Strong nature imagery and the general magic of Kae Tempest's lyrics
Recently two specific songs of Kae Tempest, a prolific poet, author and spoken-word artist with hip-hop connections, caught my attention. Both evolve around love - the love for ourselves, for others and this beautiful world.
I would like to share them with you and put some meaning and interpretation around the context.
It was next to the magic of their words in general that especially the nature metaphors and nature imagery they use that took hold of me and touched me. I'm a very visual person and I can relate to these images so deeply. They evoke a graspable sensation within my body.
The two songs I'm speaking about are:
Hold Your Own by Kae Tempest
It's a song about the purpose of life and how one should pursue and spread happiness over everything else. "The lyrics to the piece are a universal ode to love. A call to love the world, to love each other and above all to accept oneself." writes Deutschlandfunk Kultur (1).
Hold your Own is also the title of Kae's book of poems from 2016 inspired around a figure from Greek mythology: Teiresias. He is a prophet who, as the result of an altercation with some magical snakes, was transformed into a woman for seven years.
At some point Zeus and Hera asked Tiresias to settle a dispute they had over the question of who had more pleasure during sex. Hera arguing that the answer was men, by far. When Tiresias replied that women had greater pleasure than men, Hera was so enraged that she blinded him. Zeus, in thanks for his support, gave Tiresias the gift of prophecy and long life (2).
Tiresias has been both men and woman and therefore qualified to answer the question over which Zeus and Hera fought. At the same time this figure is most interesting to Kae who came out publicly as non-binary, someone whose gender identity isn't exclusively male or female, in 2020 (3).
"Tiresias, you hold your own.
Each you that you have been."
In the song Hold Your Own she picks up that line, which also gives this piece the title, again. You can already find it in the very beginning. Throughout the whole song it is being repeated, almost like a refrain.
"When time pulls lives apart
Hold your own
When everything is fluid and when
Nothing can be known with any certainty
Hold your own
Hold it till you feel it there
As dark and dense and wet as earth
As vast and bright and sweet as air
When all there is
Is knowing that you feel what you are feeling
Hold your own"
They encourage you to stay strong and at the same time to "hold it till you feel it". Feeling it - something you and also I may have tried to skip here and there in situations if we are honest. Even though we know that: the only way out is through.
Kae describes this feeling in her lyrics with the help of strong nature imagery: "As dark and dense and wet as earth. As vast and bright and sweet as air". It's almost impossible to not have an embodied sense of what they want to get across with that.
They end the song with putting you into another scenery out there in nature, on a freezing beach where you breath deep and where you taste the salt of shellfish. Perhaps you can picture yourself easily in a specific beach landscape. It will look a bit different for each one of us. Standing there, freezing and tasing the salty air. Loosing yourself to this song. A bit of magic.
"So hold your own
Breathe deep on a freezing beach
Taste the salt of shellfish
Smile at a stranger and mean it
Lose your shit to your new favourite English rapper
Hold your own
And let it be
Enjoy the full song in the video below, where a dance company of young dancers performs it with great expression.
Hold Your Own [full lyrics]
When time pulls lives apart Hold your own When everything is fluid and when Nothing can be known with any certainty Hold your own Hold it till you feel it there As dark and dense and wet as earth As vast and bright and sweet as air When all there is Is knowing that you feel what you are feeling Hold your own Ask your hands to know the things they hold I know The days are reeling past in squealing blasts Stop for breath and know it's yours Swaying like an open door when storms are coming Hold Time is an onslaught Love is a mission We work for vocation until In remission We wish we'd had patience and given more time to our children You must feel each decision you make You must hold it Hold your own Hold your lovers Hold their hands Hold their breasts in your hands like your hands were their bras Hold their cheeks in your palms like a prayer Hold them all night and feel them hold back Don't hold back Hold your own Every pain Every grievance Every single stab of shame Every day spent with a demon in your brain giving chase Hold it Know the wolves that hunt you In time, they will be the dogs that bring your slippers Love them right and you will feel them kiss you when they come to bite Their hot snouts digging out your cuddles with their bloody muzzles Hold Look, nothing you can buy will ever make you more whole This whole fucking thing thrives on you feeling incomplete It is why you will search for happiness in Whatever stupid thing you crave in a moment And it is why you will never find it there It is why you will sit there with the lover that you fought for In the car you sweated years to buy Wearing the ring you dreamed of all your life And some part of you will still be Unsure that this is what you really want Stop craving Hold your own But if you are satisfied with what you have and who you are You won't need to buy new make-up or new outfits or new pots and pans To cook new exciting recipes For new exciting friends To make yourself feel like the new Exciting person you think you're supposed to be Happiness, the brand, is not happiness You are smarter than they think you are They take us all for idiots That's their problem If we behave like idiots It's our problem So hold your own Breathe deep on a freezing beach Taste the salt of shellfish Smile at a stranger and mean it Lose your shit to your new favourite English rapper Hold your own And let it be Catching
Grace by Kae Tempest
This is the closing song of her latest album called The Line is a Curve. An album that starts from a place of isolation and dejection. As it progresses the instrumentation and Kae's lyrics become lighter and more optimistic and turn towards love, especially with that last song Grace that really caught me (4).
"What's my problem? I'm always drawn back to that wrestling match Ten thoughts in the ring of my mind playing catch I can't live for the noise in my head I just want to dig a big ditch in the soil of my breath and bury my brain there"
I love how Kae brings in this sense of embodiment in many of her songs and lyrics. In the lines above they refer to the duality of the mind and the body. Our mind that can cause us problems with all its thoughts and on the other hand the breath as a representative of our body that just is.
"I just want to dig a big ditch in the soil of my breath and bury my brain there". A beautiful reminder for you and me that the breath is our friend and can can bring us back to presence so easily - when we pause and pay attention.
"It was Grace Stunned by the last light of the sun We were swimming in a green sea, as deep as a drum There are things I must record, must praise There are things I have to say about the fullness and the blaze Of this beautiful life"
Kae invites you into a specific scenery in the very beginning and in the very end of the song. A landscape very descriptive of its kind. A place and a moment in time outdoor in nature that equals grace and that brings forth the beauty of this life we are living. What a beautiful closing of this song and the whole new album that I can highly recommend.
Grace [full lyrics]
It was Grace Stunned by the last light of the sun We were swimming in a green sea, as deep as a drum There are things I must record, must praise There are things I have to say about the fullness and the blaze Of this beautiful life The beloved watched the world on its knees with an infinite degree of separation That was something to see And my friend told me death is like taking off a tight shoe And when I stopped looking for me I was able to find you Right there where everything is, transcendent I can feel myself opening up, getting closer No hope is enough I've stopped hoping, I'm learning to trust I came to under that red moon I was completely crushed Please use me Please move through me Please unscrew me Please loosen me up Make music with me Make everything stop Make noise and make silence with me Make love Let me be love Let me be loving Let me give love, receive love and be nothing but love In love and for love and with love In love and for love and with love Surrender, I do surrender Move through me and feel me get out of the way And tune into something more deep and reflective than what's to be achieved Or perceived Or affected What's my problem? I'm always drawn back to that wrestling match Ten thoughts in the ring of my mind playing catch I can't live for the noise in my head I just want to dig a big ditch in the soil of my breath and bury my brain there But love said If you bring forth what is within you What you bring forth will save you But if you do not bring forth what is within you What you do not bring forth will destroy you
It was Grace Stunned by the last light of the sun Swimming in a green sea as deep as a drum There are things I must record, must praise There are things I have to say about the fullness and the blaze Of this beautiful life, of this beautiful life
Now it's your turn
Put on some headphones, go for a walk, let yourself sink into Kae's lyrics and melodies and feel the words in your body. I hope you enjoy these songs as much as I do.
1: Kate Tempest Album „Books of Traps and Lessons“: Eine universelle Ode an die Liebe. https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/kate-tempest-album-books-of-traps-and-lessons-eine-100.html
2: Britannica: Tiresias. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tiresias
3: The Guardian: Kae Tempest: ‘I was living with this boiling hot secret in my heart’. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2022/mar/12/kae-tempest-i-was-living-with-this-boiling-hot-secret-in-my-heart
4: Pitchfork: The Line is a Curve: Kae Tempest. https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/kae-tempest-the-line-is-a-curve/