It’s the 29th November, we’re in Leeds, and it’s the 22nd annual MOBO Awards. Time to watch as the young royalty of British urban music take to the red carpet, swoosh around on stage and, for a lucky few, go home with a gong or three.
Urban music has come a long way in 22 years. For you youngsters what don’t know nuffink, back when the MOBOs started in 1996 there was no internet, no smartphones and if you didn’t have the muscle of a major record label behind you, your music probably wouldn’t get heard. If you were young then you were only allowed to listen to Radio 1, and if you worked for Radio 1 then you were only allowed to play the Spice Girls and Oasis. It was against this cultural backdrop that the MOBOs emerged. Founder Kanya King MBE mortgaged her house to bankroll the first awards ceremony, risking the roof over her head to become a voice and a champion for underground black music.
How times have changed! Grime, UK hip hop, nu-garage, contemporary R&B, neo-soul, flava-biscuit. This is the new mainstream. What was once underground whispers is now up on billboards in bright lights. Sure, Noel Gallagher is still shifting mediocre records to the middle-aged, middle managers who blindly swill the slop from the musical trough, but the kids now are down with Skepta and are out there chirpsing on a peng ting in their nang creps, bruv.
I’m outside Leeds Arena watching the first of what is assured to be a long parade of expensive cars rolling up to the clustered rows of frigid photographers and journos. It’s a bit too early for the big stars to be seen arriving but there are still people braced against the barricades with hopeful looks on their faces. Two scantily-clad dancers on stilts do their best to keep a brave face, but sooner or later the arctic winds will drive them inside. Devotees shiver and keep their iPhones out ready to chance a selfie with a celeb and there’s a whiff of lunacy in the air as the kid who reviews chicken shops on YouTube steps out of a Bentley. He looks scared. Someone behind me shouts “Oh my God it’s the chicken man”. From somewhere off to my left comes “Man’s got a bum hairdo!”
Inside, the scene is set with a big beautiful M-shaped stage, golden-rimmed and resplendent. The sparkling tables below us are lined with champagne, designer clothes and talent. A discerning and light-fingered sneak could dangle a fishing line over the lip of the ledge where I am perched, right down to one of those tables and snatch up an award from an unsuspecting star.
After the DJ/hype man’s mix of ‘biiig tuuunes’ (his words) is done, Krept and Konan take the stage to generous applause to open the awards. The crowd really go wild when they are joined by man-of-the-moment-oh-Christ-he’s-everywhere-isn’t-he Stormzy, fireworks going off left, right and centre and confetti spraying over the tables. As he strolls off stage, Stormzy barks “South London!” into his mic.
The first award up for grabs is Best Song, and again there’s a big roar for Stormzy as the nominations are read out. The prize is taken though by J Hus who faces off stiff competition by Not3s and Kojo Funds ft. Abra Cadabra. We have our first sad moment of the night though as we are told J Hus is not here to collect, leaving the crowd disappointed.
This will be a recurring theme throughout the night as winners Dave, Mist and Giggs will also not be collecting their awards in person. Having four of eleven winners absent feels like a bit of a let-down, and if Stormzy wasn’t dominating by picking up a trio of gongs for Best Male, Best Album and Best Grime Act, there may have been more ‘where are they?’ moments.
Next up on stage are Yungen and Yxng Bane to sing their smash hit “Bestie” (Bangs with a budget) which culminates with them singing face to face against a rain of sparking fireworks. I notice that literally everyone sitting next to me is filming on their smartphones. Every single person. There is little applause as they leave the stage. It’s hard to clap with a phone in your hand.
In the breathers between awards and performances we’re treated to a series of enlightening videos over the arena screens of MOBO awards in years past. It’s wonderful to hear the stories from musicians who were there at the start, who all agree how the industry has been opened up to a whole new generation of black artists. The MOBOs have been vital in raising the status and legitimising so much music that would have otherwise been sadly left unheard and unnoticed. It’s important to remember that.
These snippets of film of the ghosts of MOBOs past had an unfortunate bi-product, and after Ray BLK and Stefflon Don had done their stuff on stage and a few more awards had been handed out, I started to notice some reoccurring themes. Let’s crunch the numbers*.
First off, outside the 10 nominees for Best Female (taken by Stefflon Don), there were only 6 women nominated across all the awards presented that night. Only 6. Let that sink in. Aside from Best Female, all the awards went to men. Maybe next year we need a MOFOs awards and to start championing Music Of Female Origin.
Secondly, of the total 67 nominees on the night, 46 were from London. This is even more phenomenal when you take into account that there is a Best African Act award where you wouldn’t expect any of the 10 nominees to be Londoners (although one was).
Thirdly, the prevalence of grime and trap-pop was all-conquering this year. Aside from the winner of Best African Act, all award-winners in Leeds were grime or trap-style hip-pop artists. This trend extended to the nominees. It was astounding how many nominations sounded so similar. Clip after clip of music coming over the Leeds Arena tannoy had the same trap beat, the same heavy bass, the same dreaded autotune on the vocals. The main discernible difference between artists was how much they leaned towards singing or straight up rapping on their tunes, with a half rapped, half sung (autotuned) mix being predominant. The overall aesthetic seemed so cardboard cut-out, so rinse and repeat. To me that’s a real shame. The Evening Standard reported that Maya Jama and Sarah-Jane Crawford were ‘unfortunately’ wearing the same dress, but for an old man like myself it was hard to tell many of the acts apart musically.
For those who say all awards shows are simply a popularity contest, I’ll direct your attention to Michael Dalaah (aka Big Shaq), a comedian who blew up the internet this year with his grime parody Man’s Not Hot. The crowd’s euphoric response as he walked out to present Best Video was louder than any show of appreciation to any of the award-winners or performers all night, and rendered a tuxedoed Dalaah momentarily speechless as the audience went into a spontaneous sing-a-long Man’s Not Hot. His song on YouTube has garnered over 95 million views in six swift weeks, compared with the ‘paltry’ 40 million views Stormzy’s Big For Your Boots has collected over a period of ten months. What does it say when a parody of grime is outperforming grime’s triple award winning prince?
I really wanted to enjoy the MOBOs. I went there with an open mind, thinking there would be some autotuned music that I couldn’t get behind, but optimistic that I’d get turned on to some interesting new artists. Although I have a couple of new names to check out (Little Simz, Loyle Carner) I left feeling unexcited and that the whole music biz has come full circle. The awards ceremony that sought to rally and represent the underground has slowly shape-shifted, now promoting artists with mass appeal and a carbon copy sound, and not showing off the true variety of UK urban music. I found myself wanting to go back to the MOBOs of the 1990s; the MOBOs where artists as varied as Roni Size, Shola Ama, Eternal, Finley Quaye, The Prodigy, Puff Daddy, Coolio and Jamiroquai were all honoured in the same year.
Kudos to Leeds for getting the MOBOs for the second time. It’s a great thing to raise the City’s cultural profile and bring people from all over the country. It was great to see so many fans there, out in their finery, dressed to the nines and having a cracking time. Loads of people went home with happy memories and they’ll be showing the videos on their phone to their mates, exclaiming “Man was there and it was lit, fam!” but sadly I can’t say I’m one of them.
Best Male Act: Stormzy
Best Female Act: Stefflon Don
Best Album: Stormzy – Gang Signs & Prayer
Best Newcomer: Dave
Best Song: J Hus – Did You See
Best Video: Mist – Hot Property
Best Hip-hop Act: Giggs
Best Grime Act: Stormzy
Best R&B/Soul Act: Craig David
Best International Act: Wizkid
Best African Act: Davido
Best Reggae Act: Damian Marley
Best Jazz Act: Moses Boyd
Best Gospel Act: Volney Morgan & New-Ye
Paving The Way: Idris Elba
*Here I’m talking about the awards presented on the night. Best R&B/soul Act, Best International Act, Best Reggae Act, Best Jazz Act and Best Gospel Act were presented in London.
Jim writes for Leeds Living on contemporary music, bringing gigs alive for readers who couldn’t be there.