What did Black British music ever do for us?

The MOBOs turn 21 today Caspar Melville, Lecturer in Music at SOAS University of London reflects on relevance of MOBO and its impact on Western Culture.

The MOBOs (Music Of Black Origin) celebrate turning 21 today at a big bash at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro, with performances from dancehall superstar Popcaan, the first lady of grime Lady Leshurr, Jazzy newcomer Izzy Bizu and this years most unexpected comeback-kid Craig David, alongside a host of others and the blinged-up cream of British black music.

Founded in 1996 by entrepreneurial Goldsmiths graduate Kanya King, the Music of Black Origin Awards was designed to recognise and celebrate the huge contribution black musical genres have made to the development of British pop culture – something that had been routinely ignored or minimised by established awards like the pop-oriented Brits and the Indie-inflected NME awards. It was a risky idea; King struggled to get funding and in the end had to remortgage her house to fund the first awards, and she battled hard to get media attention, finally securing the crucial live broadcast on TV, first with Carlton and now on ITV2.

Since those early days the MOBOs has grown into the prime showcase and schmooze-fest for Britain’s black music industry; a chance to fix up and look sharp alongside the main movers and shakers, to showcase the latest twists in the ever-changing story of black music generic innovation, and, through the ingenuous inclusion of a number of ‘international act’ awards, the chance to bask in the high-wattage star power of American superstars like previous guests Lauryn Hill, Jay Z and Ceelo Green.

The rise of the MOBOs has not been without controversy however. One issue which has shadowed the awards from the start has to do with naming. What, after all, does ‘Music of Black Origin’ mean? It’s a formulation that feels a little weasely – why not just ‘Black Music awards’? It begs some tricky questions including what ‘black’ and ‘origin’ might actually mean (those interested in the answers could perhaps look into one of our music programmes). And, after all, isn’t all popular music, Rolling Stones to The Communards to Kylie, also music of “black origin”. Scratch any indie guitar hero, synth-pop keyboard prodder, peppy popstrel or tattooed X-Factor winner – Johnny Marr, say, or Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe, Ellie Goulding or James Arthur, and you’re likely to find a passion for Motown, Delta Blues or Reggae not far beneath the surface. In a situation where the current charts are dominated by Drake, Rihanna, Kanye West, Nikki Minaj, Clean Bandit, Tinie Tempah, Daft Punk, Kendrick Lamar, Calvin Harris, Lil Wayne and more ‘DJs’ than an Ibiza weekender, the notion of a separate event for music of black origin might seem both anachronistic and arse backwards – surely it’s the Music of White Origin that needs it’s own specialist event, held perhaps in a phone box on Tottenham Court Road.

mobo awards 2016
“MOBO has been key to elevating black music and culture to mainstream popular status in the UK.” Photo by MOBO Awards.

Yet it would be harsh to blame any of these anomalies on MOBO itself. This problem with naming and defining is hardly new; it’s an artefact of the problems that ensue when we try and capture the relationship between race and art, against the backdrop of the legacy of white supremacy in the West and the systematic double jeopardy of both degradation and commercial exploitation which runs through the history of black artistic production, interpretation and commercialisation in the west.

This legacy has bequeathed us a set of irreconcilable antimonies – predicated on the imaginary distinction between black and white (most recently debunked in Anthony Appiah’s brilliant Reith Lectures). These pivot around anxieties about the relationship between “underground” and the “mainstream”, “keeping it real” and “selling out”, “urban music” and its usually unnamed other (country music?), and worries about “cultural appropriation” which keep crashing against the evident fact that all culture is hybrid and ideas just won’t stay within neatly defined ethnic or national boundaries.

These problems dog every discussion of art and value and it is hardly surprising then that they are woven through the history of MOBO. They have bubbled up when, for example, MOBO awards have gone to Jamiroquai, Eminem, Jesse J, Mick Hucknall, Professor Green or Sam Smith (can white people make back music? Are these artists anything more than latter day variants of Elvis or Vanilla Ice?), when big-selling American artists have hogged the limelight, or when pop artists with but a gossamer-thin connection to black music history and tradition are invited to perform. Nicole Sherzinger, really?

MOBO has received its share of criticism over the years, for encouraging musical apartheid or diluting the rebel spirit of the underground, but this is to miss the point. These are healthy, important debates that the awards have succeeded in putting at the centre of discussions about popular music (at least once a year), which is where they belong.

Beyond that, tracking MOBO awards through the years offers a handy primer in the fluctuations and generic innovations that characterise the ever-shifting sands of multicultural creativity. The MOBOs were born the year drum and bass emerged triumphant from the dark corners of UK clubland, as registered in the awards to Goldie, for his Timeless album and Metalheadz club and Bristol sound scientist Roni Size. The awards also illustrate how tenuous such generic success can be, as in the following years where the powerhouse’s of US R&B and hip hop – Puffy, Beyoncé, Jay Z, Akon – throw shade on the Brit-soul acts, Beverley Knight, Lyndon David Hall, Kele Le Roc, Lamaar, DJ Trevor Nelson, who follow (rather far behind) in their wake.

MOBO allows us to map the relations between British music and the powerful twin polls of Afro-Diasporic musical production, America and Jamaica. Through MOBO, we can measure the distance still to be travelled between, say, Birmingham soulstress Jamelia and Lauryn Hill, brainy rapper Akala and Chuck D, but we can also see in the award winners the first tentative steps toward the development of a genuine British sound, a robust unashamed Black-British-cos-this-is-where-we-are-from-and-where-we-belong post-colonial, multicultural media production ecosystem. First were the junglists, then, slowly but surely, Shanks & Bigfoot and Craig David, in his UK garage re-wind mode, then So Solid Crew, Wiley and Krept and Konan, Stormzy, Little Simz, Skepta and Kano, the coming to voice of the first genuine British take on hip hop: grime. We can see the emergence of a brand new thing – at least something not not seen since the glory days of the Beatles and the British invasion – British artists powerful enough to change music on the other side of the Atlantic – Tinie Tempah, Rudimental, Dizzy Rascal, Amy Winehouse – some even potent enough to single-handedly revive the slide of global album sales, like the all-conquering Adele.

Written across the history of MOBO is the story of how black dance music (born, it should be remembered, in the marginalised black gay clubs of New York, Chicago and Detroit, remixed in British Rave and its bastard offshoots) re-conquered America now rebranded as EDM (Electronic Dance Music), and of the shifting sociological patterns of black British settlement; the introduction of the category for ‘best African music’ in 2010 (past winners include K’naan, Wizkid and D’Banj) registers the emergence of Black British artists from West African families, embodied in the new genre of Afrobeats.

It also seems significant that MOBO is choosing to celebrate this milestone in Scotland; far away from the centrifugal pull of London, suggesting just how deeply embedded the love of black music is across the whole of this otherwise rather dis-United Kingdom. Recognition has been hard won, but with founder Kanya King, and many of the likely guests from David Rodigan to Omar now proudly sporting MBEs, we should credit this annual awards show with delivering on its promise.

So, happy birthday MOBO, and thank you for the music.

Caspar Melville is a Lecturer in Music at SOAS University of London and a former music journalist.

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