MOBO founder Kanya King on diversity and inclusion in the creative industry

Kanya King MBE founded the MOBO (Music Of Black Origin) Awards in 1996 to recognise the outstanding achievements of artists making music in genres including gospel, jazz, R&B, soul, reggae and hip-hop. Twenty one years later, it’s one of the biggest events in the British music calendar. Cardi B, Krept & Konan and Stefflon Don will be performing at this year’s event, which takes place on November 29 at Leeds’ First Direct Arena.

Kanya will also be appearing at NME’s #Lifehacks event on November 23, joining a panel in which she and fellow creatives discuss the things they wish they’d known at age 18. Ahead of the big day, we got in touch to find out more about her remarkable career journey so far.

You’re speaking on a panel called “things I wish I’d known when I was 18”. If you could go back and send a message to your 18-year-old self, what would it be?

“Be nice to the people who love you as these are the moments you will cherish forever. Your parents mean well and want the best for you. It’s not always easy to see this at the time, but you will appreciate them when you get older, especially when you have kids of your own. Be respectful and make them proud.”

MOBO is known for championing diversity and inclusion of BAME talent. To what extent has this improved since you founded the awards in 1996, and what do you think the next steps in this area should be?
“When I first wanted to start the MOBO Awards, I faced a lot of scepticism, which is kind of understandable when you’re trying to do something that has never been done before. At the time I saw the glaring gap in the market for a mainstream British awards ceremony celebrating music influenced and inspired by black music. The whole black music scene in this country had little to no profile, whereas in the US it seemed like a no brainer.

Over the years, MOBO has provided an early platform for some very successful British artists: So Solid Crew, Amy Winehouse, Sam Smith, Goldie, Rita Ora, Craig David, Laura Mvula, Ms Dynamite, Jamie Cullum, Beverley Knight, Emeli Sandé, Professor Green. It has provided the launchpad for British urban music to dominate both national and international charts. One only has to look at the charts, streaming, social media and online to see how successful and part of popular culture British black music has become.

But the issue isn’t just a race or gender one – we know it is also a class one, about a whole social demographic which simply isn’t being provided with the opportunities and access. It has definitely improved in the last two decades, especially in the last year or so where the creative industry has really put diversity and inclusion on the agenda. But the issue remains that there aren’t enough role models and mentors for the younger generation. There is the old adage: ‘If you can see it, you can be it.’

I think there’s still work to be done both at entry level, and all the way up to the boardroom. That’s why I created MOBO Trust, a charitable organisation to help address the issue at entry level, as well as a number of Executive Fellowships in the creative industries. MOBO also provides a host of annual training and educational opportunities for young people. And more recently we teamed up with Help Musicians UK to create the MOBO Help Musicians Fund, which offers grants to artists at the very start of their careers in music.”

Section Boyz win at last year's MOBO Awards

Section Boyz won at last year’s MOBO Awards

To launch MOBO you convinced a lot of different partners and contributors to believe in your vision. What advice would you give to a young person who has a great idea but is struggling to sell it to other people?
“It helps at the early stages to get some validation for your vision. Take your idea around, use your contacts to widen your network, try to get a coffee with people. You’d be surprised how many people would be happy to give up even 15 minutes of their time. Take some feedback on and refine and retune your idea. Your idea can evolve and improve by doing this. You will also get some less useful advice and as you get more experience, so learn to use your gut instinct.”

What attributes do you look for in young people looking to contribute to the MOBO Awards in any way?
“A huge amount of enthusiasm and drive – everything else can be taught. You can’t beat a positive mindset. In the past I’ve taken people on if they have the right attitude even if there’s no role for them. These people are proactive and create their own role.”

Finally, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“My father died when I was 13, but I always remember him telling me: ‘Be the best you can be.’ So for this reason whatever I choose to do, I give it my all. I always want to know that with anything I have tried to do, I have given it my best shot. That way there are no regrets. My past has made me better and not bitter.”

Kanya King will be appearing at NME’s upcoming #Lifehacks event, speaking on a panel in which she and fellow creatives discuss the things they wish they’d known at age 18. Also speaking on the panel will be Jonathan Badyal, Head of Communications at Universal Music UK.

The panel forms part of a full afternoon of talks and activities designed to help you kick-start your career in the creative industries. NME has teamed up with University of Salford and youth initiative Create Jobs to lay on the #Lifehacks event in London on November 23.

The event will be headlined by Chelsea footballer Eni Aluko and hip-hop artist Loyle Carner, who will team up for an ‘in conversation’ panel. Another panel will see Paris Lees, Paula Akpan and Josie Naughton join forces to discuss how to effect positive change.

Meanwhile, Lauren ThomasIbrahim Kamara, Lyndon Saunders and Niran Vinod will speak on a panel discussing Skills To Succeed In A Digital Age.

One the day, you’ll also be able to connect with the NME team and our partners at the dedicated Hack-Space. Plus, there will be free food and drink, and the event will culminate in an exclusive secret evening gig.

You can buy tickets to our first #Lifehacks event (including an exclusive secret gig) with University of Salford here.