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Feature: 25 Years of MOBO!

UD take a moment to reflect on the 25 year legacy of the trailblazing MOBO Awards and its most nostalgic moments, best-in-class performances and guest presenters throughout the years…

When the MOBO Awards first launched in 1996, the mainstream musical landscape was very different from today. The last order bell had been rung for Brit-pop, and manufactured pop acts started backflipping their way to chart dominance.

During the mid-90s, Black British music ruled the dance floors and pirate radio frequencies. Genres like acid-jazz, dancehall, jungle, rap and R&B were exploding in popularity with youth culture. Admittedly, you wouldn’t have known about it if you relied on terrestrial telly or award ceremonies to tell you. Regardless of the scenes’ popularity, these genres were seemingly invisible to broadcasters and existing music awards. Gill Scott Heron said it best when he said, “the revolution will not be televised”.

It took a young television talent booker called Kanya King (now Kanya King, MBE and CBE) to change that; frustrated at the status quo and the lack of representation for black musicians and genres, decided to address the issue by creating the annual MOBO Awards. The ceremony would elevate and celebrate the music of Black origin (anyone could win, regardless of race) and support homegrown talent and the scenes they characterised. Kanya organised the first award show from a makeshift office in her bedroom on a tight six-week deadline and bird-feed budget. King also had to fight against the tide of naysayers who thought the ceremony would never work and racial micro-aggressions against Black music genres and artists that represented them. 

The first-ever MOBO Awards were broadcast from London’s Connaught Rooms for Carlton Television (a precursor to ITV), instantly becoming a success with audiences and the wider recording industry. By the time the show aired on Channel 4, it had established itself as a set- the-VCR unmissable event. Always featuring the hottest international talent, R&B superstars like Mary J Blige and Lauryn Hill graced the stage at their careers’ peak with iconic performances in the 90s and mid-y2k’s. Hip-hop legends Redman and Method Man created a smoke with their joint performance at the turn of the century, and Damien Marley hit the stage to welcome us to Jamrock in 2005. Guest presenters over the years have included the late great Lisa ‘Left Eye’ LopezCoolioLil Kim and LL Cool J. The award show attendees have been equally as monumental, with global superstars from Destiny’s ChildJay ZPuff Daddy and 50 Cent accepting their awards in person.

Homegrown talent has been revered, and decade-genre-defining albums recognised. When MOBO award winner Craig David got snubbed by the Brit Awards, his album was acknowledged by the MOBOs the same year, winning the best album category. Native talent has given some of the awards’ most nostalgic live performances, with Craig David’s stripped-back acoustic medley ‘Fill Me In‘ the early Y2K’s, Sade’s first public performance in years, and Amy Winehouse’s infamous rendition of ‘Sun Goes Down’ (2010).

The Awards show has been a catalyst for the careers of many British musicians, AkalaMs DynamiteEstelleKano and Tinie Tempah, who all won the coveted Best Newcomer before they had successful mainstream profiles. In years since its inception, the brand has been seminal in acknowledging sub-genre spin-offs drill, grime, jungle and garage and positioning them to a broader mainstream audience.

The MOBOs have become one of Europe’s biggest brands celebrating Black music culture. Mirroring the times and the ever-changing appetites of music fans throughout the last 25 years. Before the awards launched, there was no vehicle route to recognise the achievements of prominent Black musicians and the genres they represented. 

The MOBO’s formative years celebrated the best in homegrown contemporary R&B talent, with Shola Ama and Beverly Knight also picking up awards. The ceremony was the first mainstream award show to recognize the rise of ’90s rave culture, dedicating an award category to jungle from the get-go, with pioneer Goldie and his time-stretching technique winning big at the 1996 ceremony. Ever moving with the times, when the garage sound soared on every dancefloor, mixtape and car speaker across the UK, MOBOs quickly created the Best Garage category, won by DJ Luck and MC NeatLisa Maffia, and So Solid Crew, who turned up the bassline for one of the most iconic performances in 2001. A couple of years later, the category delivered a (so-so) scandalous moment at the 2003 award show: Mis-Teeq (who had just won Best Garage Act beating fellow nominees More Fire Crew and So Solid), denounced their win when collecting the award because they felt So Solid was the more deserving garage act.

By the mid-2000s, the garage sound was Romeo done, and Britain’s youth succumbed to the sound of grime (a derivative of jungle and garage) which detonated from east London’s tower blocks. Although many grime artists like KanoDizzee RascalChipmunk, and Roll Deep performed, nominated or took home awards, it took a decade for the MOBOs to create a specific grime category, which finally happened at the height of the genre’s revival in 2015.

The inclusion of the new section honoured the old grime guards SkeptaJME and Wiley and the new generation of artists like Stormzy and Bugzy Malone. During the 2015 awards show, Kanye West was joined onstage by Skepta and 25 grime MCs for a fire some ‘All Day performance.

Today, grime artists still dominate the awards, with Ghetts picking up his first-ever MOBO in 2021. In recent years drill has come to represent the soundtrack of the streets and youth culture. Continuing its stratospheric rise and balaclava assault on the commercial mainstream charts. The MOBOs has become the first award ceremony to formally celebrate the genre by creating a category dedicated to honouring its artistry (supported by TRENCH Magazine), with drillers Digga DCentral CeeHeadie One and Russ Millions all nominated for Best Drill Act this year. 

The MOBO 25th anniversary in association with Lucozade sees the ceremony heading back to London for the first time in years, with acts on the night due to perform including DaveKojey Radical, Central CeeMs BanksTiana Major9, KnucksAitch, Potter Payper, Clavish, Nia Archives, and Little Simz. It also sees the re-installation of the electronic dance category with nominees AnzEliza RoseFKA twigsJax JonesNia Archives and SHERELLE.

Skin (Skunk Anansie) is also nominated this year in a new ‘Alternative’ category alongside Nova Twins, Big Joanie, Bob Vylan, Kid Bookie and Loathe (and according to Skin’s social media, this will be the first MOBO they’ll have attended despite decades of historical firsts in guitar-led rock genius). Better late than never, the ever-evolving MOBO Awards is still with us. And long may it continue.

The ceremony will undoubtedly unveil some future time capsule moments for new generations to enjoy over the next 25 years. You can keep up with the awards show via the BBC (official broadcast partner), and you can also Livestream the event on November 30th by going to the MOBO YouTube channel from 8pm

Words: Chris KellyChris is a freelance music journalist and feature writer with a focus on emerging and established artists, subcultures, the art world and mental health. Chris has multifaceted expertise as a media and creative specialist working with your favourite brands and helping them to embed themselves within the culture through strategic and entertaining content for brands, businesses and organisations.   

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