Kate Tempest’s Poetry Storm at the Albany was a hot ticket: combing a venue that”s doing fantastic work in hip-hop, spoken word and crossover, England’s most crucial poetry promoters, and the Storm herself, who I thinks one of the most exciting spoken worders we’ve got. So no surprise on having another night of poetry that cut through bullshit and mainlined perfect verse. I mean, I felt really good.
The Brother’s Grim, he spoke with an angry authenticity — political poetry with a staring eye that had me convinced. Sometimes his words were more power than poetry, but he had this total conviction of delivery that had me convinced. Dean McCaffrey was crossing from the hip-hop to the poetry stage for the first time, and there it was again — this poetry that’s testimony, that when the words are weak the passion is strong, that genuinely made me tear in the eye like the performer himself. My top poet for the night was Tshaka Campbell — born in the UK, bred in America, and with a deliciously sexual, powerfully poetic style that cut to the heart of life. Bleue Granada and Len Hovis, they both had something good too — but of course it was Kate who sucked our breath away and spat it back at us with wild rhymes that span into stratospheres of emotion and empowerment. She’d shambled her way through MCing, blushing and stuttering in a way I think was only half affected at most, just being straightforward and a little shy — but as soon as she was in her zone, her space to speak, as soon as she was rapping into the mic, she became someone else, the words flowed directly through her and into our hearts, she was a conduit for poetry and passion.
See, sometimes spoken word can be pretentious, and sometimes it can be glib, sometimes it takes itself too seriously and sometimes not seriously enough — but what we had that night was a fist of poets who had something important to say, who believed in the need for it to be said, and who mostly had the deftness and skill to say it well. It’s art as testimony. It’s when you can’t so anything but speak. When I think about why I love poetry and the mic, that’s the answer I come back to: the way these nights bring a bunch of people together to hear what w have to say. Even though it’s usually only one person at the mic at a time, the culture of the open mic prevails — the performers aren’t setting themselves apart, they’re speaking to empower us, to encourage us to speak too, because they have to, because we have to. That’s what it’s about. Seize the mic.
OK, but there’s a caveat I have to add at the end here. I grew up in Orkney, which is about as ethnically homogenous as Britain gets. That means I always took my skin for granted, never felt conscious of it when I was a kid. So I’m always a little freaked out when I go somewhere like Deptford and am reminded of my whiteness, of what it means, feeling (in a way rare for those in power) like my skin made me stick out sore because damn near everyone on the street was black. So why the fuck is it that the audience at the Storm was almost entirely white? Outside and inside have completely different ethnic make-ups. I mean, I’ve seen this at spoken word nights before, but I’ve blogged about Farrago’s successes in diversity, and I would have thought that if anywhere could break across racial segregation in the arts then the Albany could. That left a sour taste with me at the end of the night, despite how good it was. Something’s out of whack.