“IIt was almost as if the world had woken up, ”said Kanya King, Mobos founder, discussing an open letter she sent to culture secretary Oliver Dowden in June. Released in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, it was a personal account of the systemic racism she has faced since the music awards began in 1996, from a hostile press to apathetic record labels.
After it was published, friends and industry peers reached out, some saying they were surprised at the scale of the discrimination, but also because they wanted to know more. “For the first time they felt comfortable listening to conversations,” she says. “It was one of those things you didn’t really talk about before, because you don’t want people to say you have a chip on your shoulder.”
That more open and honest setting sounds like the perfect place for the Mobos to return. A hiatus in 2018, intended to help the company expand into a “brand new era” in which it would grow its events business, became a two-year hiatus. As time went on, some feared it might not return at all.
King said the divide – which arose at a time when black British music, with Stormzy, Dave and the jazz scene, was global – was not about struggling with sponsorship (something she has often talked about), but more about existential reflection. “We wondered: is Mobo still needed?” she says.
Black Lives Matter’s campaign, which has since grown into a global protest movement, would suggest that it is indeed necessary. King says the impact of the protests has made brands and the wider music industry now want “ a conversation we haven’t had. It was in that ‘too risky’ box, they put it aside. People are not looking for perfection, but want to see progress. Saying or doing nothing tells you a lot about your values and who you are. “
The awards return in a year when the British musical landscape is in a bad state. Established nominees like Stormzy, Jorja Smith and Lianne La Havas sit alongside newer names like Digga D and Tiana Major9, of whom King is a huge fan.
During the hiatus, King considered the impact the awards have had, not only on British music, but also on herself. “It’s been a labor of love,” she says. I have put my life and soul into this struggle over the years, being told that inequality is fine and not a problem. I’ve been fighting for a long time trying to break down barriers … it was challenging and isolating. “
King, who began her career as a TV producer, has re-mortgaged her home twice to fund the awards. Once, to get them going, in the mid-90s, after we discovered a gap in the market; and again in 2002 after sponsors withdrew. But despite hosting performances by Rihanna, Amy Winehouse and other A-list names, and championing homegrown scenes like the British Garage, the event generated a steady stream of negative press coverage linking it to violence, undermining sponsorship deals.
The letter was a way of attesting to that treatment and also provided a deeply personal insight into her life, which began in North London as the youngest of eight children in a mixed Ghanaian and Irish household.
She says her early experiences, such as watching her Ghanaian father struggling to get a job, while movies like Zulu portrayed Africans as savages, drove her. “I have a greater purpose in my life,” she says. “My father died at a young age, and seeing people who didn’t get the chance to make their dreams come true is what motivates and drives me.
“When I was growing up, there were so many people who were incredibly talented but were missing,” she says. “You shouldn’t have to create an event or company to get into certain industries.”
One persistent criticism of the Mobos is that the scope is too narrow, whether that didn’t embrace British genres like dubstep when they emerged, or didn’t promote the renaissance of the British jazz scene strongly enough. This week it was accused of not making enough room for black rock acts.
Nova Twins, a band from Essex and London, wrote King and Mobos asking a rock category to “pay tribute to the POC creators and founders of rock’n’roll and rhythm’n’blues”. King said it’s something she’s considering but didn’t want to confirm it would happen in 2021. “If what we did didn’t have an impact, nobody would want to be a part of it,” says King. “So for me that is positive.”
King’s parents wanted her to become a teacher so that she could have a positive impact on the lives of young people. The Mobo awards are not a conventional classroom, but she hopes her parents will be proud of her achievements. “They wanted me to get a safe job and felt that I could have a tremendous impact on young people. I think in many ways I feel like I’m conveying a similar message, ”she says. “Just in other ways.”
The Mobo awards are on December 9 at 7pm. Watch live on YouTube or on BBC One at 10:45 PM