Kate Tempest Talks Live Performance as an Antidote to Numbness

“They’re singing my life up there! That’s my despair, my hope is in those drums!”

Joy is an act of resistance.

This system makes us ill; it exhausts our bodies and minds and unless we are expressly and perpetually vigilant, it renders us weak-willed, terrified, closed to our senses and ultimately numb. By “system,” I mean the hyper-individualistic, competitive, exploitative, divisive, violent, deregulated free-market, industrialized capitalist system that we have all been born into and raised up within. In order to be able to survive it with any semblance of sanity, in order to be able to function or even to flourish — numbness is required. A numbness that is evident when commuting in rush hour, or walking through a busy shopping district or a recently gentrified neighborhood, or kissing your partner while thinking of something else. Doing the numbing chores of a life at the end of a numbing day of doing whatever it is that you do to sustain your existence. The precarious numbness of drunkenness, of unfeeling sexual encounter, of cheap drugs or expensive drugs. A numbness that is permissive, distractive, that rewards itself with deeper and deeper numbness. The numbness of leaving the body and leaving the mind and leaving the room saying life goes on. It is what it is. Get over yourself. Got to keep moving. Got to get it done. Getting things done, always getting things done in a permanent state of mild or severe disassociation. Binge-watch. Binge-drink. Binge-eat. Oblivion. I know this numbness because it is my life.

What is the antidote to numbness? Engagement? Does that solve it? Engagement itself is numbing! Nothing absolves it! There’s too much to hold in your head. It’s too much to think about. The minute some clear thought creeps in, some fresh perspective, some memory from childhood bought on by a passing smell in the air, the world begins to spin uncontrollably away and out of your grasp and all the nauseating uncertainty breaks across you in a fresh wave that forces you to remember your impossible smallness. 

This, as ever, is my privilege talking. To be in a position of being able to ignore the reality of what this system does and continues to do is to be wholly complicit in it. Is to benefit hugely from it. To be able to not think about how the winners in this game came by their vast stores of mineral wealth is to profit from that wealth. The long list of ransacked nations, installed dictators, corporate-backed insurgencies, jailed bodies, ruined land. Death, disease, and pipelines. To be able to ignore the inequality in your own city is to prosper from that inequality. The criminalization of young black people by an institutionally racist state. The rising need for foodbanks. The families still living in temporary accommodation two years after the horror of Grenfell.

This system needs your numbness. You are an agent of consumption. You have no other purpose in the eyes of your government. You are nothing. Grease for a machine that relies on your complicity and your passionate malleability. You have been led to believe you are the kernel of a bright, bright future, and that all you have to do to live your best life is compete. Win. Consume. You are a consumer and your parents were consumers and your grandparents were consumers and your children are consumers. This is your legacy. Since the Enlightenment, that hallowed age of European bloodlust, which has peddled its own importance and propagated its own mythology in our schools and textbooks and on our television screens as the age of unmatched artistic and philosophical excellence, the age of fraternity and libertarianism when in truth it was an age of violence, civil and global war, inequality, repression, and savage cruelty. Motored on blood. The blood of the working classes. The blood of the black and brown people exploited and sold and killed for its progress. Bloodied and shameful and standing on columns in all of our terrible cities, proud stone temples to an age of evil that sold itself as the Age of Light. We live in that time still. Its chaos, ongoing. The industrialisation of inequality continues. Your numbness is necessary. My numbness is necessary. And yet.


Live Music.

Performance of lyrics.

The theater of resistance. The theater of Love.

Passionate declarations. Tiny, heartfelt observations.

Precision. Focus. Dedication to a craft, to a practice, that reaches for more than an expression of individuality. Reaching beyond the self is the self is the self is the look at my self, have you seen how unlike all other selves my self is? More. Stand in a crowd and hear music. Sit in a chair and watch a body cross a space. Feel shaken to the core by something un-numb that lives in the depths of all transactions based on LOVE. The passionate declaration of I have seen. I have heard. I have felt. And it’s for you that I am moved to speak. To sing. To dance here this way. I want to express more than myself. I want to express something about US. And for a moment the numbness is wrenched away from you, because they’re singing my life up there! That’s my despair, my hope is in those drums! And I exist as more than an agent of my own individualism. An avatar, competing.

Connection is the antidote to numbness. Connection is the first step towards any act of resistance. Towards any act of acknowledgement, accountability or redemption. It offers, whether fleeting or long-lasting, a closeness to all others. It is jubilant. Ecstatic. Without fear. I am in a space surrounded by people and I see them and I feel them, and my experience is such that when I leave this theatre, this sweaty club, this back room bar, this grand arena or this park bench where I read this borrowed book and take the train across town to return to wherever it is I sleep, I will be aware of every engineer that tends the railway track, every station attendant that sweeps the rubbish from the platform and blows the whistle for the closing doors. I will be aware of my own humanity. I will be aware of my own complicity. I will show tenderness and deference to the people that I encounter.

Life as we know it is entirely unreal, entirely inhuman. We have lost each other under this selfie-system of hyper-competition. Music is the great invigorator. Artists don’t make their work to inspire your collusion, your submission or your consumption of their ideals. They serve a purpose that is higher. Bigger. Deeper. Which is why you feel higher, bigger, deeper as you connect with their output. Even as you buy their t-shirts and send them on their tours around the world. Even then, in that moment, the integrity of the intention sustains the inevitable involvement of the band that you love in the capitalist industrialisation of their creative endeavors. The performance continues to be a deep searching for connection. They partake in the system, but are not engulfed in its numbness. They remain vigorous as long as they remain connected to this search.

Of course, art is as various as experience and not all music wants connection. Not all theatre cares about you. “Culture,” in the main, is a bourgeoise pursuit, a reaffirmation of a mannered existence which cements prejudice and justifies ignorance. And much music is the product of mass-manufacture, cynically assembled, it wants nothing but your clicks. It actively seeks your numbness. But it’s not that kind of art that I am talking about here, and you know it. So let us say no more about it because it’s everywhere and it doesn’t need any more of our attention than it already has.

There is great work being made all the time. Find it where you find it, never feel that it is not for you. If it moves you give thanks for being open enough to be moved, give thanks for being able to shake before your favorite band. This is the antidote. This is the start. Hold on to it.

The lede is an interpolation of IDLES’s album title Joy as an Act of Resistance (Partisan Records, 2018).

(Photo Credit: Julian Broad)

When asked, who is Kate Tempest? She gives a brief, albeit telling answer. “Kate Tempest is the words,” she responds. You haven’t ever seen, heard, or experienced anyone quite like her. Tempest uncovers the missing link between the Golden Ages of literature and hip-hop. The London-born BRIT Award-nominated spoken word artist, rapper, poet, novelist, and playwright rhymes with a century-turning fury. Since her emergence in 2011, she has redefined what it means to be a wordsmith in the Modern Age. To date, she has published three poetry collections, staged three plays, and released two studio albums — Everybody Down (shortlisted for the 2014 Mercury Prize) and Let Them Eat Chaos (shortlisted for the 2017 Mercury Prize). Along the way, she entranced audiences on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, NPR’s Tiny Desk, and more. Not to mention, she garnered widespread critical acclaim from the New York Times, The New Yorker, Forbes, and more, to name a few. In the midst of this whirlwind journey, she performed a passage of her popular 75-minute narrative poem, “Brand New Ancients,” on Charlie Rose. Legendary producer and American Recordings Founder Rick Rubin caught the show, tracked down her phone number, and made a call. This set a series of events in motion that led to her debut album for American Recordings, The Book of Traps and Lessons, was released on June 14, 2019.

(Photo Credit: Julian Broad)