Ahead of this year's ceremony, L’Oréal Blackett talks music and hard graft with the entrepreneur
It’s hard for Kanya King MBE to sum up her MOBO career into one encompassing ‘MOBO moment’. There was the rare Amy Winehouse performance (“it was before all her albums…you could hear a pin drop”) to meeting Sade at a London reggae festival for an equally rare MOBO performance (“I’m such a fan”), or the time Lauryn Hill opened the awards in 2005. “There’s too many to count,” she says with a wide smile.
We’d suggest launching a fledgling awards show in 1996 with no financial backing (having to re-mortgage her house in the process) is more than indicative of a career well done. “I’m no quitter,” she laughs with a shrug.
We meet in the Leeds Sky Lounge, ahead of this year’s awards ceremony at the First Direct Arena on 29 November. It’s the second year the London-raised entrepreneur has brought her awards ceremony to the city and King - graciously chatty and wearing what seems like leggings in a MOBO print - is visibly pumped.
“I’m thrilled to be back,” says King, enthusiastically. “The First Direct Arena is a world class venue. The sound and acoustics are amazing.”
The MOBOs are still culturally relevant because we celebrate such a breadth of music genres
It’s the 22nd edition of the annual showcase and this year American rap sensation Cardi B (Billboard’s current number one star and record breaker) is headlining alongside UK talents Krept & Konan, Yungen and Stefflon Don.
"Cardi B is choosing the MOBO as the first UK stage to perform and she’s never been to Leeds before so it’s really exciting," she beams.
As the UK’s biggest celebration of urban music and culture, the MOBO line-up still appears a relevant reflection of the British and international urban music scene. Still, does King fear the show will lose its relevance amongst young people?
“The MOBOs are still culturally relevant because we celebrate such a breadth of music genres – I don’t think people realise how many genres we champion,” she says without hesitation. “You get everything. This is African, grime, gospel, hip-hop, R&B and soul. What’s great about the MOBOS is that it isn’t just about celebrating establish talent, the MOBOs is about what’s to come.”
You need that determination and drive – that’s what grime music culture is about
To King’s testament, the MOBOS have played an important role in establishing fresh new talent. MOBOS can claim to have championed Craig David before he was the Craig David and much more.
Stormzy is one name King can claim to have heralded before mainstream success. The grime-breakout star was a big winner at the MOBO awards 2015 – a year when grime artists received 27 nominations in total. Many would agree, not since Dizzee Rascal have grime artists received such international acclaim. What’s done it?
“He’s such an incredible grafter, he works so hard and he has a lot of passion for his craft. We all know to be a successful artist it’s more about the mind-set. Of course you have talent, you just to have to have talent and drive,” she explains
What about grime music in general? Why is it seeing such mainstream acknowledgment recently?
“It’s fantastic; grime music is something I’ve been championing for a long, long time. It’s nice that it’s got that mainstream acceptance. Over the years we’ve seen the same for jungle, garage.”
“Today a lot of the talent are collaborating and working together – that didn’t happen a while ago. I love the DIY mentality – and I can relate to that a lot being an independent organisation. You need that determination and drive – that’s what grime music culture is about, working together for the greater good.”
...my career officer told me I should work in a supermarket
Kanya King’s passion for the acts, the music and her business is evident. After all, the MOBOs has succeeded all odds and each year is a reminder of the entrepreneur’s own long (and well-documented) journey.What has kept her going?
“We all have highs and lows. If you run a small media enterprise there is always going to be challenges,” says King.
King counts her mixed heritage, of Irish and Ghanaian decent and humble upbringing as part of her drive to succeed.
“My drive and ambition has come from my parents. They come from a time when signs said ‘no Irish, no blacks, no dogs’. My mum – a very proud Irish woman – went on to marry a black man and they were both discriminated against.”
“In school I was the child on free school dinners, my career officer told me I should work in a supermarket and maybe work my way up to be a supervisor. It was not what I wanted to do but little was expected of me, especially as I became a parent at a young age."
So your success is like a middle finger to the career officer then?
“Those two things changed the course of my life and gave me the drive and motivation to go through life.”
King's journey with the MOBOs shows no sign of slowing down. She's working with the NHS to encourage young people to give blood and is continuing to help up-and-coming artists achieve their dreams with her musician funding. And of course, there's the ceremony. How does she do it all?
"You only have one life," she smiles. "Sleep when you’re dead."