MOBO founder Kanya King on the awards’ new genres: “This felt like the right year to do it”

Ahead of the ceremony, King talks the wealth of UK Black alternative and dance music, the legacy of the awards and celebrating Jamal Edwards

MOBO Awards founder Kanya King has spoken to NME about recognising Black alternative and dance music for the first time.

The 25th anniversary edition of the MOBO Awards is set to take place tonight (Wednesday November 30) at London’s OVO Wembley Arena. The ceremony, which celebrates music of Black origin, is set to include two brand new categories for the first time: Best Alternative Music Act and Best Dance/Electronic Act.

London rapper and producer Knucks leads the nominations with five nods, including in the Album Of The Year category for ‘Alpha Place’, with Little Simz and Central Cee coming in just behind with four nominations each.

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“It definitely feels like one of the biggest years we’ve had,” King told NME in a break during the final preparations for the show. “What’s exciting is there are so many different people involved, so many partners, from broadcasters to managers to talent to brand partners, and everybody’s thinking about what they can do creatively. They all just want it to be the best.”

“It’s such an incredible moment, you’ve got the hottest stars of today and a mix of legendary pioneers as well,” she added, referring to the list of performers announced for the show, which includes Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Nile Rodgers and this year’s winner of the Outstanding Contribution Award, Craig David.

Craig David
Craig David. CREDIT: Matt Jelonek/Wire Image

In addition to the traditional awards in genre-specific categories such as R&B, soul, grime and jazz, this year sees the incorporation of alternative music and dance/electronic into the mix. “To be honest, every year we do get people reaching out to us about broadening the categories, and each year we look at it,” King explained. “This felt like the right year to do it, in our 25th anniversary year. We are acknowledging the breadth and depth of the British music scene.”

One act that publicly addressed the previous absence of a rock or alternative prize at the MOBOs was Nova Twins. In 2020, they wrote an open letter asking for such an award to be added to “recognise the POC contributors to the genre”. The London duo now find themselves included on the first ever shortlist of nominees, alongside Big Joanie, Bob Vylan, Kid Bookie, Loathe and Skunk Anansie.

“It was a lovely letter, it was very polite,” said King about Nova Twins’ intervention. “They wanted to work with us to see whether it was possible. What was great was that they wanted to support [the MOBOs].”

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The Best Alternative Music Act award is presented in association with Marshall, with whom the organisation has set up MOBO Unsung, a mentorship programme for emerging talents. “We’ve been building a pipeline of talent that we’ve been supporting by giving them funding and giving seminars and workshops and masterclasses, helping these new artists to record an album in Abbey Road Studios,” King explained.

Nominees for the first Best Dance/Electronic Act prize include FKA twigs, Jax Jones and recent NME cover star Nia Archives. “It’s not just about having a category and introducing it,” King said. “It’s about what we need to do behind the scenes to support this ecosystem and champion the talent within it, and that’s easier said than done. How can we build upon the ecosystem and support the talent coming through that will hopefully become the nominees of the future?”

Since the inaugural awards in 1996, the MOBOs have charted the astronomical rise of Black British music. “It’s changed beyond recognition,” King said. “It’s so globally dominant now. You have to take a step back sometimes – if you think where we are, whether it’s Little Simz, Headie One, Stefflon Lon, Central Cee or any of these incredible artists, it’s wonderful to see the impact they’re having. It’s wonderful to see the legacy of the past 25 years, a lot has happened.”

She continued: “When we started out, people used to look to the American scene a lot. So, I look at the very first MOBO Awards and I think about the artists we had there, we had The Fugees and Lionel Richie [come in from the US]. And we also had Mark Morrison and Jazzy B, who were selling millions around the world, but it was their first major awards recognition on home turf and that was really, really important to them. But there were lots of international artists flying in, whether it was Jay-Z or Destiny’s Child or P Diddy, whereas now it is the other way round. It’s the British artists that are flying in and flying out, going all around the world, being booked and in demand.”

Nia Archives
Nia Archives. Credit: Don Brodie for NME

The ceremony returns to Wembley Arena for the first time since 2014; in the years since, the organisers had decided to take the show on tour around the UK, stopping at cities including Glasgow, Leeds and Coventry. “We decided that we’d go to wherever the fans of the music and culture are, and at first people thought we were absolutely crazy to do that, but it ended up being one of the best things we could ever have done,” said King. “But we’re back in London and in a way, we’ve come full circle, back where we started.”

MOBO will also present their Paving the Way Award to the late Jamal Edwards MBE, the entrepreneur, DJ and founder of the online platform SB.TV, who passed away in February  aged 31.

“We all have such incredible memories of him in the industry,” said King. “It’s all about recognising influencers that have created a path for others to follow, and that is exactly what he has done in so many ways.”

King cited a tweet that Edwards sent in January 2012 as symbolising why Edwards was the most appropriate candidate for the special award this year, in which he wrote, “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will,” read the Tweet.

In addition to Nile Rodgers and Craig David, performers confirmed for the show include Emeli Sandé, who will play in tribute to Edwards, as well as Kojey Radical, Tion Wayne and Cat Burns. The ceremony is hosted by Chunkz and Yung Filly, and is set to be streamed live on YouTube, with a highlights show to be shown on BBC One on December 7.

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