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Review of Kae Tempest’s Work – A Well-Deserved Success Story


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The modern music documentary has become a peculiar entity, often masquerading as a hard-hitting exposé but in reality, a meticulously orchestrated public relations tactic. Celebrities willingly reveal their vulnerabilities, such as mental and physical health struggles (Robbie Williams, Selena Gomez), addiction (Demi Lovato), and the illnesses of loved ones (Ed Sheeran), in exchange for a favorable portrayal. However, even this vulnerable display is not much of a sacrifice. In fact, it often garners sympathy and relatability, making it a valuable cultural currency. At times, these documentaries are even seen as acts of selflessness, with the subjects being praised for breaking taboos and raising awareness while the self-promotion aspect is downplayed.

The program “Being Kae Tempest” focuses on the talented and acclaimed rapper, poet, playwright, and author. It initially appears to follow the popular trend of showcasing individuals in the current cultural climate. We are taken on Tempest’s most recent tour, promoting their upcoming album “The Line Is a Curve.” We learn that during their previous tour in 2019, the 37-year-old was in a difficult state. They were experiencing frequent panic attacks both on and off stage and had trouble leaving their dressing room. Even reaching the dressing room was a challenge, with Tempest’s manager having to record the route from the venue’s entrance to help them mentally prepare for the journey.

These emotions were not caused by being overworked or exploited as an artist, but rather stemmed from a deeper sense of discomfort. The documentary, part of BBC’s esteemed Arena series, opens with some personal footage filmed by Tempest in 2020. In the footage, they explain their decision to change their name (previously known as Kate) and their pronouns (formerly referred to as she/her). Between their two tours – the nightmarish 2019 experience and this current one – Tempest publicly embraces their new non-binary identity, undergoes hormone therapy, and eventually has top surgery, resulting in a newfound sense of tranquility.

Tempest finally gets the happy ending they deserve in the documentary. We see them performing for their adoring fans, spending time with their supportive girlfriend and taking care of their beloved dog, Murphy. The inner turmoil and anxiety that once consumed Tempest has faded away, allowing them to look back on their past with a newfound sense of humor. They proudly point to a photo of their younger self with red hair and exclaim, “That’s me! I was just a little boy!”

Scene from Being Kae Tempest documentary

Tempest briefly reflects on their experience with gender dysphoria, which has greatly impacted their life. They found it devastating to go through puberty and realize that being a woman was seen as the only option. In an attempt to conform, they grew their hair, got a boyfriend, but still felt uncomfortable. However, Tempest’s girlfriend, actor Amie Francis, rightly emphasizes that they do not owe the world an explanation of their identity. The creators of this documentary also share this sentiment and choose not to overly focus on Tempest’s transition.

Instead, the main focus of Kae Tempest is their day-to-day work as an artist. This is a depiction of an artist who is constantly driven and dedicated to their craft. We see Tempest working on editing poems while backstage at gigs, balancing their various projects such as writing plays, novels, and lyrics. The book also briefly covers their early career, from struggling to perform at battle rap events to being invited by Rick Rubin to Malibu, where Jay-Z showed support by listening in on their songwriting sessions. However, the book does not mention their time at the prestigious Brit School for performing arts in London.

The story is quite interesting, but all the excitement happens in the first 15 minutes. The rest of the program includes clips of Tempest’s live performances and music videos, as well as a slow-paced and uninteresting account of their daily life. We see Tempest and producer Dan Carey in the studio, casually discussing piano melodies. We also witness everyday activities such as making an omelette and going on car rides. There are also scenes of sound checks and playing darts at home, as well as looking through old notebooks. One particularly tedious moment is when Tempest struggles to correctly apply a windshield sticker.

Although Tempest’s work may come across as earnest due to their occupation as a spoken word poet, in person they are humble and humorous. We see enough interactions with their fans to confidently say that their admirers can disregard the saying about not meeting your idols. However, watching a normal and well-adjusted person do regular activities is not considered entertaining. This may reveal something unsettling about our obsession with celebrity dysfunction, but for Tempest, the fact that this program turned out to be somewhat dull is actually a positive thing. The artist already has many talents and does not need to add a chaotic and dramatic persona to their repertoire.

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Source: theguardian.com