiteers.
Tempest was a Corbyn supporter, signing a letter from a number of other high-profile public figures stating he was "a beacon of hope in the struggle against emergent far-right nationalism, xenophobia and racism in much of the democratic world".
But she doesn't believe in tearing down those who voted against him.
"It's the system that is faulted. It's the system that is not working," she said in an interview with film-maker and journalist Frank Barat last year.
"But then the need for people to find a scapegoat to blame, to have something that's easily understandable is huge and I understand that ... I want to just get closer to this idea that no matter where you stand on this or that political spectrum, there is commonality."
This radical empathy underpins Tempest's art. She's not pointing her finger at those who have different political views to her. She's shining a light on a system that displaces the poor and feeds off racism and hatred.
But there's hope in her work. By tapping into our primal instinct to work together, to connect, we may be able to find a commonality that will allow us to survive our overwhelming 21st-century reality.
Kate Tempest plays at Splore Fest, February 22, Tapapakanga Regional Park and on February 23-24 at New Zealand Festival of the Arts, Wellington.