Michael Kiwanuka was tonight crowned the winner of the Hyundai Mercury Prize 2020 for his third studio album, ‘KIWANUKA.’ In a five star review, NME described the album as “the sound of an artist coming into his own through brave and dizzying experimentation” and “a daring leap of self-affirmation.”
Soon after being announced as the winner on BBC1’s The One Show, NME spoke to Kiwanuka to ask him how it feels to win the award after three nominations, what he plans to do with the £25,000 prize money and how it feels to win the award for one of his most personal albums to date.
NME: Michael – congratulations on the win! How does it feel to finally win after three previous nominations?
Michael Kiwanuka: “Oh man, I’m so so happy! Three times nominated in total, yes, but I’m really glad I won it for this one. I was happy the other times to be on the shortlist and of course I felt a bit gutted to not win the other times but I’m just especially glad it was this album: it was me finally growing into myself and just accepting myself and who I am.
“Most artists go through similar – you kind of get to a point where you become more at ease with who you are and this album for me describes that and represents that for me. It’s just really cool that this one has been received the way it has because obviously it means so much to me – all my records do, but obviously this one is even closer to my heart.”
Your album was a powerful statement of intent about celebrating your identity and heritage in the face of adversity. Do you think this win will help inspire others?
“I hope it’s something that people can hear and be inspired by. I hope it inspires people who maybe have a similar story to mine or people who, in other ways, maybe feel like they’re going into something that is maybe outside of their comfort zone or not usually the path they would be expected to take. I’d hope it inspires them just to keep going and to keep being true to themselves, to keep going but not to compromise. That’s something I really believe in and I hope that is something can garner from my music and especially the songs on this album.”
Between your first and second albums, you were thinking of quitting music altogether. How does this moment feel thinking back to that?
“Now, looking back, I can’t believe I was thinking those things, but it was pretty tough just because I didn’t realise the magnitude of what it was to make records – to try and be an artist and to get to achieve the things I’ve had ambitions to achieve. I think I was a bit shell-shocked at the time but to come round the other side and then to win a Mercury, I mean, it’s mind-blowing, man! It makes it all the more amazing because it’s shown me [the importance] to just to keep going – not just with music, with everything. I’m realising you’ve got to just dig your feet in and keep going.”
Have you managed to see any of the incredible reaction to your win yet on social media?
“I haven’t yet! I’ve given my phone to my manager just before I went onto The One Show and I haven’t actually had time to look at it yet because of all the interviews, but everyone has been saying it has been buzzing and going crazy. I can’t wait to see it! It’s funny because obviously with COVID and social distancing it’s actually quite quiet where we are because you can only have a few people in there so it’s almost like the party is on the internet and I [want] to join in!”
You thought today you were on your way to speak to Jools Holland when Annie Mac surprised you with the win…
“Yes! I got told it was down to three acts and that I had to go down to London because I might win. They told me I’d be doing an interview with Jools Holland and that later on The One Show, the winner would be announced. I turned up and then Annie [Mac] was there. I thought ‘Oh she must have just done an interview or been interviewed’ and then suddenly she announced me as the winner. I was like ‘What!’ I freely fell for the story! It was amazing. I’m glad I didn’t get told though; it was really nice to have that surprise.”
Your album drew comparisons to everyone from Curtis Mayfield and Bill Withers to Gil Scott-Heron and Fela Kuti. Has the win given you the confidence to keep trying to push yourself sonically in the future?
“Definitely. My favourite artists and all those you mentioned are people I look up to, always pushing their own boundaries. That’s something I think you always have to do as an artist -not because your heart is telling you to change your sound, but more that you want to be interested in what you are doing and feel like you’re always at the beginning of something new.
“I think the best art comes from being in a new environment, being somewhere where you’re a bit lost and need to find your feet because that’s where you have to be creative. But then, I also found that this is what people want to hear – they want to hear you on the edge and trying new things and that’s where people connect with you and respond. This win has definitely encouraged me to keep dreaming big. It’s encouraged me to not just think in small steps, it’s encouraged me to think that maybe I can do all of the things I have dreamed of, I have just got to keep going.”
Your album also comments on the Civil Rights Movement – do you feel the win will help draw further attention to that in light of the Black Lives Matter movement of the summer?
“I hope it will and I hope it continues getting the message out. I think that’s something that it would be a privilege to even be a small part of, creating that awareness and hearing about these people you don’t hear about in schools or anything like that [despite] them being such big characters in the world, especially people like Fred Hampton and John Lewis who are all over the album. I want to continue to sing their praises and get their names out because they’re so important.”
Has lockdown given you any time to start work on a new album?
“I’m always writing songs and having ideas. I don’t know if [what I’ve done yet] will be for another record necessarily. I need to find out what sound I’m going to go to. But yeah, definitely at the beginning of lockdown I couldn’t stop writing. I chilled out a bit after that and now I’m writing a bit more now. Like everyone else, I’ve got a little home set-up and studio and just done demos. So I’ve been doing that but I’ve also been taking it easy as well and just enjoying listening to records. I’ve kind of just been going back to the roots of it all and just playing my acoustic guitar and just seeing what comes out. I don’t know what sound or what direction the next album will go in yet but we’ll see!”
Have you any plans yet for what you’re going to do with the prize money?
“I do you know! I really want to set up a good studio and I think I’m going to use some of this money to help get that going; I want to find a good space where I can be creative anytime of the day or night and also I want it to be a space that can be used by others and the community as well.
“I think people forget how exciting and powerful playing music is, especially young people. With the news about kids not enjoying school, if they can find music and a place to do that and play loudly or just learn instruments, I think there’s so much they can gain from that. Music saved my life so I’d love to have a space where people could be able to do that. So hopefully some of this money can go towards starting something like that.”