The annual storm brewing over the Mobos is more turbulent than ever this year. Launched in 1996, the Music of Black Origin awards usually attract two types of responses to their cumbersome name: “Isn’t most pop music of black origin? Ask Elvis or the Rolling Stones!’ and, more problematically, “Why are there no awards for music of white origin?”. The nominees for this year’s Mobo awards, announced on Wednesday night, have provoked more consternation than usual, owing to the proportion of white faces on the list.
With Jessie J leading the 2011 nominations with five – best album, best newcomer, best UK act, best video and best song – and Adele weighing in with four, eyebrows have been raised, with the Times describing it as a “whitewash”. The suggestion is that, with her fame and multi-platinum selling album, 21, Adele will garner a bigger media profile for the awards ceremony, which takes place on 5 October in Glasgow.
Janice Brown, in an article for the Voice newspaper headlined “All white on the night?”, asked whether the Mobos were letting down black artists by giving greater emphasis to white singers such as Jessie J and Katy B. “Mobo is really leaning on the ‘origin’ part of their name, aren’t they?” she wrote, suggesting the initial remit of giving a platform to unheard black music had been forgotten. While the Mobos are being criticised for not providing this promotional leg-up, the bigger question arising from the revolution in black British music in the last few years is whether it even needs them any more.
Austin Daboh from BBC 1Xtra, a station that has faced similarly vexed questions about what is defined as “black” or “urban” music, has seen the sea-change at close quarters. “There have been several false dawns for black British music in the mainstream,” he explains, citing the fleeting but shallow interest in jungle and drum’n’bass in the late 1990s, the glut of number one singles coming from UK garage around the turn of the decade, and then the gold rush to sign grime MCs following Dizzee Rascal’s Mercury win in 2003 – none of which heralded the long overdue move of black British music into the charts.
During those years, much like the industry at large, the Mobos relied on market-proven imports of American hip-hop and R’n’B. Over the same period it was difficult for black British music to get a look in. “When I first joined 1Xtra six years ago,” recalls Daboh, “I was scheduling the music for a show, and I remember being told off for placing two UK tracks back-to-back. And look at it now.” Some of the daytime 1Xtra shows now comprise 70% UK music, he tells me – while former underground stars such as Tinchy Stryder, Tinie Tempah, and now Wretch 32 are achieving chart success and record sales no one could have imagined a decade ago.
For Rinse FM grime DJ and Butterz label boss Elijah, the Mobos do nothing to support up-and-coming black music. “It’s really only for people who want to propel themselves into the commercial arena. If you don’t want to be like JLS or Chipmunk it’s not going to help you, that’s the sad thing about it.” He mentions the rapper P Money as an example of an up-and-coming black MC who both deserves, and would benefit from, having his less watered-down talent brought to a wider audience. While the debate over authenticity in music is almost as old as music itself, it’s difficult not to see the chart triumphs as a bit of a pyrrhic victory for black music.
For Daboh, it’s unrealistic to expect it to act primarily as an outlet for the most underground of street cultures. “It is a mainstream awards show, so are you expecting the most credible dubstep bass producer to be nominated? When you speak to the general public there’s nothing but love and affection for the Mobos. The negative perception is very much an industry thing. We’re all snobs in the industry.” He also thinks that the Mobos’ founder, Kanya King, has dealt with the rapidly changing face of British pop music remarkably well. “There’s a misconception that Kanya is this Gaddafi-type figure, sitting on a throne and not listening to any advice, but she’s very astute, and aware of the feedback.”
And yet, accountable or not, the broad-based 2011 nominations list looks remarkably like a midway point between this February’s Brits and next year’s. Elijah finds the increasingly unclear criteria understandably baffling: “I’m just not sure what the Mobos is, basically – looking down the categories, at these totally contrasting styles, it’s so vague it’s meaningless. If someone could say what black music is, or what music of black origin is, in 2011, it would be easier.”
And this is the nub – it’s not the colour of Jessie J’s face that’s the problem, so much as the sounds emanating from it. The combination of electro beats and R’n’B-tinged vocals topping UK and US charts transcends both race and place. “Ten years ago it made more sense, sonically,” reckons Elijah: “Hip-hop sounded like hip-hop, R’n’B sounded like R’n’B. But when you have Kelly Rowland making the kind of music she makes with David Guetta, is that still music of black origin? It’s not a colour issue, it’s just a sound issue. If you’re celebrating JLS as music of black origin … apart from them being black, why is that?”
“Amy Winehouse being celebrated you can understand, because her music links to Aretha Franklin – even Adele to an extent, that’s fine. Or Professor Green, fair enough: he’s a rapper who just happens to be white.” And that’s the bizarre quandary the Mobos are in. Black British music is doing better than ever before, but via artists such as Jessie J and Chipmunk. The hits that have made “black music” the definitive pop sound of our era isn’t actually black or white, but post-racial, in the blandest way imaginable.
Now that it crosses over so much with the charts, just what is the point of the Mobos – is it a celebration of colour-blind, already successful pop music? Or just the Brit awards in a baseball cap? “It’s great to be providing these artists with a platform,” Kanya King told the press, “and they help to keep our event new, fresh and relevant.” But do these artists, irrespective of skin colour, still need a platform? More than ever before in the UK, black music is pop music is black music. And the more the Mobos remit dovetails with the pop charts and the Brit awards, the more they’re going to have to face questions about what exactly they are for.
Dan Hancox, The Guardian