MOBO Awards 2015: uniting with one hand, dividing with the other

MOBO Awards 2015, Section Boyz, by MOBO/PR( 900x506)It’s got moxie, that’s for sure. Because even after 20 years of handing out awards for music of black origin, and taking flak left, right and centre for it, the MOBO Awards are still with us. The MOBOs shouldn’t, and never will, be all things to all people. But, even as it unites its award-winners in celebration, it continues to divide its audience.

Black nominees win at black awards show. So what’s the problem?
Let’s back up for a sec. Compared with previous years in its history, Wednesday night’s MOBO Awards, in Leeds, was a smiley, controversy-free affair. Radio presenter Sarah-Jane Crawford presided over this year’s two-hour live show on ITV2. The stars came and went, including Olympic gold medallist Nicole Adams, actor Idris Elba and 2015 Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussian. Singers sang and FKA Twigs performed. Lenny Henry used his acceptance speech, for the first ever Paving the Way award, to honour to about two dozen black legends. And those all-important statues were handed out to black and mixed heritage artists.

That certainly seems like an improvement from 2011, when journalist Kieran Yates argued that MOBO had lost its way by increasing courting pop artists (often non-black) and excluding entire UK music scenes, such as grime and dubstep.

Nothing like an award ceremony to bring out our inner tribalism
Love was flowing at the 2015 MOBO Awards, as presenters and winners shouted out runners-up and fellow acts. How different things were on Twitter.

Social media will make fools of us all. But, in a year that has seen MOBO return to form with its best show in a long time, comments from those watching painted a picture of division, even as others showered praise on the show and its winners.

There were shout-outs galore for the many south London grime acts who took just under half of the awards, on MOBO’s “Croydon appreciation day”. Yet another African act award for Fuse ODG prompted some to decry his efforts to change perceptions of Africa through his music, some to wonder why he’s not won any Brits, and others to ask why there hasn’t been a Caribbean category. Others pouted at Ella Eyre and scoffed at Rita Ora (guilty). While some that weren’t commenting on Cee-Lo Green’s “Quality Street wrapper” attire, questioned why MOBO was giving the hip hop artist an outstanding achievement award in view of recent allegations against him. And some weren’t feeling the MOBOs at all.

At the mercy of primetime
Of course, those feeling the show least of all were the excluded nominees. The music of black origin has always begun as a grassroots movement – one not driven by the big bucks of industry. MOBO has often struggled to reflect this. Its nominees come in many forms and skin colours, but commercial threshold is something that unites most of them. Even as the grime quarter celebrated, alongside pop (Ella Eyre) and alternative (FKA Twigs) acts, who are themselves big enough names to draw press attention, other categories were sidelined entirely.

There were no announcements for the R&B/soul, jazz or gospel winners on live TV. All were pushed to a pre-show last week, and some of the deserving nominees (Shakka, Andreya Triana, Kwabs, Binker and Moses, Courtney Pine) with it. Meanwhile, poor Popcaan had to make do with an online-only announcement for his reggae award right after the show had finished – nominees Protoje and Chronixx didn’t even get a mention; and there are awards round-ups circulating that straight missed the category. Reggae and jazz on primetime ITV2? Nah, thought not.

When the MOBO Awards is at its best, it’s a stylish, cheeky clash of black excellence and headline-grabbing personalities. Yet, if even it can’t celebrate reggae, jazz and soul – genres that paved the way for the chart-topping hip hop and pop acts of today, and are frequently shorted by other award ceremonies – at its annual show, with a primetime audience watching, then it’s not living up to its mandate.

MOBO could do more to champion the unknown and the independent
Personally, MOBO would be better placed with an even fiercer emphasis on unknown artists and newcomers*. Acts who don’t have the recognition of Rita Ora, or Lianne La Havas or Skepta, but who are, nonetheless, making next-level music of black origin that an even richer MOBO could be celebrating. Such as: Denai Moore, Dornik, Essa, Diggs Duke, Myron & E, Hypnotic Brass, Ibibio Sound Machine, Songhoy Blues, Josephine Oniyama, Eska, The Milk, The Skints, and that’s just for starters. That might seem unfeasible, but it would be an improvement to what we’re being served at the moment.

As much as the MOBOs returned to form this year, its London-centric, celebrity-equivalent winners and performers only accentuated the underappreciated artists and genres it should be first to champion. The ceremony may now be out of its teens, but it has much to achieve yet if it is to truly live up to its name.

* I appreciate that there was the odd mention of Akala, Nao, George the Poet, Nick Brewer and Little Simz, but not enough to make casual watchers take notice.

Image: MOBO Awards/PR

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