Kelly Tyler speaks to Kanya King MBE, founder and CEO of the MOBO Awards (also referred to as MOBOs), about her pursuit to drive urban music from the margins of British popular culture to the heart of mainstream culture across the globe.
This year is the 22nd MOBO Awards, did you ever think it would be such a huge success?
When I first started the Awards, back in 1996, I had the belief, drive and passion to make it a success – it took everybody by surprise. The music industry was crying out for something like this. We had Lionel Ritchie picking up our first Lifetime Achievement Award and the then-future Prime Minister Tony Blair and wife Cherie were also in attendance. There was a lot of media interest and support from the community, it became an instant success.
Over the years there have been a lot of similar events that have come and gone but we are still going strong. I was very determined from day one to be professional and organised; I wanted to make a good impression from the very start also because of the way black music events were perceived at the time.
You worked extremely hard in order to get MOBO launched – even re-mortgaging your home – on top of raising your son single-handedly. What inspired and encouraged you to pursue your ambition of getting black and urban music celebrated?
I was born in Kilburn, North London. Both my parents were immigrants; my mum from Ireland and my father from Ghana. I came from a large family and we lived in a council flat. I lived across from a park and would spend many hours there daydreaming about what I wanted to achieve in life. One of my school teachers, when I was 14 or 15, told me not to expect too much and told me I’d probably become a manager in Sainsbury’s, if I was lucky.
An unexpected event changed my plans – I became a single mum at a young age. Being as determined as I am, I would not let this defeat me, I would not be a disappointment and that willpower has stayed with me.
Especially in the first couple of years, MOBO was seen as a rebel in the established music industry; I was this young woman demanding attention for something completely new which I really wanted to be a success. We started as an independent organisation and have remained independent ever since, which isn’t always easy yet there is a lot to be proud of.
The MOBOs have been a catalyst in the careers of numerous amazing UK artists, including Craig David, Stormzy, Amy Winehouse, Emeli Sandé, Rita Ora and many others. How does it feel to have been a part of these incredible artists’ careers?
It feels a great privilege. We have been able to provide the first TV platform for dozens of now-household names, such as Stormzy. He saw UK rappers Krept and Konan appear on the show and thought if they can win, so could he. He was inspired by what he saw at the MOBOs and has gone on to win three MOBO Awards so far – it changed his life altogether. MOBO is primarily an award show about what is to come and less as to what has been. We are giving people huge opportunities, so it has massive inspirational value.
What has been your most memorable year of the MOBO Awards and why?
A very remarkable one was 2009, it was the first time we held the MOBO Awards outside of London – in Glasgow. The same year, we paid tribute to Michael Jackson by awarding him with the Posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award. We were the only award show outside of the US to have Jackson siblings – Latoya and Jermaine – attend. Over the years there have been so many incredible performances, very hard to choose favourite ones, there are just too many to mention.
The aim of the MOBOs is to celebrate the best and brightest new talent in the UK’s thriving urban music scene, alongside more established UK and international names. Do you think black and urban music is now celebrated as it should be?
It’s getting better but we cannot sit back and be complacent. Also let’s not forget that MOBO has always championed the various urban music genres including jazz, gospel, reggae, which may not get much attention elsewhere. Besides every year we end up having over 50 nominees in total so a lot to celebrate.
What do you look for in a new and upcoming artist?
It’s hard to describe what it is they need to have, it’s a feeling. They have to be creative, fresh and exciting.
What are you working on further?
We are growing in width and depth. Last year we set up MOBO Trust, a charity to encourage and support young talent across the creative industries, not just music, but film and theatre. Further down the line we are looking to set up a MOBO Academy – a physical place to help support fresh talent. We also just founded the MOBO Help Musicians Fund.
As well as the annual MOBO Awards, the organisation is involved in helping musicians and artists to get recognised, such as MOBO UnSung, your talent competition for unsigned artists. What advice would you give to budding musicians and artists on making it in the fiercely competitive industry?
Be yourself, do what you believe in and be original.