The MOBOs (Music of Black Origin awards) have come round again. Another chance to acknowledge the achievements of artists in a number of musical genres. Or, looking at it another way, is it just another chance for an unthinking media to celebrate shameless racism?
What is the MOBOs intended function, and how can it be justified? Is it positive discrimination, designed to give a boost to talented black artists? In which case, are we really to believe that black artists don’t get equal opportunities in popular music? Or is it more about ownership – an attempt to annexe the bulk of popular music for black people, or communities? According to its website, the MOBO organisation…
‘…was established to recognise the outstanding achievements of artists who perform music in genres ranging from Gospel, Jazz, RnB, Soul, Reggae to Hip Hop. Over the past 20 years, MOBO has played an instrumental role in elevating black music and culture to mainstream popular status in the UK.’
Doesn’t sound too sinister, does it? And the genres they mention (with the exception, arguably, of jazz) have all been dominated by black people, and probably originated within black communities. But is it right to say that ownership for those genres, and others, rests with black people? What music influenced the people that were the originators of the genres MOBO mention – ‘black’, European, Middle-Eastern, Jewish, East-European, Indian, Chinese? At what point did certain strands in the long evolution of the music of Homo sapiens become purely ‘black’? And how can self-appointed representatives of the black community (whatever that is) justify claiming as their own strands of music which in their long evolution have seen contributions from people of various ethnicities? There have been so many successful black artists in popular music, from the early twentieth century onwards. People from black communities (as well as some people who happened to be black but didn’t see themselves as belonging to a particular community) have been influential in so many popular musical genres. But does that allow black people as a group (which they’re not) to take ownership of a large proportion of popular music? Even if we accept for a moment that music can pertain exclusively to people who are black, white, or some other racial denomination, how can you successfully decide whether a particular piece of music is of ‘black origin’, and what does that actually mean?
You might argue that the fact the MOBO’s include white musicians means that they can’t be racist. In some ways, I think this makes it worse, not better, because it’s a kind of condescension. Being nominated for a MOBO, if you’re not black, must seem like a bit of a back-handed compliment – a bit like being told that your music isn’t your own; that you just re-worked music that had originated with (much more talented) black musicians.
The obvious test to check whether it might be acceptable to limit access or ownership by skin colour (or race, or gender, age, etc.) is to try substituting an opposite, or different group, and see if it still sounds alright. Would the MOWOs be covered on mainstream television, or reported favourably in the newspapers? Perhaps some of the classical awards could be re-branded as ‘Music of White Origin’ – it would be difficult to argue that the description isn’t accurate. Except that it’s the last thing the classical establishment would want, when it’s trying to break out from its exclusivity and increase diversity in classical music. If the MOBO organisation really wants to promote equal opportunities, perhaps it could sign up to help. Which brings us to the most pernicious effect of MOBO, which is not that they’re trying to snatch ownership of large swathes of popular music from the general population, so much as that they promulgate a kind of coercive segregation for black people. They direct black people towards certain types of music, they say ‘this is your music – don’t listen to other types of music; they’re not for you.’ Music is (or should be) for everyone. With its focus on skin colour, MOBO sullies the purity of music.
I don’t suppose the people behind the MOBO’s are at all malicious, or that they’re involved in some sort of racial conspiracy. I suspect it’s more a lazy, unthinking kind of racism – someone having an idea and following it through without thinking what it really means. But does that mean we should let it go? Racist attitudes often start small but, if left unchecked, can grow to frightening proportions. And while most people would see nothing malicious in the MOBOs wrong-headed good intentions, I suspect there are plenty of people out there who are very happy to accept them as justification for their own, rather more damaging racist attitudes.
What makes it so sad is that music is acknowledged as a universal language, which has been so successful in bringing together people from different backgrounds, places, cultures; people with different ideologies; people of different races or skin colours, allowing them to communicate with one another, to ‘harmonise’, to forget their differences and celebrate their similarities. For me, the MOBOs blast all of that to pieces, and split the musical world apart with a huge, nasty wedge of colour prejudice.
So why does the media not see this? There is still so much racism in our society. And we’re never going to fully eradicate racism until we recognise it in its most ironic form – the assumption that you can’t be guilty of it if you’re not white.