Mercury Prize 2019: ‘F**k Boris’ stunt overshadows Dave’s win
The rapper Dave wins for his album Psychodrama in a highly politicised ceremony
Dave with the 2019 Mercury Prize. Photograph: Ian West/PA Wire
Rapper Dave has the won the Mercury Prize for the Best British or Irish album of the year. His debut LP, Psychodrama, was praised by the judges for its “remarkable levels of musicianship… true artistry.. courage and honestly” at a ceremony at London’s Eventim Apollo.
Irish band Fontaines DC were among the runners-up for the prestigious award for their first record, Dogrel. The Dublin group delivered a storming rendition of their single Boys in the Better Land
But their big moment, along with everyone else’s, was overshadowed by an extraordinary protest by rapper Slowthai who brandished a decapitated effigy of British prime minister Boris Johnson.
“F**k Boris Johnson, f**k everything, and there’s nothing great about Britain,” shouted the rapper, real name Tyron Frampton, nominated for his album, There’s Nothing Great About Britain.
The clip was partly aired by BBC4 on its delayed “live” broadcast. He was shown shouting “F**k Boris” at the start but cut off when he went to retrieve the head at the end. “Slowthai, with his own views, there,” said host Lauren Laverne.
“All the world’s a stage … and all the world’s in the palm of Slowthai’s scrunched up fist,” added the BBC 6 Music Twitter account, more approvingly. Frampton was invited back up by favourites Idles after they had blasted through Never Fight A Man with a Perm.
The 2019 Mercury shortlist has been heralded as among the most political in the award’s history. Brexit, #MeToo , racism and climate change are among the topics tackled by the 12 nominated acts. “They cover the current political and social landscape as well as gender, race and sexuality,” said Laverne.
Fontaines DC, formed in Dublin but whose members are from around Ireland, are regarded as leading this storming of the barricades. That was reflected in their strong odds: they were third favourites to scoop the gong, behind Slowthai and Idles and neck and neck with eventual winner Dave.
Dogrel, which charted at four in Ireland and nine in the UK, is certainly a ferocious affair. It takes the pulse of Ireland at a time of deepening social and economic anxiety. Singing in his Dublin accent frontman Grian Chatten evokes Irish literary figures such as Yeats and Joyce. And he taps into unease over Dublin’s rental crisis and the impact of gentrification on the creative community.
“The poetic punk Irish quintet.. take inspiration from the strange times we live in,” said Laverne …”What a performance!”.
Still, the band are already being misunderstood in the UK: the Guardian, in its liveblog of the Mercury, described Boys in the Better Land as “touching on the current wave of anti-British sentiment in Ireland”. That will be news to the band and to the indeed everyone in Ireland.
Fontaines DC didn’t have the pulpit to themselves at the Mercury. Eleven of the 12 acts performed live, with the 1975 unable to attend due to touring commitments. Idles, nominated for Joy As An Act of Resistance took aim at toxic masculinity with the punk onslaught of Never Fight A Man with a Perm. “Concrete to leather…concrete to leather,” shrieked singer Joe Talbot as bandmates started a mosh-pit amidst the posh tables down the front.
“The world is changing at a really alarming rate,” the band’s Belfast-born guitarist Mark Bowen said last year. “We’ve gone through a tremendous period of unrest. There’s so much negativity. People are looking for a release. There’s catharsis in aggressive, angular guitar music.”
The major talking point however was Slowthai and anti-Bojo powwow. He was a front-runner for the Mercury, with his album seeming to crystallise the feeling of Britain as a country at war with itself. Frampton was touting F*** Boris T-shirts on his Twitter account within minutes of leaving the stage.
“I love this country but I feel like we’re losing sight of who actually holds the power and what makes us great,” he said ahead of the ceremony. “It’s the people, the communities, the small places that are forgotten, everyone that’s striving.”
The politics of race was meanwhile addressed by Dave’s Psychodrama, which touched on tensions between the police and the black community in Streatham South London. He dedicated the win to his older brother, Christopher, serving a life imprisonment for his involvement in a 2010 murder.
The 1975’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, Anna Calvi’s Hunter, Little Simz’s Grey Area, Cate Le Bon’s Reward, Foals’ Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, Part One, Seed Ensemble’s Drift Glass, Black Midi’s Schlagenheim and Nao’s Saturn were the other nominated records.Ahead of the gong-giving, Foals showed their support for Extinction Rebellion, holding up a placard on the read-carpet that read “No Music On A Dead Planet”.
“I think there are lots of different types of politics in the shortlist,” said Jeff Smith, head of music for BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music, who has judged the awards for nine years. “There’s the politics of austerity, climate change, urban decay, the politics of the heart and the mind. It’s interesting to see how they reflect life for modern people and the conditions they’ve found themselves in over this last year.”
This isn’t the first time the Mercury’s have turned political. PJ Harvey won for the second time, in 2011, with Let England Shake, a examination of English identity in the shadow of the Iraq war.
And Anohni’s Hopelessness, released in 2016, was one of the first of a wave of pop records to warn that humanity was reaching the point of no return in combating climate change. More recently, power, the ceremony has celebrated artists who look within rather than grapple with social issues, such as last year’s victors Wolf Alice.
The 2018 shortlist had been criticised by one of the shortlisted artists for being too safe and industry-led. Nadine Shah said that the Mercury was in danger of becoming indistinguishable from the Brit Awards.
“Now the Mercury is actually run by the same company, the BPI [British Phonographic Industry], I think it needs to find its feet again. It’s controversial of me to say so, but I do criticise it for that. It needs to establish once again, what is it that they’re trying to do. Why is Noel Gallagher being nominated? Why are there only two debut albums?”
An Irish artist has never won the Mercury. Fontaines DC were regarded as having a better chance than predecessors such as Róisín Murphy and Villagers, if only because their music chimed with the protest moment British rock is experiencing. Politics is undoubtedly infused in their DNA. The group’s very existence has been interpreted as taking a stand against the homogenisation of music in Ireland.
“There was such a lack of bands [in Dublin],” said guitarist Conor Curley earlier this year. “We thought that was an idea we would explore, rather than everyone wanting to be producer-songwriter type.” And yet there is no rest even for critically acclaimed post-punks. As they recovered from there Mercury disappointment they were preparing to fly to Canada for a show.