'I believe in the power of music to change lives': Kanya King's Music Week Awards speech in full

'I believe in the power of music to change lives': Kanya King's Music Week Awards speech in full

Kanya King wowed a record-breaking crowd at the Music Week Awards 2021, as the MOBOs founder won the prestigious Strat Award.

King took the floor at the climax of an epic evening that saw Polydor, Universal Music Publishing Group and Tap Management star among a glittering list of winners.

After an emotional introduction from Craig David, King delivered a speech that will live long in the memory. Read it in full here...

Thank you to each and every one of you who took time out of your busy schedules to appear in the video, I thank you and Music Week wholeheartedly.

When I was told that I would be receiving this Award, I was stunned and speechless, which doesn’t happen very often.

It was only this morning when I woke up that I thought to myself that at pivotal moments in my life, I have always written letters so I decided this is what I need to do, so I am going to read a letter to my younger self.

“Dear Kanya,

I am writing this letter to say that you have no idea how hard you are going to be working, how much you will need to sacrifice or how much resilience you will need to develop to cope with the journey ahead but it will all be worth it in shaping you as a person. You will get more than you expected and you will be better than you think you could ever be! You are on the most incredible journey!

I am sure a lot of people will remember their first week at primary school. You vividly do as this was your first time you were consciously aware of being different. You were excited when the teacher told the class that you were going to have a play at the end of the year and she wanted everyone to participate. The class was going to perform ‘Snow White’ so when the teacher asked who would like to play ‘Snow White’, despite your incredible shyness, your hand shot up straightaway, as you absolutely loved drama even at a young age.  When everyone slowly turned their eyes on you, it dawned upon you that you weren’t actually white and also all the books you had seen at that point all had heroines who were white, so you slowly lowered your hand and felt thoroughly embarrassed and ashamed.  

This was your earliest memory of feeling different from those around you. You were consequently often teased and asked what it was like to have one black parent and one white parent. You didn’t quite know how to answer that as you didn’t know any different, so you’d say what’s it like not to have that?  All you knew was that, to be seen as being popular in your class, you had to be white and have straight hair. At that time you weren’t to understand how the lack of role models and representation bothered you and would play such a significant part in what you would go on to do.

As you grow up, you will find that it is becoming increasingly more important to create more space to think in a way that will allow you to build on ideas whilst ensuring your life will be balanced. As it turns out, you were wise when growing up to spend so much time in your local park  trying yet again to get away from the daily conflicts at home, the relentless health issues in your family, the cramped council flat with all the stresses and strains constantly trying to earn money to ensure the rent was paid and you would not get kicked out. You will never forget this time in your life and how often you would long to see your mother walking at a hurried pace across the dewy grass rushing towards you. 

Your beautiful mum came from Ireland and your father from Ghana. They both got here at the age of 18 to pursue their dreams at a time when there were notices on houses stating ‘No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs’. It was really a very bleak period, with not only discrimination being rife, but also the move to a new country away from family and friends. Your mother, when marrying a black man, was ostracised from her family. She had no support network and as you had no grand parents, cousins or aunts as a result so this further turned it all into a very isolated existence. This incredible woman had a huge impact on your life. She worked as a cleaner, home help and a nurse and despite her large family, also took in your brother’s homeless friends.

You did spend a lot of time in the park dreaming, imagining things about yourself and others, reflecting on the past whilst thinking about the future. That wide open space was a huge contrast to your life at home which was noisy, cramped and full of anticipation. It was probably out there that you began to realise that you could change your circumstances and this is where your determination started growing. You had dreams and ideals that inspired you, but you understood that you needed discipline,  focus and perserverance to turn them into reality.

I would advise you though to learn to trust yourself more and not allow fear of failure hold you back. Be bold, be brave, have confidence in yourself and invest time in being the best you can be as your father was always saying.

Talking about your father, I wish you had not thrown two important letters away. The first letter was when you wrote to him after going into a care home, when your mother had a nervous break-down and left home followed by the rest of your siblings. Your father kept you off school for a few days. He was worried that your older sister would come and find you and yes, she did. She asked you to choose between staying at home on your own with your father or being with the rest of the family and finding your mother. You chose to go with them but suffered enormous guilt so you wrote a long letter to your father apologising for causing him grief. It ended up in the bin when we found it after your father’s death - your little brother teased you about it so you left it there. Why were you not decisive enough to have held onto it?

Then when your teacher asked and begged to be allowed to publish the second letter you wrote about the death of your father at 13,why did you not agree to do it? Why were you so embarrassed? She said she would publish it anonymously. Yet you still refused. It was such an important chapter in your life witnessing your father’s suffering and being the last one to see him alive. Your father was such an elegant, dignified man with immaculate manners and he had high standards, always telling you to wash your hands and cover your mouths when you coughed - none of your friends had to do this so you resented it. How poignant in this day and age!! Yet with his strong African accent, he had difficulty finding a job.

I have always believed in the power of music to change lives

Your circumstances are what will shape you and give you the big motivation to do what you do. Your father’s strong words to be the best you can be and his actions, your mother tirelessly working to provide for her family and those disadvantaged around her and your own hopes and desires to create a path – all these things will motivate you and impact your life. These things may never leave you, but give you the strength you need to believe in yourself. You have to identify what is going to make you stronger, what is going to give you the determination you need to overcome the many hurdles along the way. More and more, you will develop a strong desire to find ways to empower creative people that come from similar backgrounds to yourself, and for them to be able to live up to their potential and take control of their own destiny so that they will be able to help others avoid a future of missed opportunities and regrets.  

Keep the faith Kanya, stay strong!” 

This brings me to the very first MOBO Awards when I wrote a letter to the music industry and I published it in our 1996 Awards magazine.

It said:  “There is a rich heritage of musical talent that is admired around the world. The MA have been founded to celebrate and reward the talents and contributions of artists involved in the broad spectrum of music of black origin. It has been a long and difficult road - reading this part, I had no idea how long it was going to be - but we thank you for supporting the MA and hope that you too can see the potential of this event, not just in terms of record sales and national promotion for artists, but as a platform that finally provides the opportunity to recognise the role that black music plays in British culture. The MA will become a universally recognised Awards ceremony and we have done our best to make this inaugural event a show that the music industry will believe in and support in future years. We would like to thank all of the many people that made this event possible - they know who they are! And to those out there who would rather wait and see…………look out for us next year - even bigger and better”.

Well, nearly 25 years later I wrote a an open letter to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, talking about my lived experiences and for the first time ever opened up about some of my experiences and the many struggles I’ve had to overcome. I talked about one of my older sisters who became an alcoholic and died of a broken neck. She used to wear lighter foundation because she had difficulty accepting the colour of her skin. She wanted to fit in and feel accepted. She is one of the reasons I vowed to create and celebrate black role models so there would be no more little girls or boys in any care home, school, family or community who would feel that way.  

I have always believed in the power of music to change lives, whether that was story-telling, reducing anxiety and depression, helping with pain or galvanising a nation for a social cause. Music exerts a powerful influence on human beings. This is why we have also put time and energy into campaigns that save lives and empower.

Our purpose is to permanently change the racial imbalance in the workplace

I have watched with joy and pride when people we have either employed, given a platform to whether as a performer or behind the scenes, have gone on to achieve incredible success, win awards, become presenters, producers, broadcasters and run businesses

A message to all the artists and execs who have inspired me, thank you. From Keith Harris, Colleen Hue and Dej Mahoney, whom I first met in the music industry, thank you to all those who have gone before me and made their mark from Neil McKenlock, and Patrick Berry from Choice FM and Val McCalla from the Voice whom we worked together with and really supported each other in the early years - I see you, hear you and have been inspired by you.

I want to say thank you to the MOBO alumni, MOBO team (Eunice and Pat are here), my best friend Henk who has flown from Holland to be here tonight. Thank you for putting up with my devotion to my work. My son Jem and his soul mate Azrin. Jem, thank you for being so understanding and becoming such a wonderful human being. Having been a young mother means we met a little early. Some people said when I had you my life was through. Instead my life had just begun and I blossomed and I  grew.

Tonight I am being recognised for my contribution to music, however my work is not over……

The next chapter is about MOBOLISE, born out of the spirit of MOBO with jobs at its heart and the world of opportunities at its fingertips. We have begun the fight to fill the gaps in representation. Our purpose is to permanently change the racial imbalance in the workplace and business by accelerating and advancing black professionals and entrepreneurs and galvanising trailblazing organisations that are committed to systemic change as well as bringing like-minded people rising together with one goal; to unite, empower and uplift. This is a network of excellence and I hope that allies in this room will  join us in the trenches as we prepare to make a difference. A big thank you to Accenture for believing in my vision and for SuperDry, NBC Universal and PPL who did not hesitate to support our mission as the very first organisations to join.

I’d like to end with that African proverb you also saw in the video: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”. I hope we can travel on together.

Thank you very much!

 PHOTO: Paul Harries

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