David Lister: The Mobos are past their sell-by date

Saturday 04 October 2008 00:00
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Awards ceremonies come and go in the arts, pretty much on a weekly basis. But none can rank with the Mobos. What other awards can manage to be both ludicrous and dangerously divisive at the same time?

The Mobos are awards for Music of Black Origin. That's an awful lot of music. It's a surprise really Paul McCartney has not picked up a lifetime Mobo on behalf of the Beatles. Their early music was certainly inspired by black American singers, as, of course, was that of Elvis Presley, and a huge number of others.

While these awards are generally thought of as being for urban music, a look at winners in past years defies any simple definition. What on earth was the white Devonian Joss Stone nominated for – toughing it out on the mean streets of Paignton?

Now this year's nominations have been announced, and there are, as always, some fine performers among them. The rapper Dizzee Rascal and the grime artist Wiley are interesting choices. British R&B artist Estelle (picutred) could easily have won the Mercury Prize, and graces the Mobo nominations. But who will she be battling for best female artist? Duffy and Adele. One is from north London, one is from North Wales, neither is black; both are sometimes described as soul singers, but that is more opinion than unarguable fact.

In its first year of operation, the Mobos had a much clearer and totally unarguable criterion. All the winners were black. Some sort of sensitivity or maybe just embarrassment swiftly entered the organisers' thinking. Perhaps they realised that music was meant to bring people together, not be used to drive a wedge between musicians of different colour. The term "music of black origin" took over.

But, whatever the exact criteria, I find any notion of separate awards devised for black musicians, and still largely for black musicians, depressing. Can anyone begin to imagine such an award in any other art form? Can one imagine the Black Oscars or a separate category of the Baftas and Golden Globes for films of black origin? What would happen if actors such as Samuel L Jackson and Morgan Freeman were presented with a Fobo? The answer is there would be justifiable accusations of ghettoisation and outright racism.

Yet with music we not only have such an award, it is a much publicised moment in the music calendar, with the awards presented at important venues. This year's awards in 10 days' time will be at Wembley Arena. The Mobos are no fringe eccentricity. We have allowed a patronising piece of ghettoisation to become part of the mainstream. As a music fan, it makes me uneasy. Music fans, at least the ones that I know, have eclectic tastes that embrace not only the genres and subgenres of contemporary music, but also jazz, classical world and opera.

I don't deny that even today some black artists can have a bigger battle than their white peers to make it in the music industry. But events such as the Mobos do not help. In their muddled way, they give out a message that music has to be categorised, that it cannot be inclusive, and that it is a prisoner of its origins. They lump together genres such as hip-hop, reggae, soul and jazz because of their origins, without stopping to think that virtually every pop and rock'n'roll singer is indulging in a musical form that had black origins. The last thing we need in music is separate development. The Mobos limit the music and the performers they claim to honour. It's hard to see what the point of them is.

A case of artistic licence

The advert certainly catches the eye. Shiny buildings bask in the sunlight beside a waterway. The words are truly lyrical: "Art sits in between stunning architecture, beaches lie half an hour beyond the bustle of chic boutiques and stunning new shops. Undeniably cool bars and eateries offer great nights out."

I imagined at first it was for a new arts festival in Rome. It is, in fact, a promotion for Liverpool in its last few months as European Capital of Culture. You mean you hadn't realised Liverpool was the place to go for a day at the beach?

Its year as European Capital of Culture has been a success already, and there are four months left with events such as Pete Postlethwaite, pictured, playing King Lear to come. But however good the year has been, I would nominate the city's advert for a special prize for artistic imagination.

After all these years, this bird has flown

A new biography of John Lennon reveals that his song "Norwegian Wood" is about an affair he had with the wife of photographer Robert Freeman, who lived in a flat downstairs from Lennon and his wife. For more than 40 years it has been accepted by all Beatles' biographers and by the group's fans that the song was about an affair he had with the London Evening Standard journalist Maureen Cleave. She was for a time a part of the Beatles' circle and interviewed them at the start of their career. She also inspired the Private Eye character Maureen Cleavage.

If the song wasn't about Ms Cleave after all, then you've got to hand it to her. Never once in those 40 years has she denied this little titbit, which has given her a place in rock mythology and in thousands of textual analyses of lyrics by musicologists around the world. How wise she was to keep her silence and enjoy her long period of vicarious fame. What a smart hackette.

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