Who wins at the Mobos?

Britain's biggest celebration of black music is entering its second decade amid derision.
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The Independent Culture

Back in the day, the Mobo Awards was simply the business. From the moment Soul II Soul's Jazzy B proudly clutched that glittering statuette for his outstanding contribution to music in 1996, to So Solid parading their kudos by rushing the stage after being crowned 2001's Best Newcomer, the Mobos were the trendsetters.

As the event prepares to mark its 11th year next week, it is in danger of losing the very credibility it championed in the first place. Dodgy nominations, fickle categories, preferential treatment for major labels and a blasé attitude to the underground have all contributed to tastemakers and fans losing faith in the Mobos over the last few years,.

"I think the Mobos was a brilliant event to start with but I think they've gone through a rough patch and lost touch with what you originally loved about it," says Riki Bleau, who is the music manager at Just Fabulous TV.

It's hard to know precisely when cracks started to appear in the Kanya King's influential movement (King is the chief executive and founder of the Mobos). There was the time the salacious rapper Lil' Kim, who co-hosted the 2003 awards with the R&B one-hit wonder Blu Cantrell, won the flukish Best Fashion Icon award, a category that has long gone AWOL, along with the Best Ringtone category. In 2004, the show pandered to the grievances of the Outrage! activist Peter Tatchell, and dropped dancehall acts Vybz Cartel and Elephant Man from the nominations.

"The Mobos went from saying, 'these are the champions of our genre', to 'these guys aren't welcome'," says Fusion, an acclaimed music producer and cultural critic. Pharrell Williams and Naomi Campbell allegedly pulled out of hosting duties at the eleventh hour that same year. As for last year's 10th anniversary, the unsigned North London rapper Sway gave the platinum-selling 50 Cent a sensational beat-down in the Best Hip-Hop category. "How could you put someone like Sway or Akala in the same category as 50 Cent or Jay-Z? asks Lawrence Lartey, a contributing editor for Touch magazine."It has become a bit of a farce."

The problem, Fusion claims, began when the show alienated its youth audience by sacrificing its loyalty to the UK. "I think the biggest gripe everybody has about Mobo revolves around attendance, in that if you're American and you're saying you're coming, you're probably going to win." There have even been moanings about Beyoncé leading the pack with four nominations at this year's event.

King explains: "Whatever is popular within that year, those artists are going to be nominated. Let's be real here; the public are going to vote for artists with fanbases and the ones that are popular and current. It's not a question of us deciding who wins."

Long missed are the days of the UK's Best Unsigned Act, more vital now as the black music scene in this country grows and becomes more visual to the outside world. As a result, the Mobos' failure has seen a whirl of other events materialise, like the Urban Music Awards (UMAs) and the Channel U Awards. "I feel that the Mobos have not truly represented and have slightly ignored the UK urban music scene in favour of the US for several years," says the UMA chief executive Jordan Kensington.

For Mobos 2006, King and her crew have worked hard to strike a balance between serving the grass-roots and achieving commerciality. For the first time in years, fans can watch the show from the front of the stage, previously the VIP area for the industry bods. Meanwhile, ticket prices have been slashed, and categories such as Best UK Female and Best UK Male. There's also the new Bemobo award, intended for an individual who "exemplifies the Mobos' social ideals of being courageous, forward-thinking and active within the community". It's to help remind viewers and attendees that the Mobos has long been about more than music, having put on student tours, mentoring programmes and workshops throughout the year. "We have a social responsibility going beyond the parameters of music," says King. "People see that, despite the odds, we've succeeded. There's an expectation to do lot of other things."

But then there's the question of the Mobos' relevance. The market is still yet to allow black music to sell successfully in its own right (this year alone has been a terrible time for urban music) and, with categories such as Best Urban Act at the Brits and the Mercurys' acknowledgement of black music, is a separate event really the way to go?

"I think it's more necessary than ever," says DJ Asha, from the black music station Choice FM. "If an artist does well at the Mobos, that should be an indication that that artist will probably cross over into the mainstream."

Others disagree. "That little category at the Brit awards is probably more credible than the Mobos now," says Lartey. "Because the whole scene has evolved, it has made the Mobos less relevant. If you're just going to follow other awards ceremonies and follow their format and follow what they do and bow to sponsorship pressure, you might as well forget it."

King concedes you can't please everyone. "It's not possible," she says. "You have to just deliver the message of what you're about. But the fact that people do talk about it shows that we have made an impression."

Mobo Awards 2006 is at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020-7589 8212) on 20 September, and will be broadcast on BBC3