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MOBOs: all white on the night?

POSTER CHILD: Jessie J

AS A writer for the The Voice, I know all too well the challenges of working for an organisation that aims to serve the black community.

Every so often, we have to remind ourselves of the old adage, ‘you can’t please all the people all the time’, as disgruntled readers vent about what they feel we got wrong or what we don’t do enough of.

I get it. As Britain’s only black newspaper, many in the black community look to us to be all things for all black people, just as they looked to the short-lived black sitcom The Crouches to represent every black family in Britain.

But the bottom line is, it’s a ridiculous and unrealistic expectation. And with this in mind, I’m always hesitant to criticize any organisation that aims to celebrate or recognise black talent or culture, because I know how it feels when it’s done to us – especially when it’s done by one of ‘us’.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t escape the feeling of bemusement when the first details about this year’s MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Awards began to emerge. The theme for the 2011 ceremony is ‘Ladies rule at this year’s MOBO Awards’, while additional information read: ‘Jessie J, Katy B and Alexis Jordan revealed for the MOBO Awards’.


PERFORMING: Katy B

As I read those details to a friend, her reply mirrored my thoughts exactly: “MOBO is really leaning on the ‘origin’ part of their name, aren’t they?”

Just as I had, my friend also picked up on the fact that two of the event’s leading ladies this year – Jessie J and Katy B – are white singers, whose music is considered to be of black ‘origin’.

Technically, there’s no big deal here. Both artists make the music that MOBO aims to celebrate. As MOBO founder Kanya King told The Voice back in 2008, the event had always been “inclusive” of all artists that make music of black origin and “whether the artists are black or white is irrelevant.”

With previous performers at the annual music ceremony including US soul singer Robin Thicke, and award winners including British acts Plan B, Professor Green and the late Amy Winehouse, white artists are no new phenomenon to the MOBO stage. The event receiving criticism for giving too many nods to white artists is also no new thing.

But upon reading those early details about this year’s event, I did wonder if such critics had a point. By all means include white artists in the ceremony. After all, there are plenty of them that make black music and do it very well. But why use two white artists as the flag bearers for this year’s event?


FOUNDER: Kanya King

A few weeks back, The Voice carried an article that examined whether the music industry considers white soul artists more marketable to the British mainstream audience than their black counterparts. And in general, the notion that white singers have an easier time finding success than black singers is nothing new.

So perhaps using white artists to lure in the mainstream masses is a good thing, thereby creating a larger audience for the black music scene that MOBO seeks to promote – and greater exposure (and ticket sales) for the event itself. After all, this is business.

In her aforementioned Voice interview, King also challenged the paper, saying: “The Voice is there to represent the black community, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want white readers to buy and read the paper.”

Indeed, she’s right. The Voice has never claimed to be exclusively for black readers. And yes, we do occasionally profile white artists that we feel are relevant within the black community.

But isn’t there an argument that a platform like MOBO – much like The Voice – should mostly strive to promote black talent? After all, if we started putting white stars on our cover week after week, it would be fair to say we’d lost the whole point of what we’re set up to do.

Last year, Simon Frith, the chair of the Mercury Prize said he believed that black British female artists are being ignored by the British public. "Black female music has always had a particularly tough time,” Frith said.


BETTER REP?: Estelle

How can we expect this to change if organisations that are specifically set up to celebrate black culture use white talents as the representatives for our scene? It would be like a black fashion expert complaining about the lack of black models in the fashion industry, setting up an organisation to address that balance, and then using white models to advertise what they do!

Songstress Jessie J has received plenty of recognition and column inches within the mainstream media. Does she really need extra hype from MOBO when the organisation could have picked – for example – Alexandra Burke, Beverley Knight or Estelle to front the event?

Don’t get me wrong: I certainly don’t subscribe to the thinking that black people should always ‘help their own’, regardless of whether those seeking help deserve it or not. But if organisations like MOBO – and The Voice – that seek to promote black culture, choose to push white talents over black, can we really expect any more from the mainstream?

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