Mobos and Brits take a lead on making their music choices matter
Are music awards ceremonies finally getting to grip with their lack of diversity?
Section Boyz attend the 21st Mobo Awards at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Earlier this week, the Brits Voting Academy announced that it would be giving its voting system a makeover to promote diversity in the acts nominated but have award ceremonies ever had it right? From Kanye West storming the stage at the 2009 VMAs to Macklemore beating Kendrick Lamar for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Album at the 2014 Grammy Awards, black artists’ contributions to music are often overlooked at mainstream award shows, even if they’re some of the world’s best-selling performers.
2016 has been tough, what with everyone dying and the world falling into general ruin, but one silver lining to this pox of a year is that it’s the year where musicians and actors stood up to the old-fashioned and whitewashed voting panels that decide who gets nominated for the biggest awards in music.
In February, the Brit Awards were heavily criticised for awarding only white musicians in the biggest categories, with #BritsSoWhite trending on Twitter, and Kendrick Lamar made a huge Black Lives Matter statement at the Grammy Awards – a ceremony that has been called racist by a number of its nominees – by performing untitled 05 | 09.21.2014, Blacker the Berry and Alright in shackles.
Last week’s Mobo Awards in Glasgow were a celebration of black artists and for the last few years, Mick Hucknall, Jessie J and Sam Smith wins aside, they’re a truer reflection of the diversity in British music, honouring Stormzy, FKA Twigs, Skepta and Kano, who are largely ignored by the Brits. That lack of representation caused Stormzy to call out the awards in his song One Take Freestyle; “What? None of my Gs nominated for Brits?/ Are you taking the piss? Embarrassing”.
This isn’t the first time that the awards have come under fire for ignoring British black talent. In 2001, fresh off the success of his debut album Born to Do It, one of the best-selling R&B albums by a British act, Craig David failed to win six of the awards he was nominated for, causing Dane Bowers to wear a “Craig Woz Robbed” shirt in support. In 2008, David said that he had lost interest in the awards as they don’t represent what’s really going on in the music industry. However, at last week’s Mobos, he won Best Male Act, bringing his Mobo Award count up to four.
In an attempt to be more inclusive, the awards added the Best Urban Act category in 2003, with Ms Dynamite winning in 2003 and Lemar (remember him?) winning in 2004, but by 2005 the category was gone. Last year, as a huge middle finger to the ceremony that has awarded Robbie Williams more than any other act, Kanye West brought 25 British MCs, including Skepta, Stormzy and JME, onstage for his performance of All Day. None of these acts had ever performed on the stage that supposedly celebrates the biggest names in British music, even though they’re main stage acts at festivals in Britain and Ireland.
The Brits Voting Academy is made up of 1,200 artists, journalists and members of the music industry and with this shake up, 718 potential new voters have been invited to replace those who have been in the Academy for years. The number of voters from British, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) backgrounds will be increased from 15% to 17% and, after discovering that 70% of the voters were men, next year’s winners will be chosen by a panel that is 52% male and 48% female.
The Grammys prides itself on the fact that the winners are voted in by their peers in the Recording Academy, made up of musicians, producers, recording engineers and other recording professionals, but the award ceremony has a tense relationship with the hip hop community. The awards were boycotted by the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff in 1989 and Jay Z in 1999 for not televising the hip hop performances. Public Enemy boycotted them in 1991, the year that Vanilla Ice was nominated for Best Rap Performance, calling the selection process racist. And Jay Z boycotted them again in 2002 for not awarding DMX in 1999. The fact that the award for Best Rap Album was only introduced in 1996, missing out on formative albums from the golden age of hip hop from Grandmaster Flash, Tupac while he was still alive, Notorious BIG and NWA, means that they have a lot of making up to do.
While we can point the finger at the Brits and Grammys voting panels when they get it wrong, the voting process for MTV’s VMAs is unknown. Even though the winners are voted in by the fans, how the nominees are chosen is a mystery but, according to the VMA voting rules, the sponsor of the show “reserves the right to select the winners at its discretion”. Hmmm. This makes Kanye West’s reaction to Taylor Swift’s forgettable video for You Belong With Me beating Beyoncé’s iconic Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It) at the 2009 show all the more understandable.
It’s easy to dismiss awards shows as nonsene and after this week, it’s even easier to lose faith in any electoral system. But if 2017’s Brit and Grammy Awards do not honour Beyoncé Lemonade, Skepta’s Konnichiwa, Frank Ocean’s Blonde, Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, Solange’s A Seat at the Table or Kanye’s Life of Pablo, their music will just be played louder than ever.