Brighton festival’s guest curator this year is the multi-disciplined and Ted Hugh’s award-winning Kate Tempest. The festival’s opening gig was staged at the Brighton Dome arts venue where Kate was joined by several other notable contemporaries. Omar Musa, a poetry slam champion from Sydney Australia; Kat Francois, a proven performance artist who has been part of the London scene and fundamental in its inception for some time; and live music from ensemble act Melt Yourself Down. The bill promises to be a small taster of what to expect over the next 23 days in and around Brighton and Hove.
The venue itself needs no introduction. Brighton Dome, with its rich and vitally significant history, was converted from the Prince Regent’s riding stables into a concert hall in 1866. With its lavish neo-classical architecture it is one of the most culturally important venues in the south. Easily accessed via a side entrance we are presented with a drinks bar, naturally. Walking around the venue you cannot help but admire the true splendour of the ceramics lining the walls. Once in the main hall and seated we wait while the venue quickly fills to capacity. The lights dim and on walks a young lady in baggy shirt and black pants. Kate Tempest’s long red locks, partially obscuring her face at first, are swept aside by her mic-free hand to reveal a huge smile together with an overwhelmed expression. “Hello,” she says calmly and thanks everyone in the room with deepest gratitude for finding the time to make it, exclaiming that “whatever you have been doing today that has brought you here, your day is about to get better!” This modern-day bard, if you will, then delivers her mission statement for the festival. “Everything is narrative,” she explains, “how do we go about changing anything? Well first we have to understand the narrative. We are living in a deep disconnection, we are living in a time that does not feel real somehow, we know it’s happening but who’s it happening to?” Kate then explains that the arts cultivate empathy and train us to understand the narratives in our lives. She then suggests that the ‘stakes are high’ whilst we gather in rooms and spaces such as this, plugging directly into experience and learning to be together. She then proposes that we see and hear as much as we can during the festival to help learn about the narratives of ourselves and others. Finally, she explains that there are also community stages being organised at the Whitehawk estate and Hangleton in west Hove before introducing the first act.
Omar Musa hails from Sydney Australia. As he walks on he and Tempest embrace like long lost pals before Musa introduces himself. Musa then proceeds to deliver 3 beautifully crafted spoken word poems. A fluid and articulate storyteller, he delivers using great intonation and wordplay that has a calming Aussie lilt. This is all woven together with what can only be described as visual, almost grammatical hand gestures. As he exclaims “so much is lost in translation!” Musa does well to explain the slang of his home back in Australia by pausing his delivery. He is clearly accomplished at working an audience. During the second poem the audience unwittingly become passengers on the Titanic as he asks them to join in singing “everything will be alright.” Though the sinking vessel that Musa really refers to is simply a culture and/or people, the disenfranchised being driven over the precipice by an oppressive system. Although heavy themes of xenophobia, racism, political activism and current affairs are the driving force here, Omar Musa is able to throw some light-heartedness into the situation to good effect. He ends with a love poem for good measure. Political but relevant Omar Musa is a joy and as he states, “we are the love notes in the margins.” You can almost see his connection with the crowd before him.
Next up is Kat Francois with a powerful but dark vision of how people are today. How the truth does not have a voice and how those voices are stifled and unable to deal with their own emotions. She captivates the people before her with a spell binding recital, occasionally singing a chorus and drumming it into a silent audience. Francoise is an accomplished spoken word performer who easily navigates the stage whilst weaving her magic over a captivated crowd, building them up to a crescendo. She almost yells, “the truth is blind and the truth is tongue tied!” Kat Francois is also a playwright and her play Raising Lazarus, about Caribbean soldiers in World War One will be featuring at the festival on the 9th and 10th May.
And so it’s the turn of Kate Tempest to give us a taste of her own performance art. Tempest does not disappoint. Warning the audience at the start that she likes to meld a number of poems into one. She deliverers, full throttle, a twenty-minute reprimand of life today in an urban sprawl. At times ferocious, her scathing attack on slices of the population is almost unnerving as you sense people’s eyes growing wider and wider. Layers of vitriol are balanced with moments of calm as Tempest herself calms from visibly shaking, allowing her long locks to cover a sharp and intense facial expression before the pace starts to increase again and she is likened to climbing an invisible ladder with gestures from her hands gripping the rungs, the mic being one of them! Certainly, in amongst the word cyclone was one of the poems from her latest critically acclaimed album, Let Them Eat Chaos. ‘Europe Is Lost’ is a vicious attack on how we have not learnt from history, how we are letting the planet down and ultimately letting ourselves down. Mockery of the ‘bored of it all’ generation, how the instant fix for everything material is all too prevalent amongst a generation that is having vanity forced upon them through the use of smartphones and social media apps. “And selfies and selfies and selfies and here’s me outside the palace of ME” Tempest states whilst channelling an unsettling shaman-like figure on stage. “Happiness the brand is not happiness,” Tempest says as she approaches the end of a spoken word tirade that leaves her as visibly exhausted as the rest of us. Kate Tempest has that gift of great stage performers. The ability to hold you captivated. She channels the same spirit that the great wordsmiths before her have done. Revolutionary users of mythology such as Blake and Yeats are clearly present in such a powerful display of craft.
Finally, ensemble act Melt Yourself Down leapt on stage to fill the void left by Kate Tempest. A jazz, funk and punk fusion, they brought plenty of energy to the stage. From London they are signed to the Leaf Label. Their self-titled debut was released back in June 2013. Although great to watch I found the set difficult to get into after Tempest’s display. You can catch them at other venues at the festival or on later tour dates of their own.
Kate Tempest, at 31 years of age, is by far the youngest curator of the Brighton Festival. She is an artist without boundaries. She melds one genre into another: be it hip hop and spoken word or vice versa. Now an accomplished playwright (Wasted) and novelist (The Bricks That Built The Houses), it’s understandable her credentials have been applied here and if this is just a taster then Brighton is in for a real treat.