Braving the Storm: Chaos as a Symbol of Violence and Optimism in Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos
Storm plays a decisive role in Kate Tempest’s epic poem Let Them Eat Chaos. Although the poem and the accompanying album were released in 2016, it is hard to imagine a work that better analyses our current lives in self-isolation.
Storm seems to be one of the most prevalent metaphors for describing life in times of Corona. It plays a decisive role in the epic poem Let Them Eat Chaos, written and performed by the London born writer and hip-hop artist Kate Tempest. Although the poem and the accompanying album were released in 2016, it is hard to imagine a work that better analyses our current lives in self-isolation. Hip-hop scholar Aafje de Roest and cultural historian Dorine Schellens explain why.
Kate Tempest (1985) is one of Britain’s leading poets and performers, who has won numerous awards for her extremely versatile work – she writes both poetry, plays, novels, and music. The album Let Them Eat Chaos from 2016, which was also released in book form, has received wide acclaim and was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize in 2017. The text is written in the form of an epic poem, a lengthy narrative genre that dates back to the preliterate era, when it was used to engrave the deeds of Gods and outstanding humans who shaped the course history in memory by orally performing the text. Tempest consciously situates herself in this tradition.
The beginning of Let Them Eat Chaos invites the reader/listener to look at history by imagining the birth of our planet: “Picture the world. / Older than she ever thought she’d get.” These verses evoke the trope of the earth as a mother, her “[a]rms loaded with the trophies / of her most successful child”: humankind. Among these trophies the poems counts “the pylons and mines” and “the power-plants” which are so menacingly portrayed on the cover, making the earth go up in smoke (see image below). The text is thus quick to denounce widespread ideas of technology’s victory over nature and the makeability of life. In a prophetic style befitting the genre of the epic poem, Tempest warns of a scenario of destruction, which like a ticking time bomb can go off any time: “In now. / In / fast. / Visions.”
From this global perspective on mother earth the poem then zooms in on the local: the city of London with its blocks, streets and flats. The focus on the local, which is also apparent in Tempest’s performance of the poem in her own distinct London dialect, situates the poem firmly in the hip-hop tradition. Hip-hop tells local stories against the background of the global, it narrates the lived experiences of residents in a certain district, neighborhood or street in order to address broader themes related to society, politics and identity. In other words: hip-hop localizes the global.
In the case of Let Them Eat Chaos, we hear the stories of seven individuals, who are all awake at the same time. It is 4.18 at night and “[a]t this very moment, on this very street, / seven different people in seven different flats / are wide awake. / Can’t sleep. / Of all these people in all these houses, / only these seven are awake.” People are part of a collective, a larger whole, and in the cycle of life humans are intricately connected to each other, the poem explains: “The point of life is live. / Love if you can. Then pass it on. / We die so others can be born / We age so others can be young / The point of life is live, / Love if you can / Then pass it on.” The seven individuals whose lives we follow, however, do not seem to realize this (yet). They are depicted as extremely ego-centric – illustrated by verses such as “and selfies / / and selfies / and selfies” and “here’s me outside a palace of ME!” – and do not look out for others. This ultimately leads to disaster. As the opening quote from this post aptly illustrates, people in our neoliberal Western society are so pre-occupied with themselves that they don’t realize a storm is coming, and the earth’s limits have been reached.
However, for all their differences, these seven individuals do have something in common: they are all awake at precisely 4.18 a.m. “They shiver in the middle of the night / counting their sheepish mistakes. / Is anybody else awake? / Will it ever be day again?” In times of hasty loves, continuous consumption and mass production, the need for sincere, interpersonal connections becomes clear from these anxious questions. These relationships ultimately form a life cycle in which “[e]verything’s connected”. The point is, the poem explains, to “live, love if you can, then pass it on”.
Nature and technology are juxtaposed as two powerful actors in the poem. To technological destruction of the ecosystem mother earth finally responds with a violent force of her own: storm. Powerful wind and rain compel the seven individuals to go outside and meet: “Seven broken hearts / Seven empty faces / heading out of doors: / Here’s our seven perfect strangers. / And they see each other.” The implication is clear: only a disruptive force such as a storm can bring change. The title Let Them Eat Chaos is therefore both a sign of violence and optimism.
Both in terms of the stormy weather and the outbreak of the Corona-virus, the 2020s are already off to a roaring start. As the historian Yuval Noah Harari so eloquently put it in a recent article, “[t]his storm will pass. But the choices we make now could change our lives for years to come”. The current extreme circumstances in which we live show us not only what isn’t possible, but more importantly, what is possible if we look out both for each other and nature:
trust is something we will never see
Till Love is unconditional
The myth of the individual
has left us disconnected lost
I’m out in the rain
it’s a cold night in London
Screaming at my loved ones
to wake up and love more.
Pleading with my loved ones to
and love more.”
 See, for example, Slavoj Žižek’s recent article (in Dutch) entitled “Op weg naar een perfecte storm in Europa” in De Groene Amsterdammer (24 March 2020) and Yuval Noah Harari’s opinion piece “The World after Coronavirus” in the Financial Times (20 March 2020).
 See her poetry debut Everything Speaks in its Own Way (2013), her spoken word piece Brand New Ancients (2013), her album Everybody Down (2014) and her poetry collection Hold Your Own (2014). In 2016, Tempest published her debut novel entitled The Bricks That Built The Houses, which became a Sunday Times Bestseller and won the Books Are My Bag Readers Award for Breakthrough Author.
 Yuval Noah Harari: “The World after Coronavirus.” In: Financial Times (20 March 2020).
© Aafje de Roest, Dorine Schellens and Leiden Arts in Society Blog, 2020. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Aafje de Roest, Dorine Schellens and Leiden Arts in Society Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.