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Message to MOBOs: ditch the victim act

Ahead of tonight’s awards, isn’t it time we stopped making a concrete distinction between ‘black’ and ‘white’ music?

Niall Crowley

Topics Culture

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The Times (London) has called it a ‘whitewash’ while black newspaper the Voice asks if it’ll be ‘all white on the night’. This year’s MOBO (Music of Black Origin) awards, taking place tonight, are attracting more than their usual share of criticism. The problem, allegedly, is that so many of this year’s nominees are white.

Adele and Jessie J are just two of the most high-profile Caucasians to receive nominations and, according to Will Hodgkinson of The Times, the suspicion is that these white stars are there simply ‘to make the MOBOs a high-profile event’ while lesser-known black performers are overlooked. It is claimed that the awards have fallen prey to exactly the same kind of discrimination they allegedly set out to combat when they were set up in 1996.

This is a strange criticism. The awards are there to celebrate ‘music of black origin’, not necessarily black writers and performers. If the music is good, then there should be no barriers to who creates it. Surely the joy of music is that it is something universal that we can all share and enjoy?

In reality, it is not the current batch of nominations that is the problem but the MOBOs themselves. The awards were misguided from the outset because they have more in common with the ethnicity-obsessed multicultural policies of a local council than they do with the origins of black music.

Historically, black American musicians have a lot to complain about. They gave birth to rock’n’roll, a sound infused with African-inspired rhythms, but were largely elbowed aside by the music industry in favour of (usually) inferior white performers, who imitated or simply ripped off their music. In Britain, American pop music of the 1950s and 60s was largely kept from the airwaves by the BBC, but what we did get were many cover versions of American soul records by British acts.

In the 1970s, black American music and Jamaican reggae were confined to the margins, dismissed by the rock-oriented music press, rarely played on radio or TV, not stocked in larger record stores and not played in most nightclubs where people went to dance. Even big-name black artists such as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and James Brown were rarely heard on radio and consequently made little impact on the UK charts in the 1970s.

There may be a lot of past wrongs to right, but surely that’s now a matter for the history books? Artists that got screwed out of royalties by unscrupulous record companies in the past should be compensated. And, of course, it would be great to hear some of the huge body of music that was ignored for so long by the mainstream music industry. But what does the history of injustices done to (mainly) black American musicians have to do with a British music-awards ceremony, started so long after those injustices happened? The truth is that the MOBOs were inspired by our contemporary obsession with identity and victimhood.

Rap, hip hop and R’n’B have dominated the music scene in America and Europe for more than a quarter of a century. Aside from a few complaints in the 1980s that hip-hop videos were omitted from MTVs playlists (in fairness, though, those videos were rubbish), no one could possibly claim that recent generations of black performers have suffered at the hands of a racist music industry. Today it’s hard to see any meaningful difference between the music of black and white performers, which is why the category ‘Urban’ is used instead of old terms like ‘black music’.

In spite of these massive changes in society and the music scene over the past 25 years, MOBO, as an institution, seems oblivious. By their very existence, the MOBOs encourage music fans to see discrimination and racism where there is none. They bask in the glow of past injustices and reinforce the idea that today’s black performers are simply the latest generation of sufferers in a long history of victimhood. The MOBOs repeat and reinforce the idea that culture is something fixed, eternal and belonging exclusively to a single group. But the great thing about music is that it is constantly evolving thanks to the creative interaction between different groups of people and different musical styles.

As one musician taking part in a Guardian online discussion about the MOBOs argued: ‘Take a style of music like salsa or Cuban son, depending on where you’re from it takes on different shadings. Yet this style of music has its origins not only around the West African clave patterns, but also owes something to the English country dance. What the French called the contredanse. Mozart made use of this particular rhythmic form in Don Giovanni and this form of music was taken by ex-slaves, and former slave owners to Santiago de Cuba when they fled the uprising in Haiti. The mix-up that took place there gave us son and salsa.’

‘Black music’ in the West has never been solely the creation of black musicians. For instance, rhythm and blues and rock’n’roll owe a great debt to Jewish American songwriters and producers such as the late Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jerry Ragovoy, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Then there were label bosses like Jerry Wexler (partner in Atlantic records with Turkish émigré Ahmet Ertegun), and Leonard and Phil Chess, who owned seminal Chicago black music label Chess Records. The list goes on. Without these and many other non-African Americans who played a defining role in the evolution of rhythm and blues, we wouldn’t have much of the great ‘black’ music we’ve had over the past 50 years or so.

The MOBOs, however, suggest that all ‘black’ music is ultimately from Africa and the contributions of others should be downplayed. This warped view of culture can sometimes lead people to draw very reactionary conclusions.

Ironically, if anyone is benefiting from the work of little-known black musicians of the 1960s and 70s today, it is the kind of R’n’B and hip hop acts that the MOBOs celebrate and give awards to. The records of many top-selling acts, like Destiny’s Child, Kanye West and Snoop Dogg, regularly rely on samples of old soul and funk tunes for melodies, hooks, baselines and rhythms.

For example, ‘Empire State of Mind’, a recent international hit for Jay Z and Alicia Keys, relies heavily on a sample of soul tune ‘Love on a Two Way Street’, recorded over 40 years ago by both Lezli Valentine and The Moments. Tellingly, Jay Z and Alicia Keys have well over 100million YouTube hits (plus massive record sales) and Lezli Valentine has a little more than nine hundred.

Clearly the kind of black performers that the MOBOs celebrates do not need a leg up any more than any other act. What’s more, they have no more connection with, or claim to the legacy of ‘black music’, than anyone else in the pop world. Music fans may have all kinds of issues with the current state of pop music, but race certainly shouldn’t be one of them.

Niall Crowley blogs about music at On the Real Side.

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Topics Culture

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