The Colour of Music

Tom Magic Feet calls into question the existence of the MOBO Awards.

By Tom Magic Feet

As I write this, we are deep in Awards Season. It seems like every night there's one or other of them on TV, splashed across the papers or all over the radio. Some are for TV shows, some are for journalists, books and art – hell, there was even one for teachers the other day – but most are for music. In the run-up to Christmas – traditionally the music industry's boom sales period – we've just had the Mercury Music Prize, the Q Awards, the Muzik Awards, the MOBOs and a quick search on the net reveals that over in Tennessee, the prestigious Bumfluff County Bluegrass-Metal Fusion Awards were a big ol' success, y'all.

Awards ceremonies are, of course, little more than a way for the industry to shift more product and reinforce existing hierarchies. But the MOBOs are the worst of them all, despite the fact that at first sight they might seem to be the worthiest contender. After all, isn't it morally right that we should recognise the influence of black musicians? Maybe. But is that what the MOBOs are really about anyway?

Not according to Kanya King, CEO of MOBO Awards Ltd. In the official magazine published to promote this year's shindig, she writes that, "The MOBO Awards were founded to honour music's great heritage and influence and are dedicated to discovering new talent from within the primary forms of contemporary urban music, irrespective of race or colour." Yet strangely the words 'Music Of Black Origin' are conspicuous by their absence from her text – indeed you have to search pretty hard to find them anywhere in the whole magazine. Why so coy?

Maybe it's because she knows that the entire concept is ridiculous. Trace the lineage of any style of popular music back far enough and you reach jazz or blues at some point, so by default all popular music is actually music of black origin. Take this logic to its natural conclusion and surely music of black origin must therefore include neo-Nazi rock!

On what basis the MOBO company decides what is and isn't music of black origin is unclear. But the way they pick and choose from year to year is telling, and indicates that perhaps they themselves can't make up their collective minds. In 1999 Grooverider picked up a MOBO for Best Drum & Bass Act: a year later the category didn't exist any more. So is drum'n'bass no longer 'black music'? Or, as seems more likely, did the organisers decide that drum'n'bass just wasn't as exciting any more and should therefore be replaced? Best Dance Act and Best Soul Act are just two more categories that seem to have been dropped from the officially MOBO-approved list of music of black origin. Hmm.

And funnily enough, house and techno have never been admitted to the MOBO party. I wonder why? Whassup, MOBO Holdings (UK) Ltd., ain't Jesse Saunders, Frankie Knuckles, Larry Heard, Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson black enough for ya? Without wanting to come on like some David Irving-style revisionist, you could argue against UK garage as being music of black origin if you wanted to. Prominent amongst the genre's key early influences are records by Todd Edwards and Armand Van Helden. Are they black? Nope. No matter, it'll be off the list in a couple of years when the media's lost interest.

No, instead of 'music of black origin' or 'black music', the word to use now is 'urban' — a music industry catch-all term for any vaguely dancey music made mostly by black musicians. Why? So it can still be separated, tucked neatly into its own little drawer in The Man's filing cabinet. Propagating this idea that music made by black people is somehow intrinsically different from that made by whites simply means that everyone is kept just where the industry wants them. It's divide and rule all over again. Is this musical apartheid really what the MOBO company want to promote?

But they do. While the awards reward white artists like Eminem who achieve prominence in supposedly 'black' musical forms, they exclude black artists who do the same in 'white' music. Instead of promoting black multiplicity, the MOBOs deny it. When are Bad Brains going to be recognised for their contribution to thrash metal? Oh no, I forgot, there's no category for that. And while it's all very well celebrating black artists who shift a lot of units, why do the MOBOs make precious little mention of the white-dominated industry that benefits from such commercial success? Answer: because they are part of it, merely another device to ensure that the money keeps on rolling in.

When it comes to black music, there are too many media fools following too many rules. One is that anything black is automatically designated as soulful, cool and/or funky. Some are, but plenty aren't. Take Richard Blackwood. The fact that his records are desperately crap is obscured by the fact that he's black and therefore presumed funky. Look at, say, Damage and Westlife. Both are crooning groups of fashionably-dressed young men who sing cringe-inducing lurve songs. But while Westlife are plastic pop, Damage somehow qualify as 'soulful' enough to count as R&B. How does that work?

It's an uncomfortable truth that too few in the industry are prepared to confront, either because of misguided sensibilities or simply for fear of upsetting the applecart. Not everyone is so reticent, though: in a recent interview, Tricky said: "Music is just music. DJ Spooky is shit, but he's black and he has dreads, so people don't want to say it. Same with Maxwell: shit."

When I interviewed Chicago house producer Gene Farris earlier this year, I asked him why mainstream American black music was so obsessed with money and sex. His reply was along the lines that young black Americans today didn't have as weighty issues as the generation that preceded them to deal with. And, writing in the Guardian, Gary Younge commented that those on stage at the MOBOs could "neither recall a time when there were no black MPs nor relate to the idea that they are anything other than citizens of the country in which they were born."

Of course, that's a good thing. But maybe it also gives a clue to why we need to stop thinking in terms of black and white music now. Black musicians that made it to the mainstream used to represent something simply by the fact of their rare success. Now black musicians are the mainstream, and most of them are as rubbish as their white counterparts. Hardly a reason to be giving out prizes.
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