Culture Literature

Kae Tempest: Book review of ‘On Connection’, and conversation at the Southbank Centre

Whilst there is an unspeakable number of things wrong with the world, perhaps one more underlying problem can be generally agreed on as the speed of life. Too fast, overwhelmingly so, and arguably the source of all wrongs from climate change to rising mental illness. A line from Kae Tempest’s piece ‘Hold Your Own’:

I know the days are reeling past in such squealing blasts

But stop for breath and you will know it’s yours

There is power in Kae’s work, made all the more resonant through their primary medium – a form of spoken word rap which demands the need for their work to be performed. Watching them in person in conversation at the Southbank Centre to mark the launch of their new book On Connection, I’m surprised by how reserved they seem. That is, until they reach their stride, the formulation of their idea, and the same intensity overcomes them again and it’s enough to slow down the distractions of the world around me. Kae is an utterly inspiring person to watch.

This passion is tangible throughout the pages of On Connection. The book itself is more of an extended essay; a manifesto to living in the world as it is. The text is primarily concerned with the idea of art as a solution, or more rather a medium, in which we can reconnect to each other in a system which teaches us to isolate. Their first appeal is to numbness and its power; igniting an exhaustion within me, and I feel that Kae is deeply aware they are writing in the latest stages of capitalism without labouring the point. Moreover, the text is beautifully kind in its approach. Written to those ‘who give a shit about the world’, but also ‘those who don’t give a shit about anything.’ Every call to arms is tempered with a reminder that choice is key: it is not about what you must do, but what you chose to do.

A most compelling feature in On Connection, and how this translates into their conversation, is the ability to speak to the spiritual. The idea of feeling something and not just knowing something, as evidence. Kae speaks about the disconnection between the feeling of the land and the feeling of the buildings put upon it; the feeling of the weight of being a child of empire; the feeling of capitalism draining people. It’s a process which feels like a balm to the ‘well actually…’ nature of statistics, and the endless refiguring of these statistic to prove endlessly different points.

This leads onto potentially the most controversial point in On Connection: radical empathy. Kae proposes that even those who benefit the most from our global system of inequity still suffer profoundly from it, and thus extends their empathy to them. This, they clarify, is a position of their privilege as you cannot try to understand the man who has a foot on your neck. Moreover, Kae’s claim to the universality of art certainly does more to the accessibility of their work. They define creativity as an element which should be present in every part of your life, rejecting the value markers of being good or bad at the act of creation.

Such universality is central to their argument of creativity, and their belief that it can speak to everyone. This allows us all to reconnect to the reality of the world and the horrors that have built it. When responding to an audience question asking how to reconnect themselves to their ancient self, (which is not as deep as it sounds – it’s a reference to Jung’s process of confronting the unconscious, a theory which is spoken about at length in the book) they propose three key actions. One is acceptance – acknowledging the world in a state of crisis. The next accountability, speaking aptly to their recognition of privilege within themselves. And finally, they tell us to notice the details. To stop and look around and think about how we can connect ourselves to the world. There’s a sense of hope in these requests which I haven’t felt in a really long time.

On Connection is a leap of faith; a proposal of complete optimism in others at a time when people are shutting others out (what a wonderful thing!). Kae is modest in their proposals, quick to note that this is just how they see things. But they have certainly convinced me.

Image: Jim Dyson via Getty Images