The drumbeat of the self, the rhythm of society

The unambiguous opening lines from On Connection set us up for an extraordinary read:

This is a book about connection. About how immersion in creativity can bring us closer to each other and […] help us develop our empathy and establish a deeper relationship between ourselves and the world.

 On Connection is Tempest’s first non-fiction work, and also their first publication under their new name and gender identity. This chimes perfectly with the book’s themes of self-awareness, deep honesty and integrity. On paper, On Connection might seem overly ambitious – it could, after all, look like an amalgamation of self-help books, essays on the creative process, spiritualism, sociology and psychology. But rather than being a book which is disjointed or confused, Tempest navigates the current of connection undeterred, weaving these themes together again and again to give us a book which leaves us feeling seen and, ultimately, renewed.

Tempest draws on their wealth of experience born from a career spanning over twenty years as a writer, poet, rapper and spoken-word artist to explore the relationship between the audience and the art, the individual and society, the particular and the universal. They discuss craft, “the thing you develop while you’re waiting for connection to show up”, performance, identity and, of course, connection. They gracefully unpeel the layers of the world to reveal that numbness, in one form or another, pervades each of us.

It is this numbness that creates disconnection, and in turn enables society to remain saturated with inequality and injustice. To make it through life, to survive, to keep ourselves sane, we have developed a numbness that is “pitched as the understandable toll of trying to make a living and a life.” How else to face a society whereby our actions are so at odds with our beliefs? A society which, in Tempest’s words,

[runs] on blood. The blood of the working classes. The blood of the black and brown bodies 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. It’s chaos, ongoing. The industrialisation of inequality continues. Your numbness is necessary. My numbness is necessary.

Whether through drink, sex, social media scrolling, shopping or drugs, we all fall into this habit. It is our self-defence mechanism. It is our saviour and our ruination. Tempest deals with this deftly and with empathy – they too have turned to drugs, alcohol and struggled with their mental health. “I was very tired,” Tempest writes. “I felt lonely. And the world was a hypocrite full of spite.” 

The result of this numbing is a lack of self-awareness, which, in turn, prevents us from examining our own actions, and we become a part of the system that thrives off inequality. As Tempest puts it, “in a disconnected state, self-awareness is one of the first frequencies to be scooped out and muted […] If we can’t even notice violence in ourselves […] how can we expect to dismantle it in the culture at large?” And so the system perpetuates. 

Finally, a giant has come down from their pedestal to offer a way through the mire – and they have walked our path before. Kae Tempest’s words are urgent, volatile and potent with the need for fundamental change. Throughout On Connection, Tempest painstakingly pins to the page the consequences our society faces as a result of “a long list of ransacked nations, installed dictators, insurgencies financed by corporate interests, jailed bodies, ruined land.” Like the prophetic poet they are, Tempest proffers a way for us to combat this untenable status quo. This pamphlet, this gorgeous trove of resonant lyrical truths, kindles hope. It speaks to the creatives and the world-weary.

Yes, this is a discussion about creative connection, but be under no illusion – as Tempest states, this is “a call for unification, a call to delve deeper into the Self and to develop a self-awareness that, in the age of the selfies, we have lost.” It is impossible not to hear Kae Tempest’s voice as you read – it is rife with blazing passion. They examine politics, creativity, mental health, poverty, consumerism, education, addiction – all through the lens of one who has lived it, and who is seeking to do better, to improve, to connect.

Kae Tempest

Bravely, courageously and succinctly, Tempest steps in between our hearts and the inevitable numbing we undertake daily. They offer what reads to me as modern-day scripture, a sacred offering of words and rituals and advice. I’ve certainly read similar sentiments in philosophy, psychology and spiritual texts. Perhaps Tempest is the Rumi of our time – laying plain the complex needs of the self and society with eloquence and lyricism as the Persian poet and Sufi master did before them. Never talking down, never judging, always poetic. They share stories from their own life, opening up the complex world behind the façade of the performer, showing us their humanity, reaching out. But Tempest’s words are ablaze with conviction. There is no shying away from their lightning-strike diatribe.

They encourage us to realise that we must find a way to connect with the self in order to transform society into one which does not necessitate dissociation and disconnection: 

The closer we focus on our experience, the greater the awareness of the experience will be, the greater the immersion, the greater the possibility of connection.

Being children of a consumerist and capitalist world has a profound effect; we take after our motherland. This tendency toward exploitation – of land, country, people, experience – is, Tempest argues, something that we have taken upon ourselves. It is insidious. “The tendencies of our time are stamped so violently upon us,” they write, “they emerge in our actions unbidden.” 

That attitude of exploitation is seen in the classroom, boardroom, the street, the bedroom, in the everyday interactions we have. It is present in our most intimate relationships. Exams teach us to plunder text for marks; social media, experiences for likes; relationships for status, money, fame and so on. In Tempest’s words, “When we are fixated on what we can get from an exchange, or how we can benefit, instead of considering what we can offer, we are being exploitative.” 

From that exploitation, via likes and shares, you will see your worth. Only it won’t be a true reflection of your worth or your life. “Life as we know it is entirely unreal,” Tempest says. “We have lost each other under this selfie-system of hyper-competition.” And it’s the same with art. As in art, so in life. If you are creating, dependent on the (glorious) rush of social approval, you aren’t paying attention to your own inner voice. Your self. You’ve disconnected.

Tempest is on-hand to guide us out of this stagnant state and coax us into a better relationship with ourselves. To change society we must, as the cliché goes, change ourselves. “It’s the […] pushing of ‘our’ norms back out into society at large that creates counter-culture, that presents an opportunity for change,” Tempest explains.

That this rebuilding of society comes through creativity seems ludicrously simple. Perhaps it is an all-too obvious truth that has been lost in the pits of consumerism, dogged nine-to-fives and competitive and compulsive social media activity. The premise is this: creativity leads to a deeper self-awareness, a deeper relationship with ourselves and ultimately the world. In Tempest’s view, “A creative connection brings a person closer to themselves when they have started to drift; this proximity is profound and encourages deeper and better listening, this in turn re-encourages profound connection.” Art brings us back to self and the self brings us back to art. The processes Tempest describes are mirrors within mirrors. I see you, see me, see you, see me. It’s mindfulness, awareness, connection. The more I listen, the more I am aware, the more I can challenge myself and the world around me. In short, “What defines you? The very moment you find yourself in.”

This book is so vast, its depths so rich with detail and meaning, that it is nearly impossible to express its vivacity. Again and again, it draws you back to its pages, fulfilling what the author asks – to be present. To be connected. 

To write is to fail. An idea is a perfect thing […] But it will never be right. There is no way that a writer cannot injure that idea as they wrestle with it.

This feels yet again like Tempest tackling the universal through the specific. The issue of intention and expectation versus reality is one found both in the creative process and one which we encounter throughout life. To guide us through such fundamental issues with relative ease and painlessness is a skill indeed.

Joan Didion once stated that writing was an act of “invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” Never has this felt more true than while reading On Connection, and never before have I been so pleased to have my mind invaded, connected with. Because, as Tempest argues, “connection is the first step towards any act of acknowledgement, accountability or responsibility. It offers, whether fleeting or long-lasting, a closeness to all others. It is jubilant. Ecstatic. Without fear.”

This book is about balance. It is about the world in which we live and how to change it. It is poetry itself and it is a practical guide to creativity. It is a book on mindfulness and a raging torrent against the establishment. It is about humanity and it is about truth.

On Connection is published by Faber and available for purchase here.

The cover image shows the book cover, used with permission from Faber. The title, ‘On Connection’, and the author’s name, Kae Tempest, are written on the cover. The image on the cover depicts orange and yellow wires intertwining on a dark background.

The portrait of Kae Tempest is used with permission from Faber with credit to Julian Broad. The portrait shows Kae Tempest in a black jacket with a tree in the background.