We all LOVED the MOBO’s. I am sure 99% of those reading this have a favorite ‘MOBO Moment’ they can recall from the Music Of Black Origin award show’s 17 year existence. Few would deny that the MOBO’s has played a key role in raising the profile of British Black Music in the UK since its inception in 1996 and for that, credit is due to Kanya King who undoubtedly made sacrifices, such as apparently remortgaging her house – to see this vision come to life.
It is within this context that critiques of the MOBO’s, what it has become, and where it appears to be heading, should be assessed. While many celebrated the mainstream success of British Black Music in the UK, there appears to be an increasing number of us asking whether the price of recognition was too high; the MOBO’s being just one indicator. Has success come at the price of the integrity of our music and the contributions of our community?
Omowale Malcolm X is often quoted as saying “History is best qualified to reward our research”. If the History of Black music is properly considered, we find an often identified yet woefully under considered pattern. Blues, Jazz, Soul, Reggae & Hip-Hop are popular genres which exploded onto the world stage only to then become subject to “whitewash”. This “whitewash” manifested itself first in the control of the business of Black Music which then undoubtedly affects the art itself. So in the case of Blues & Jazz, white artists often dominated the stage as well as the boardroom and the music began to shift in order to suit the sensibilities of increasing white audiences.
In each instance, entire generations of Black people worldwide appear to have been caught off guard by the corporate takeover of all ‘our’ popular music forms, whilst we were distracted, celebrating the “success” provided by being featured on the world stage. As a result, Black music is the ONLY music in which the main benefactors in economy and often accolade are not born of the people and culture who birthed the music.
So we have a situation in which the MOBO’s, which was expressly developed for the purpose of “elevating black music and culture to mainstream popular status in the UK” today promotes itself as “Europe’s leading urban music brand”. The use of “Urban” is a well established commercial tool designed to disconnect the music from its heritage, and it appears that MOBO’s is following this trend. From what I have seen and heard, here in lies the concern for many who were disappointed with the 2014 MOBO awards which took place last Wednesday 13th October. People expect the MOBO’s to set the trends as opposed to following them. Especially those that are set by the industry, which has been near criminal in its lack of recognition/respect for British Black Music and its black artists. So why once we have maneuvered ourselves into a position of influence do we seem to follow them as opposed to have them follow us?
As far as the MOBO’s are concerned, this has manifested itself with a number of critical omissions some of which have been challenged publicly. In 2006 & 2007 Jazz/Hip-Hop veteran Soweto Kinch and soul legend Omar respectively lead acts of demonstrations at the MOBO’s award show for omitting the Jazz category and failing to have a Soul Category altogether. This year, particular concern was given to the fact that the Afrobeats, Gospel and Reggae categories were relegated to off screen presentation along with the fact that there was no mention of recently deceased Reggae icon John Holt.
The latter omission is even more significant when it is considered that over the last decade at least, John Holt has consistently hosted arguably the largest Reggae concerts in the UK with full orchestra; selling out the Royal Albert Hall on countless occasions. In contrast, The MOBOs has not hesitated to pay homage to Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston, both of whom are more than likely considered far more commercially appealing to the mainstream than Mr Holt. This, coupled with the fact that Sean Paul seems to swipe an inordinate amount of “Best Reggae Act” MOBO awards when his output is compared with that of his peers, signals that the industry has a stronghold on who is deemed rewardable, and this stronghold is disconnected from the culture of the music on the ground.
Take Akala for example. A MOBO winner in 2006, when he declared “Roll With Us or get rolled over”. Since his SB.TV special in 2010, he has stood at the forefront of MCing in the UK with 2 albums (Knowledge is Power & Thieves Banquet) various tours associated with both albums, his Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company touring nationally – and throw in some of the most high profile radio sessions, particularly Fire In The Booth 1, 2 & 3 – all fuelled by an independent label for good measure! All of that and the brother has barely received a nomination over the recent years. Now, it is reasonable that some things may get overlooked at award shows, but for an artist of Akala’s prominence to be overlooked consistently year in year out suggests that the criteria for recognition must be called into question. On top of that, concerns are being raised as to the degree to which non-Black, particularly White artists appear to be increasingly dominating the awards. Jessie J, Plan B and most recently Sam Smith effectively dominating in ways that only Emile Sandae has come close to replicating.
The heightened focus of this critique in 2014 has been fuelled by an entire year of revelations as to how developed this dynamic has become. In the past year DJ 279 was axed from Choice FM only to be replaced by Tim Westwood, just before Capital drove the final nail in the coffin of its takeover and rebranded the station Capital Xtra. David Rodigan continues to be lauded as the number one Reggae DJ in the country over Robbo Ranks, Chris Goldfinger and all other DJs who have been BBC favorites. To much uproar Ed Sheeran was declared by BBC’s ‘Black/Urban’ station 1Xtra as the Most Powerful artist in Black music earlier this year, and who can forget the English Frank saga of 2013…Coupled with the fact that artists such as Ty, Wiley and even Lenny Henry have been particularly vocal about the lack of recognition of Black talent over the last year means that Sam Smith’s clean up could certainly be received as a slap in the face, from the one award show that should be celebrating black talent where other British awards shows fail to do.
But, MOBO’s does have it supporters. Amidst the rounded criticism, So Solid’s Mega Man took to twitter in defense of the institution he says supported him and his crew during their rise to prominence:
“The @MOBOAwards is only award show we have which even recognises urban talent, this is our awards show.”
When questioned about the apparent whitewashing he responded:
“It’s our people’s writing and producing for most of them…”
The latter may well be true and true to historic form it’s not any different to the dynamics of Elvis Presley being written for by Otis Blackwell, who defined much of the sound that would be associated with Elvis as well as his vocal performance style. This practice of black musicians creating smash hits became commonplace. Encouraging the whitewash of Rock ‘n’ Roll, R ‘n’ B and related genres, with Presley firmly placed as the King above all.
Using that example and the Rock and Roll era alone, it is reasonable to suggest that the issues surrounding black music today were very much foreseeable, and possibly preventable if the lessons of history were well and truly learned. As a spoken word artist I was added to the Mega Man twitter conversation by a brother who shared a spoken word piece I had written on the Urban dynamic. I was struck by the realisation that I had written the article an entire decade ago, in an era when such observations were often condemned as “Racist”. Yet here we are in 2014 seeing that having a “cultural melting pot” doesn’t make a people immune from the impacts of Racism on an economic and cultural level, even when the vehicle is their own music.
In this context we must address the issue of economics. Does the British black population have substantial enough black economy in which we can find companies such as HTC to sponsor an award show such as the MOBOs? While we may, justifiably, critique the extent to which the MOBOs has given in to cooperate interests, can it be said that black music as a whole is immune from that kind of take over? A considered attempt at answering these questions will ensure that we are not constantly bolting the door once the horse has well and truly gone through it.
ShakaRa Speaks On It by Tafadzwa ShakaRa Mbandaka / @ShakaRaBKS for the british blacklist