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Meet Kanya King, the woman behind the MOBO awards

With the return of the UK ceremony celebrating music of Black origin, Habiba Katsha speaks to awards founder Kanya King about her journey – and why spaces like the MOBOs are so important.

09 Dec 2020

For years, Black artists have been fighting to get the recognition they deserve from awards shows. In 2016, #BritsSoWhite highlighted how Black artists are often excluded from this kind of recognition. But, for more than 20 years, the MOBO awards have created a safe space for Black artists to be seen and acknowledged – by us. The MOBOs is often seen as a starting ground for Black artists. Stormzy has said that seeing Krept and Konan on the MOBO stage made him quit his job and follow his dreams. 

But not many people know the name behind the brand: Kanya King.

Born to an Irish mother and Ghanaian father, Kanya was raised in Kilburn, North London, and is the youngest of eight siblings. At the age of 16 she became pregnant and dropped out of school. She recalls being told by a careers adviser that she’d be lucky to make it as a manager at Sainsburys. She now says that gave her motivation to dream big.

“I was told Black music doesn’t sell and brands wouldn’t want to be aligned to this culture as it was too risky and no one would support it”

When Kanya initially had the idea to create the MOBOs though, she didn’t want to organise it. She was working as a freelance TV researcher and was organising R&B and reggae gigs around London. Being around more musicians and people organising gigs made her realise there was a gap in the market. “I was told Black music doesn’t sell and brands wouldn’t want to be aligned to this culture as it was too risky and no one would support it,” she says. “The negative noise around me was really loud. But despite all of this I was really committed and very focused on creating it.” 

And so, the real work started in earnest. Kanya says that one of the main difficulties she faced when planning the show was trying to raise money. “I was raised in a single-parent household in a council flat so I didn’t have many resources,” she tells me, “But I was prepared to make all the necessary sacrifices to achieve this goal. So I had lots of different jobs.” 

With the added pressure of coming from a Black working-class background, she explains that she often felt like the “other”. “I definitely felt like there was no one I could really speak to. I understood that I needed to prove myself as I didn’t have a track record. I knew it was going to be challenging but I was prepared to work hard and prove myself.” 

Even when the awards were all set to be televised for the first time in 1996, she said she felt that there were low expectations from the Black community: “I think people wanted to wait and see. Because, unfortunately, people think there’s going to get trouble at Black events. When it comes to Black music events people think they’re never going to work or people won’t show up – you know, the usual stuff.”

“I knew it was going to be challenging but I was prepared to work hard and prove myself” 

Despite all the difficulties and trials Kanya experienced, the MOBOs have gone from strength to strength. Not only has the company successfully run an awards show for 20 years, but they’ve also established their own charity. The MOBO trust seeks to help grassroots artists by giving them £2000 to help them fund their career. 

The ceremony has provided us with countless Black cultural moments in the UK. It’s been a starting ground for artists such as Stormzy, Krept & Konan, Beverley Knight and Emeli Sandé. The show has also paid homage to Black artists outside of the UK – artists such as P Diddy, Anita Baker, Bob Marley & The Wailers and Michael Jackson have all won MOBO honorary awards.

When asked about her own favourite MOBO memory, Kanya responds that it’s like asking her to pick her favourite child. However, a special moment for her was when singer Sade came out of retirement to perform at the MOBOs in 2000. It was her first performance in almost a decade. “We met at a reggae festival and I told her how much of a big fan I was,” she says. “After meeting Sade, I wrote her a personal letter about how much she meant to me and I wasn’t expecting a response because she’s so inundated – but she decided to perform at the MOBOs.”

In 2018, the show went on a two-year hiatus, as Kanya believed that the ceremony’s brand needed to “bring the platform to brand new heights.” The show has previously been critiqued for putting prominent white artists in major categories. A boycott was called in 2003, as white artists such as Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguileria won awards in categories such as ‘Best R&B act’ and ‘Best Video’ – and, famously in 2012, Ed Sheeran was nominated for three awards. They might not always get it right, but for the most part they seem to be accountable – this year, rock band Nova Twins called for the awards to recognise and celebrate Black artists making alternative music too – something which the MOBOs have agreed they are looking to make happen for 2021.  

“It’s important to have these kinds of positive representations of our culture, because it reinforces how we think about ourselves” 

But for now, the MOBOs are back, hosted by Maya Jama and Chunkz and featuring performances from artists such as H.E.R, Stylo G, Tiana Major 9 and Shaybo. This return signifies the way Black music in the UK has evolved. The MOBOs have been supporting African music since 2006, but this year we’ve really seen Afrobeats take off in the UK. The official charts announced its first Afrobeats chart, which highlights how Afrobeats has started to dominate radio and playlists. 

Though we’ve seen Black artists slowly take over mainstream charts and radio stations, the industry still has some work to do. “I think, especially in terms of the year that we’ve had, that was laid bare for all to see,” says Kanya. “So many people want to see our society as fair and equal, but the truth and reality is that there are so many inequalities out there. It’s important to have these kinds of positive representations of our culture, because it reinforces how we think about ourselves.” 

In terms of what we can expect from the MOBOs this year, powerful storytelling will take focus. “We basically recognise the unique role that the MOBO awards play,” says Kanya. “We feel that it’s now more important than ever to continue that rich history of showcasing the very best.”

The show will stream at 7pm GMT tonight (9 December) on the MOBO YouTube channel then air on BBC One at 10:45PM GMT.