'We play a crucial role': Kanya King on MOBO's essential industry impact

'We play a crucial role': Kanya King on MOBO's essential industry impact

Where would the music industry be without MOBO?

Kanya King has delivered an emphatic answer to that question ahead of the 26th edition of the MOBO Awards, which takes place this Wednesday, February 7 at Sheffield’s Utilita Arena.

In a special preview interview, the founder and CEO has pointed to MOBO’s “rich history” and said it has played “a crucial role in launching the careers of so many artists who might otherwise have been overlooked by the broader industry”.

With Stormzy and Little Simz leading this year’s nominations with four nods each, the 2024 shortlists are packed with a vast array of talent including Raye, Central Cee, Burna Boy, J Hus, Jorja Smith, Byron Messia, Ayra Starr and many more. From grime, drill and hip-hop, to dance, jazz and alternative, this year’s MOBO Awards is an explicit illustration of the wealth of talent in UK Black music. And with Soul II Soul, Sugababes and DJ Spoony also set to be in the spotlight on the night, the event makes its usual nod to historical achievement.

Ghetts, Sugababes, Cristale, Soul II Soul, DJ Spoony and Byron Messia will perform at the event, which is hosted by Love Island star Indiyah Polack and comedian Babatunde Aléshé, alongside Zeze Millz. 

The show will be live streamed on YouTube, with BBC One to broadcast the 26th MOBO Awards: Access All Areas on Friday, February 9 at 11.30m.

Here, former Music Week Awards Strat winner King offers up a taste of what’s in store, and holds court on MOBO’s position within the industry, its growing social impact and her ultimate ambitions for the show…

Firstly, why does the music industry still need this event after more than two decades?

“I would say the MOBO Awards remains a significant event in music for so many reasons. I mean, for one, we're spotlighting genres often underrepresented. So, there’s a broad array of genres such as grime, drill, hip hop, R&B, soul, reggae, jazz, gospel, Caribbean music, African music, alternative, electronic, dance... We see artists from these genres receive the recognition they deserve, while the awards also help to highlight the cultural significance of these diverse forms of music. We also have a history of recognising and uplifting new and emerging talent, playing a crucial role in launching the careers of so many artists who might otherwise have been overlooked by the broader industry.”

How has it been to put it together this time round? What are the challenges?

“Putting together an event of this ilk involves a complex set of challenges, which have evolved over the years. Some of the key challenges involved are the magnitude of the intricate logistical planning, which includes trying to find a venue that will host a mult- artist show, which also has space backstage, but because there's no arena venue that has that, we have to build it. 

“There’s also technical arrangements, sound, lighting, broadcasting, coordinating performances and security to manage, among other things. Additionally, we also have to make sure we stay abreast of what's going on in music as a whole, to reflect the current landscape, which is constantly changing all the time, so we have to adapt. And, then there are the economic constraints, you have to have sponsorship and funding, because that significantly impacts the event.”

We have a history of recognising emerging talent, playing a crucial role in launching the careers of so many artists who might otherwise have been overlooked by the broader industry

Kanya King

Stormzy and Little Simz lead the nominations with four nods each. How would you sum up their impact on UK Black music and beyond over the past year?

“Stormzy continues to push the boundaries and use his platform to address social and political issues and that has fostered a broader conversation around race and social justice. And Little Simz of course, her lyrical prowess, the storytelling ability, thought provoking lyrics, have earned her critical acclaim. Both their abilities to blend mainstream appeal with deep personal and social and cultural contexts has solidified their status as pivotal figures in UK music and as global ambassadors. Their international success has bought a lot of attention to these genres, inspiring a new generation of artists within and beyond the UK.”

Looking through the shortlists, there is a real breadth of new talent. What do you feel the nominations say about the current state of UK Black music?

“I think it underscores the dynamic flourishing state of the Black music scene, from the nominees to the genres and depth of talent on display. The UK Black music scene continues to lead the way in contemporary music trends. And I think you see in the nominations the presence of both established and emerging talent, which speaks volumes about the ecosystem of UK Black music. It signals that the genres that we're representing are not only growing in influence, but nurturing a new generation of artists, pushing boundaries and creativity.”

You’re also honouring the work of Soul II Soul and Sugababes, while DJ Spoony is among the performers. This continues a rich history of recognising the greats, why is it important that MOBO does this?

The MOBOs has always been about wanting to honour the past, and ensure we recognise the monumental contribution of artists, like Soul II Soul or Sugababes. And this year we are also celebrating the UK garage scene and its 30-year anniversary with DJ Spoony. I think it underscores our mission to celebrate and honour those who are shaping the landscape in culture and beyond. We want to celebrate luminaries across various fields as well, which we do with the Paving The Way award [Jessica Ennis is this year’s winner], which is given to those creating a path for others to follow. We want to be that testament to excellence and inspire future generations.”

We are dedicated to creating spaces where excellence and equity are not just encouraged but are fundamental

Kanya King

Raye also features among the nominations thanks to her rocketing success. Why is her story such a key one for MOBO?

“It just resonates so deeply with so many people as an independent artist boldly taking control of her career. In a way, her journey mirrors the pioneering spirit of an independent organisation like MOBO, which was founded celebrating the achievements of artists often outside the mainstream’s immediate recognition. Her story is particularly compelling for so many reasons, so it's great to see her up for these great nominations as she is an inspiration to many people, because she's demonstrating the impact of remaining true to her own ideals and vision.”

R&B is one area that some in the business feel is undervalued in the UK. What is MOBO’s message to the industry on this subject?

“I think the message is clear for us as we’ve been celebrating R&B since its inception, as it’s a vital and vibrant part of our musical heritage and contemporary scene, and it deserves the same level of support, recognition and celebration as other genres. So, we want to continue to advocate really and see how we can celebrate championing it, whether it's through awards and nominations, or practical support, such as MOBO Unsung, or MOBO Help Musicians Fund, where we work with charity Help Musicians, the PRs Foundation and other partners to provide funding, promotion and platforms for artists.”

MOBOLISE is the headline sponsor this year. What was behind that decision and what do you want the industry to know about your organisation’s attitude to social change and progress? 

“For MOBO, social purpose is in our DNA. That's why MOBOLISE has become the headline sponsor for the MOBO Awards because we want it to underscore our dedication to creating spaces where excellence and equity are not just encouraged but are fundamental. So, this represents our culture and social footprint of creating opportunities and inclusion in the workplace at entry level, all the way to the boardroom. It embodies that principle of providing access, resources, and opportunities to those who have been historically marginalised or underrepresented.”

There’s a series of Fringe events running in the city alongside the main awards, including an industry panel event featuring Austin Daboh, Rich Castillo, Glyn Aikins and more. Why did you want to make this a part of the show this year? 

“These events have been put together to empower and inspire the city, young and old alike. We felt honoured to have the opportunity to collaborate with the council and some incredible local community organisations in the city because normally a lot of these events are very London-centric, so we want to break that mould. It's aimed at inspiring the next generation, whether its artist, or execs who want to work behind the scenes. It’s incredibly unique, and also a rare opportunity to hear from people who have been there, so they can engage that next generation, who now have a chance to connect and build relationships with experts in their field.”

Can you shed any further light on how else MOBO is working with Sheffield around the event?

"I am deeply inspired by the remarkable achievements of the MOBO Fringe activities in Sheffield in collaboration with the local council, which have truly set a new standard for city-wide cultural initiatives. The dedication to expanding musical opportunities and fostering connections with young people mirrors our own goals, aiming to enrich lives through black music and culture. It's heartening to learn that these efforts have contributed to a noticeable reduction in school exclusions, reflecting the positive impact of inclusive cultural programmes. The involvement of over 5,000 schoolchildren, with many engaging deeply through learning Stormzy's Blinded By Your Grace and participating in comprehensive workshops, highlights the profound influence music can have on education and personal development. This collaboration not only celebrates musical talent but also underscores the importance of arts in creating more inclusive and supportive learning environments. So I'd like to give a big MOBO salute to Sheffield!"

Finally, how do you expect the ceremony to evolve in the future? 

“My ultimate ambition is for the MOBOs to be finally recognised as more than an awards or TV show, and for the work we've been doing for nearly three decades, championing thousands of nominations, having heavy media coverage and providing a platform for talent to be seen and heard, to be finally recognise that as a cultural platform that inspires communities and nurtures talent.” 

Words: Adenike Adenitire

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